DAY ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-THREE
Federal Prison Camp
NOTES FROM FEDERAL PRISON
Stop. Get that son of a -----! Stop em…Stop em!"
I'm awaken by the screams. It takes a moment to realize that
it's Big Boy shouting in his sleep. He keeps mumbling, but I
can't make out what he's saying. Then he turns over and goes
back to sleep. Big boy will tell me later that he has nightmares
often of confrontations when he grew up in the St. Bernard Housing
Project in New Orleans. "They come and go," he says.
"I had some rough times growing up and some bad memories.
But I'm OK. Ain't nobody goin' to mess with me here."
awake now and get up in the dark. My back is sore from the loose
springs and the lumpy mattress. In my column several weeks ago,
I talked about fixing the lumps with a waxed cardboard box I
picked up in the kitchen. This worked well and there was no
more soreness. Unfortunately, the prison staff are regular readers
of my column. The box was deemed a fire hazard and was confiscated
from me. Two more weeks of soreness.
I pass on the regular breakfast: pancakes, fried potatoes, boiled
potatoes, whole milk. I opt for oatmeal I buy at the commissary
($2.60 a box), wheat toast and hard-boiled eggs. The whites
only as I throw away the yolks. I was taking raw egg whites
and mixing them with orange juice. But concerns of getting salmonella
directed me to hard-boiled eggs which taste terrible…but
they are at least safe.
I’m off work today. Yes, even inmates get days off. In
the library to sort out and answer mail. The letters have increased
dramatically as I get closer to going home. I'm sure the mail
room here will be glad to see me go.
had written in a column some weeks ago about the limits placed
on receiving stamps. 60 stamps a week. That's all I'm allowed
to buy. I often get more than 60 letters in one day. A number
of readers tried to help by sending me rolls of stamps. But
I never got them. They are all returned by the prison officials.
I have no idea why I can buy unlimited cans of tamales with
chili, but am limited to 60 stamps.
from New Orleans (9th Ward) stops by to ask my advice on his
getting qualified for the DAP. If an inmate can make a case
that he was dependent on either drugs or alcohol, then he may
be eligible to transfer to Beaumont Federal Prison to attend
a nine-month drug rehab program. By completing the DAP, an inmate
gets one year taken off his sentence. You can imagine there
is lots of effort made to qualify.
inmate asks for an autographed note to send home. "I want
my mama to show all her friends how I'm up here with the notorious
also corresponding with friends and contacts about what I will
be doing in the summer and fall. I have numerous speaking requests
and business opportunities to consider. Proust said we all end
up doing what we are second best at. I wonder what that will
be for me?
Chili Dogs and French fries for lunch. I pass, and fix a lettuce
and tomato salad from the salad bar. A can of mackerel from
the Commissary ($1.15) tops it off. Wheat toast and lemonade
(sweet and low, and lemon juice added to water).
catch up on reading newspapers before undertaking my mid-day
workout. There is a chilling article in the Times Picayune
written by a juror in a New Orleans murder case. She had helped
convict a man of murder not knowing that the FBI had evidence
that someone else had committed the crime. She eloquently writes:
system that I trusted didn't trust me enough to make sure
I had all the facts before it asked me to render a verdict.
after my experience on that jury, I came to know that all
the legal players - Plus the FBI - knew about the evidence
suggesting Dan Bright's innocence. The FBI knew the name of
the real killer and refused to produce it even when challenged
by post-conviction defense attorneys. The collective or separate
decisions to keep information from the jury makes a mockery
of our system and turns citizens-jurors into patsies for the
state. It also left a killer loose on the street."
Gill, the slash and burn columnist for the Picayune
who has written a number of articles on my case critical of
the prosecutors and the FBI, said about the Bright case:
his fate rested on the integrity of the FBI, he was in about
the worst fix imaginable.
are reminded once again that the street punks are not necessarily
more evil than the suits that put them away."
Another juror coming forward to say basic information that would
have made a difference in the outcome was kept hidden from the
jury. Why? Isn't justice best served by giving the jury the
complete story and not hiding key evidence?
interview of a juror in my case was released recently. The juror
again reiterated that my jury made a mistake. "I wish that
I could go back and change it," she told the press. (The
full text of the interview is found at the end of this column.)
Workout time. I work in the kitchen with a Texas inmate, Kip
Harris. He works out twice a day, six days a week, and has become
my unofficial trainer. Today is heavy stretching for 30 minutes.
Each stretch is held for at least 30 seconds (similar to a yoga
stretch). Then to weights for arms, chest, neck, back and calves.
I follow Kip's suggested routine and finish exhausted. Tomorrow
will be easier for me…cardio day on the treadmill and
are you working out so hard," an inmate shouts.
reasons," I answer. I want to be in good shape to eat all
the good food I've missed out on. “And I have a young
laughs understanding and waves as he walks away. At the end
of the workout, I weigh myself (177 lbs. Body fat is 10), then
a shower before the evening meal.
Mail call. I pick up my bundle and head to the recreational
room where I can spread the newspapers, magazines and letters
in various stacks. All my mail has been opened and often is
torn. I complain about why the mailroom is so rough with the
mail. One inmate volunteers: "They look in everything for
drugs. You would be amazed at how creative some folks can be
in sending in drugs."
if they slit the envelopes open and search through, how can
drugs get in?" I ask.
large brown envelopes you get every day? You can get a lot of
cocaine under the postage stamps. And look down the right-hand
side of the big envelopes. There's a flap that can be lifted,
filled with cocaine or heroin and then sealed back closed."
listen in amazement.
glue that holds books together can be melted, mixed with cocaine,
then put back in the binder. That's why they won't let you receive
books from any place but the publisher or a bookstore. You can
put a lot of cocaine in the binding of a John Grisham novel,"
he says to me: "Let me see your pen."
hand it to him.
the base, and you can get a lot of crack cocaine packed in there,"
he explains. "That's why they make you buy your pens from
the Commissary, and why you can only buy two at a time."
finish opening and reading through my mail with a new appreciation
I gather up my mail and head out of the recreation room passing
by one of the TV rooms. Surprising, it's empty, so I go in to
see what might be on. "Friends" at 7:00. A favorite
so I stay to watch. Several other inmates begin drifting in.
Normally the TV would be on a sports event or a music station.
But I was there first and I hold my ground despite the vocal
a while, I hear some chuckles, then laughter. "Big Jim,
is this a new show?" ("Friends" is in its 10th
season) My group ends up staying and enjoying the program. Several
inmates ask me to remind them next week when it comes on.
in bed with the local papers. I enlarge my reading to look over
new movies that are playing. With only two weeks to go, I plan
for activities on the outside. My son, James, has a collection
of better movies I've missed on DVD. I also review coming musical
events in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans area including Jazzfest
that begins the week after I am released. A Marc Chagall Exhibit
at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum. The LSU spring football
game is April 11th, the evening I am freed. But I doubt Gladys
will make that a priority. In any event, it's nice to plan for
the things I should have been doing all along rather than the
complete waste of my being here.
* * * * * * *
read an obituary in the New York Times recently that
British author Mary Wesley had died. She was 86. But I'm sure
you have never head of her.
lived and wrote in the West Country. Devon. The most picturesque
part of England. She didn't even begin serious writing until
the age of 70, when her first novel was published. A friend
from England had sent me several of her early works a few years
Wesley's writing is funny, animated and filled with marvelous
dialogue. She makes you fit in and be comfortable with small
town British life.
had mentioned how much I liked her novels to my long-time friend
from Shreveport, Virginia Shehee. She surprised me by sending
an autographed first edition of Wesley's best-known book, Second
a delightful comedy of a young Brit struggling to complete his
first novel, and his relationship with an older woman. I should
confess I'm prone to like these quirky British novels with dry
humor. A year studying at Cambridge, and regular trips to England,
have given me an enjoyable perspective that others might not
her books are hard to find in the United States. So if you are
attracted to the ambiance of an offbeat small town English love
story, go to the internet or ask your local bookstore to help
you find this enjoyable novel by one of Britain's most clever
and amusing authors.
* * * * * * *
"It has been not only my personal observation, but
experience of other prison authorities: the most dangerous
prisoners are the readers and particularly the writers. For
when they get out, they will tell the world of the injustices
that take place."
Jack Henry Abbott
In the Belly of the Beast.
Peace and Justice to you and your family.