I have written before about journalist Barrett Brown who is currently in federal prison (see here, here, and here). The Intercept has been periodically publishing his letters from prison and they make for fascinating reading about life inside. He casts a sardonic eye on his surroundings and manages to wring humor out of his experience though I suspect that it is a lot more grim than he makes out. He has just been transferred to a different medium security prison at the Federal Correctional Institution Three Rivers after a series of run-ins with the authorities at the previous prison in Fort Worth that resulted in him being sent repeatedly to the ‘hole’, the name prisoners give to solitary confinement.
As is the case with the country at large, the rules within each federal prison are such that a large portion of everyday activity actually violates those rules — and in both cases, 99 percent of the violations go unpunished, while anyone who proves inconvenient to the powers that be can be singled out for retaliation. Technically it’s against the rules to give anything to another inmate, for instance, or to sell or trade or lend for that matter, but of course this is done all day without a second thought, often in plain view of the guards, not a single one of whom would consider objecting. There are other rules that are almost universally disregarded but can be invoked at whim; there is also a catch-all violation, “Anything Unauthorized,” on hand as a last resort.
The reality is that control is shared by way of a sort of makeshift federalism that varies in particulars from prison to prison but in which real power is always divided among the various gangs, the staff, and local and regional administrators in an arrangement that’s best described as a cross between the old Swiss canton system and China during the Warring States period, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge is not especially helpful. Suffice to say that it will take me the remainder of my sentence to provide a real sense of this remarkable state-within-a-state and its inimitable politics — the politics of the literally disenfranchised, who live their lives in the very guts of government without being able to rely on its protections, and so are forced to provide their own. Really, it’s a state-within-a-state-within-a-state.
Complicating matters further is the great extent to which prisons can differ, with the most pronounced of these divisions being that between the state and federal systems. Broadly, we federals tend to look down upon our regional cousins as “not quite our sort, old boy,” although I’m probably the only one who puts it in exactly those terms. The state prisons tend to house the small-time dealers, whereas the feds are more often home to the guys who supplied them. The state is halfway filled with such actual criminals as thieves, rapists, and murderers, whereas the feds are made up largely of illegal immigrants and drug entrepreneurs — people who have neither hurt anyone nor deprived them of their property, but instead made the mistake of taking all of this “free market” talk seriously. The character of the federal prisons, then, will usually differ from those of the states.
Brown is a very good writer with a keen journalistic eye. I fully expect him to be snapped up by some publication upon his release.