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January 22, 2003
Federal Prison Camp
Oakdale, Louisiana



I took a bad fall in the kitchen last week, causing my first major physical problem since arriving here at the prison camp. I had loaded some ice in a mop bucket to mop the dining room floors. The floor is waxed and buffed daily. After each meal, I mop the floor with ice water, which keeps the wax smooth and lets the linoleum maintain a glossy finish.

The hallway from the kitchen to the serving area was blocked by a cart and I had to maneuver backwards through a five foot opening. But a three foot fan had been put in the opening to dry a wet floor area and my foot caught the base of the fan. Down I went solidly landing on my left hip, leg, arm and shoulder. When I fell, I assumed I had broken something. The pain flowed from head to toe.

Luckily, a physician’s assistant was in the cafeteria when I fell, and was there to help. He cleaned out a large gash on my left arm, determined I needed x-rays, and ordered something for pain relief. (400 mg. Ibuprofen, two tablets three times a day.)

The next day, I was sent to be x-rayed “behind the fence” at the main prison across from the camp where I am kept. Going into the main prison makes anyone a bit apprehensive. At the prison gate, I presented my I.D. card and was told to put on an orange jumpsuit. The prison yard was cleared of other prisoners as a guard escorted me to the gates, around a maze of various buildings, and to the medical facility. A courteous lab technician took the x-rays, and told me he had read about my case.

The final result was no broken bones, but soreness that will no doubt last for the next few weeks. I cannot sleep on my left side, and lower back pain has returned. Ice on the bruises, medication, light stretching, and rest will hopefully get this 62 year old body back to normal and exercising again in the not too distant future.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Two members of Congress are proposing that a nationwide military draft be required as we get closer to going to war in the Middle East. A Washington Post story said recently:

Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and John Conyers, D-Mich.,
both military veterans, said this week they would ask the
House to consider legislation to reinstitute the draft, perhaps
as early as next week, at the start of the 108th Congress. The
United States hasn’t drafted troops since 1973.

Is there an alternative to our sons and grandsons being drafted and going off to war?

If there is a serious threat to the safety of our country’s borders, then the draft certainly should be reinstated. But it would seem we are a long way from that point yet. Is there a present alternative to our sons and grandsons being drafted and going off to risk their lives half-way around the world? Yes, there is. I see a solution every day here at the prison.

There are thousands, no hundreds of thousands of young men, under forty, in good shape who are willing to enlist and fight for their country. They are in prisons all over America. But aren’t they hardened criminals who will not take orders and who will cause major disciplinary problems? Baloney!

I am surrounded by some 70 inmates, under 40 years of age, who are in good physical shape and work out regularly. Several of these fellows served in Desert Storm and have had extensive military training. There have been no serious disciplinary problems since I have been here. (Three inmates were put in solitary confinement for making some homemade brew on Christmas day, and one other fellow was fifteen minutes late in getting back to the prison from his furlough.)

Almost all the inmates here, and a majority of federal prisoners throughout the country, are non-violent and are serving time for drug-related crimes. The inmates here are not what we know as drug lords, nor are they “street pushers.” Yes, they are guilty of being involved with drugs, usually as a hauler or a “mule” in the drug trade. They should be punished.

If given the choice, most of the inmates here would take double their sentence to go in the Army. Why not give some the alternative to go off to war under set restrictions? When not on duty, inmates could be restricted to their barracks, with limited freedom.

When soldiers fight, there is a large cadre of support troops. Soldiers who work in food services, unload supplies, act as clerks, clean the camp sites, and do the general maintenance that supports the troops in battle. That’s exactly what many of the inmates do here; clean, unload, paint, repair, cook, give general support to the prison camp. If they do the same thing in Iraq or Afghanistan, our country will be saving hundreds of millions of dollars, training inmates for future jobs in civilian life, have a solid base of young men to fill the needs of the military, and not require the reinstitution of the draft. Sure there are problems to work out. But isn’t it worth considering?

* * * * * * * * * *

A prominent Baton Rouge physician was up to see me a few weeks ago. We talked at length about the divergent paths our lives had taken in recent years. He wrote to me last week and had the following thoughts:

“Dear Jim,

Please forgive the delay in writing this letter…I have been busy this week, not so much with my work, but in trying to sort out both intellectually and emotionally my very pleasant visit with you at “the camp.” Please know that you are never far from my thoughts and that I hope this letter finds you doing well. My daughter got your letter and enjoyed it immensely—I am hopeful that she writes you again soon.

Now, my thoughts (for what they are worth!)

First, I am amazed at how well you looked. I sensed a relaxation that I have never seen. It seems, though the circumstances aren’t the best, you have found a way to make the best of them!

Second, somewhat selfishly, I wonder who the prisoner really is!
I get up at 5:15 a.m., race through the shower, eat a bagel and dash to work, arriving usually at 6:30 a.m. and feeling already 30 minutes behind. I am “shackeled” in the office by patient after patient and then rush back to the hospital to do a procedure or so and then back to the office to finish a ton of paperwork…then home to the family.

I wonder what/how I would react to the “monastery” life, stripped of worldly possessions and really devoid of any responsibility, and equally important, any expectations? Frankly, could I be content and happy getting to know myself…somehow, I get the feeling that you are happy with yourself and that gift of serenity has allowed you to relax. I was struck by what you missed…pasta and a movie…you Mom’s pumpkin pie…certainly not the power and prestige of the Commish’s office.

Third, the utter stupidity of your incarceration!

Fourth, I was impressed with your ability to look beyond the act and see the person. ‘The poet hopefully will get a college degree and return the favor to someone less fortunate than he.’

Jim, sleep well. Believe it or not, I am a better person for knowing you and your journey has helped me reflect on my own.

All the best,


A moving letter that helps me keep my tragedy in better perspective. What has happened to me is so unjust, yet the message from my doctor friend is that there is value in making the best of the situation at hand. I’m not really succeeding, but trying to make chicken salad out of chicken____. I suppose to some extent I am on a “sabbatical” for six months and have the time to read many things I never was able to get around to in the past. Through letters, I have shared and received thoughts with many old and new friends I never would have explored in person, over lunch or at a reception. I’ve lost sixteen pounds and am in excellent shape. But you know what? It’s still chicken____.
Both for what happened to me and being stuck here.

* * * * * * * * * *


A real treat arrived in the mail here a few weeks ago. My friend Robert Rector sent me a copy of Tom Robbins’ new book, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates. Robert is a post-modern abstract painter with an international reputation. Come by my home when I get out of this place in April, and you will see several paintings by Robert gracing our walls. He lives and paints just north of Baton Rouge at his home in Ethel, along with his wife, Lois.

If you have ever read a Tom Robbins novel, you will find an author who is deranged, rowdy, irreverent, philosophical, and an absolute delight. So are his books.

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates is his seventh novel, about a whacky C.I.A. agent who falls in and out of danger and love on four different continents. He is cursed by a Peruvian medicine man who lets him know if his feet touch the ground he will die. This doesn’t slow down Agent Switters one bit, and he is off by wheelchair and stilts to hang out with renegade nuns in Syria.

But the weird plot is almost beside the point. Some readers may be turned off by Robbins’ lectures and his rants. They would rather just read the story. But the author won’t let us. He insists we join him in a wild, mind-bending trip into cosmic truth. It’s a ride that covers politics, religion, culture, sex, spirituality and innocence in one big gumbo pot.

Robbins satirizes everyone and everything. His characters quote the Bible and read “Finnegan’s Wake.” He is humorous, even outlandish---yet often current and right on point. Tom Robbins is to contemporary fiction what Robin Williams is to today’s comedy.

If you want a deceptively funny and deadly serious diversion from your daily routine, I suggest you read Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates.

* * * * * * * * * *

Prison need not be the end of the road,
But the beginning of an interesting and productive life.

Dr. Karl Minninger

Peace and justice to you and your family.

Jim Brown

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