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February 19, 2003
Federal Prison Camp
Oakdale, Louisiana


My locker was searched last week.  One of the prison staff had heard that I had money in my possession.  Any kind of currency, including change, is a no-no.  The only time I have access to any money is during visiting hours when a visitor can give me change for the vending machines.

And when my locker was searched, of course no money was found.  Later that night, several inmates quietly told me what the correctional officer was looking for.  "They heard you had a dime."

A dime!  Why on earth would I have a dime?  And where would I get it?  For the life of me, I couldn't figure out where I was supposed to have a dime.

Then it hit me.  My New Year's column.  (You can pull it up after you read this).  I talked about being in the kitchen on a New Year's Day and, in the southern tradition, fixing black-eyed peas.  My exact words were:

"You can bet I will be fixing black-eyed peas as well as cabbage.

And don't bet I won't find the dime in the peas.  After all, I'm

Going to put it there."

I didn't mean literally that I actually had a dime.  I was just talking about having good luck with the coming of the New Year.  Apparently, someone from outside the south had no idea about this tradition, and thought I was spreading dimes around.  A search of my locker over a non-existent dime.

I'll tell you what.  Mardi Gras is close at hand.  Can you just imagine the ruckus I'm going to cause when I start writing about the baby in the king cake?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Several new inmates just arrived here at the prison camp.  I expect the number to grow in the weeks to come.

Our country runs the largest and most expensive prison system in the world.  The comparisons are staggering.  If you compare the same percentage of people, the rate of imprisonment in the United States is five times that of England, seven times the rate of Germany, nine times the rate in France, and fourteen times the rate in Japan.

And the cost is astronomical.  In the past fifteen years, our country has spent twice as much on prisons as we have on higher education.  The number of Americans in prison has quadrupled in the past 20 years.  We now imprison well over 2 million people.  The cost?  Well, it costs more to imprison an inmate than it costs to attend our best American colleges.

If you are wondering how the system is working, more than half of the inmates who finish their term and are let out of jail are back in jail within three years of being released.

To get tough on crime, the congress and many states have increased penalties with mandatory sentencing laws, abolished parole boards, and cut funds for prison education.  Unfortunately, vocational and educational programs for inmates have steadily declined.  The system is not reprogramming inmates for life on the outside.

Congress has stripped funds for prison education, even though research has shown that inmates who receive vocational training or college classes are more likely not to return to jail.  Harvard University psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who has extensively studied our prison system says:  "When everybody was talking about getting tough on crime, all we really did was get tough on ourselves.  These people have no clue about how to get along in a real-life setting."

Here's what is happening.  A typical inmate comes into the prison system at 18 with a 10-year sentence.  He does manual labor and gets no real training skills.  Maybe a chance to get a G.E.D., or a high school diploma equivalent.  Perhaps a welding class.

There is no computer access in prison.  By the time these inmates are released, not having computer skills will make them, for most jobs, functionally illiterate.  Several inmates here have some college, but no correspondence courses are offered.

When the inmate finally goes home, his contemporaries have jobs, a house, a car and a family.  He can often do little more than find a low-paying job.  Frustrated, he could well go back to crime…and then back to prison.  The danger to society continues to increase and the cost continues to go up.  What are we trying to accomplish?

The punishment for many inmates continues after they are released from prison.  Ex-cons are often barred from working in a number of professions.  In many states, even with a lesser sentence like mine of six months, I would be barred from teaching, being a plumber, a barber, practicing law, and receiving any financial aid to attend college.  In 13 states, any felony conviction can result in a lifetime ban on voting.  So an ex-con can be penalized for the rest of his life.

There is a value to prison education that will, in the long run, protect the public, and makes good economic sense.  A former inmate who is working in a productive job is much less likely to return to crime.  He becomes a taxpayer, contributing rather than costing.

Inmates imprisoned all over the country might have a menial job, then idle away the hours.  Why not train them with skills that will help them when they leave prison to be productive citizens paying taxes, rather than a drain on the system.  I guess it makes too much common sense.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One good benefit I can take advantage of here at the prison camp is the use of the Louisiana library system.  If you live in this state, you are fortunate to have one of the finest library systems in the country.  If you are looking for an obscure book that may have been out of print for years, you might be surprised to find the state system can find it.  That's because Louisiana is tied into a sharing arrangement with a number of other states.  On many occasions, I have inquired about a book, and a few weeks later it arrives.  It might have come from Ohio or California.  I can check it out, and return it when I finish.

It's ironic that a number of my book requests end up coming from my home library in Baton Rouge.  I was a regular visitor at the main library on Goodwood, and continuing to receive books from there gives me a tie to home.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

What do you do about a lumpy mattress?  Especially when you are in prison and can't go mattress shopping.  You improvise.  My mattress was sagging on the left side so that I often felt I was about to roll out of bed.  There was no ply-board around.  So I looked for alternatives in the kitchen.  Boxes.  That solved my problem.  Washington State apple cartons work well.  So do the heavier frozen food containers that are waxed on the outside.  Strategically placed under my mattress, a firm and level foundation is obtained.  I slept well last night.  When I get out of here in seven weeks, be sure to call me if you need your lumpy mattress fixed.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *


30 million people have read To Kill A Mockingbird.  Actually a lot more.  That many copies of the book have been sold.  Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for this classic of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930's.  It was the only book she ever wrote.  Yet its popularity hasn't diminished, and it was recently selected by a national library association as the best novel of the century.

Maybe I read it 45 years ago; I really don't remember.  But I never have a problem rereading any book that describes how an innocent man is falsely accused of a crime he didn't commit.

The novel tells the story of a young black man accused of raping a white woman.  We hear the surroundings of the tale through the eyes of an 8-year old girl whose lawyer father has been appointed to defend the accused.

The novel basically is about conscience.  That of a small town struggling with hypocrisy, prejudice, and irrationality, and a lawyer's advice to his children in trying to instill core values that teach them the difference between right and wrong.

We also see the pain of growing up.  The insights of the young narrator reflect humorous vignettes of small town southern life.  The story is not complicated.  But you get into a comfortable flow as you follow events that are funny, wise, and heartbreaking.

This is a book to read (or reread), and then share with your children.  Like "Night" that I discussed a few weeks ago, "To Kill A Mockingbird" is a family discussion book.  And its lessons are as relevant today as when it was written 43 years ago.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

A number of readers missed the television news story on WAFB in Baton Rouge where a juror on my case said she regretted I was convicted and in prison.  It was a two-day story.  The first part of the interview appears at the end of this column.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

            "It is never too late to have a happy childhood:  Walk in the rain,

collect rainbows, smell flowers, stop along the way, build sand castles,

watch the moon and stars come out, say hello to everyone, make up

new rules, go on adventures, act silly, take bubble baths, hold hands

and hug and kiss, dance, laugh and cry for the health of it, feel happy,

say the magic words, trust the universe."

                                    -Bruce Williamson-                                              ***

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

            Peace and Justice to you and your family.

                                    Jim Brown

January 31, 2003
Juror Regrets Sending Jim Brown To Prison

It started with this email... "As one of those 12, I so thought you would win your appeal. I believe in the system far less after being on that jury. I know this doesn't mean much to you now but I wish you and your family all the best under the circumstances. There has not been much peace of mind from this juror since that day we left the courthouse. Keep up the good fight. God be with you."

It has been almost three years since Jim Brown was convicted and to this today "Beth" - as we will call her - says she regrets her decision to vote guilty. Even on verdict day Beth says she walked into the courtroom thinking, "You know if you fight it hard enough you can get it on appeal."

Beth says when called to be a juror in 2000 she was both scared and nervous. For days, and weeks she and the other jurors heard from witness after witness. Including key prosecution witness FBI agent Harry Burton, who testified that Brown lied to him about being involved with the Cascade Insurance scheme.

"Harry's a pretty good witness. Harry's convincing," said Beth. However, she still says jurors wanted to see Burton's notes of his conversation with Brown. "We requested to see these notes and we weren't allowed. We were told that basically the notes reflected what the FBI agent had told us."

So even though the jury found Brown not guilty of the bigger charges including conspiracy, on the counts of lying to an FBI agent, they voted guilty. Still she thought he could win on appeal. Beth's reasoning, "We weren't allowed to see the FBI notes so if there are notes and if anyone is allowed to see them he can beat it on appeal. Surely he can."

But of course that hasn't happened. And as she thinks of Brown now serving a six-month sentence in federal prison she says, "Under the same circumstances I wouldn't have done it the same way. I wish I could go back and change it. I never thought he would go to prison."

Not seeing Harry Burton's notes has been one of the major issues Jim Brown has argued in his appeals. But the courts have ruled that Burton's testimony reflected what was in the notes. And this week the nation's highest court refused to hear Brown's appeal. No word yet on whether he will ask the U.S Supreme Court to re-hear his case.

Brown has always had very strong feelings about the way in which the jurors were treated. And Friday night at 10 p.m. you will see Brown's reaction to what Beth had to say and hear what the U.S. attorney has to say about this as well.



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