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March 5, 2003
Federal Prison Camp
Oakdale, Louisiana


There was a heavy early morning fog covering the prison grounds yesterday. After finishing my kitchen duties, I was headed out the door towards the workout area. A voice on the loudspeaker system blared out: "All inmates back in the building. No one is to be outside."

"Parole dust," one of the inmates murmured. The chance of escaping is better when fog surrounds the prison. Not here at the Camp. We have no fences. But at the adjoining main prison facility housing hundreds of foreign detainees, there are often attempts to escape. Prisoners on the run could easily blend in with inmates from this Camp who work at jobs throughout the prison grounds.

The fog lingers through the morning. I'm needed in the kitchen by lunchtime (10:15 a.m. is serving time) so I will delay my workout until the afternoon.

* * * * * * *

Big News! I received a high approval rating for my work in the kitchen and a raise. That's right. Instead of making 12¢ an hour, I have been "bumped up" to 17¢ an hour. That's eight dollars more a month than I was previously being paid.

I don't make light of the pay schedule. A large number of inmates here receive no financial help from the outside. The small wages they receive pay for their phone calls and basics from the commissary. And prices here are not cheap. Phone calls are 20¢ a minute. Commissary purchases are often significantly higher than on the outside.

I ask the camp supervisor if I will get a W-2 form when I leave. Whatever my meager wages are, I certainly do not want any trouble with the I.R.S. when I get out of here. I'm told no on ever asked that question before.

* * * * * * *

Every Tuesday is commissary day; our time to stock up on basic food items, clothing and hygiene articles. But this ain't no Walmart. I pick up a printed list of items available and check the goods I want to purchase. The list is slipped through a 6" by one-foot slot in a door to a storage area. My purchases come through a shoot in the wall, and I load them into an empty pillowcase or mesh laundry bag.

The purchase restrictions are interesting. I can buy 20 packs of cigarettes but only 2 writing pads. Eight large bags of hot and spicy pork skins but only one small box of envelopes. Twelve cans of spam but only one bulb to read by. Unlimited buttered popcorn packages and cans of chili, but only one small box of washing powder. Go figure.

I study the list in some detail. After all, this is the one and only time each week when I can make any purchases. And I have to watch closely from week to week how much I spend. There is a limit of $290.00 a month. That may sound like a lot, but I always seem to cut the limit close. I'm on a strict eating diet now, so I'm buying extra food in the commissary to compensate for what I cannot obtain in the dining hall. And I am always wearing out or misplacing some clothing item. So there are many purchasing needs. I am including a typical Commissary List to give you an idea of what I buy.

Peanut butter (with wheat crackers), Tuna, and Mackerel for protein, lemon juice to add to water at meals, lots of nuts and dried fruits, and all the stamps I can buy. There is a limit of only three books of stamps. Who knows why? I always run out. Few vitamins to choose from. I take everything available, but still have joint pain.

Click on a link below to view a Commissary List:

Commissary List (image 1)
Commissary List (image 2)

I always buy four photo tickets. Several of the inmates work extra on weekends as Camp photographers. I can have pictures taken of the many friends who visit. On one particular weekend in December, it was cold and I put on a sweatshirt over my green prison uniform. So did most of the other inmates in the visiting room. The guards had no objection because of the cold weather. My mother had come for a visit and we had several pictures taken. Weeks went by and I never received the pictures. My mother asked about the photos every time I called her. Finally, I was told that someone "higher up" didn't like the sweatshirt. The photos had been confiscated and I would not be allowed to have them. I paid for the photos and they would have been meaningful to my mother who finds it physically difficult to travel. But there is little I can do.

* * * * * * *

A number of inmates here have a surprisingly intense interest in current affairs. With the possibility of war, the crashing of the Columbia space shuttle, and the shaky economy, there is good reason to be concerned, even by prisoners. Since I take so many publications, I am often asked to share and pass on what I read. A structured grapevine has developed. When I finish with the four daily papers I receive, I put them side-by-side on the empty top bunk above me. Inmates in the grapevine come by to pick them up. There is an unwritten but adhered to rule that you read the paper quickly, no later than the day you pick it up, then pass it on. My New York Times circulates among 10 inmates before ending up in the prison library. A Baton Rouge inmate, who has yet to finish high school, still eagerly seeks the local paper each day.

A friend from New York surprises me with a subscription to the New York Daily News. More a tabloid with lots of pictures in color, some a bit "racy." So lots of grapevine interest. Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, Business Week…all make their rounds throughout the prison camp. A small way for me to contribute.

* * * * * * *


The novels of Alexandre Dumas have been the origin of some of the really good action movies and love stories in recent years. I've seen three versions of The Three Musketeers, and two versions of The Man in the Iron Mask.

The movie version of the Count of Monte Cristo came out last summer. After seeing it twice and purchasing the DVD, I thought it might be time to read the novel. And what a treat. Simply put: innocent man is imprisoned, he meets a fellow prisoner who tells of a buried treasure, innocent man escapes, finds the treasure and plots revenge.

Dumas weaves this basic tale through almost 1000 pages of adventure, intrigue, and romance that certainly has become one of the great thrillers of all time. You can see where modern day writers like Zane Grey, Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and John Grisham found their inspiration. Dumas just tells a great tale.

The novel is actually close to a true story. Dumas was digging through the police archives in Paris, and came across extensive notes and anecdotes of a similar reported episode. He crafted his take based largely on an actual occurrence.

You can understand why one of the parts of the novel I liked best was when our hero, Edmond Dantes, was sent to prison. He was framed for a crime he didn't commit, and unjustly sentenced to a prison in a French island fortress. (O.K. I'm not in the middle of the ocean at Alcatrez, but hey, prison is prison.) While an inmate for 14 years, Dantes meets another prisoner who becomes his mentor and, on his deathbed, tells our hero of a buried treasure. Dantes' escape is a classic that is worth reading by itself.

He gets the treasure and dubs himself the Count of Monte Cristo, after the name of the island where the treasure is buried. He also gets the girl and gets his revenge. But he does find that revenge is not all that satisfying. Put the past behind and get on with your life. (A good lesson for me.)

Don't be put off by the book's length. It's a fast read. And if you do decide to read Dumas' novel, I urge you not to get an abridged version. Too much Victorian language. A new translation (the guy was French, right?) by Robin Buss (1966) is more descriptive and contemporary.

This novel is clever and captivating. You won't be wasting your time with The Count of Monte Cristo.

* * * * * * *


"Sometimes the evidence is misleading or incomplete,
sometimes the critical testimony comes from people
with something to gain, sometimes the authorities
"cook" the evidence - or just make it up."

William Raspberry
The Washington Post

Peace and Justice to you and your family.

Jim Brown

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