April 10, 2003
Federal Prison Camp
Oakdale, Louisiana


One more night to be incarcerated in a federal prison. One more night in a hard, lumpy bed surrounded by numerous loud snoring companions. It's difficult to fathom that I have been enclosed in this tiny area, day after day, for the past six months. Dealing with the daily challenge of keeping my mind active and my body fit through such morbid conditions.

On balance though, if I evaluate my stay here as experience towards reaching specific goals, I suppose I should deem this time a successful endeavor. When I first arrived at Oakdale, I set benchmarks in reading, writing and physical fitness. In looking back over my time in prison, I feel I have accomplished what I had hoped to achieve.

I have read well over 100 books, mostly fiction, during my stay. A number of novels are re-reads. But I've discovered new authors whose works I probably wouldn't have found time to read at home. The best of the new books? For non-fiction, I would pick Alan Dershowitz's The Genesis of Justice. I discussed this provocative book of the struggle for justice in the Old Testament in my January 29th Column. My fiction choice is a new novel I read just last week, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. A dazzling story of Greek family history from the crumbling Ottoman Empire covering three generations to a new life in America. A close second is Ian McEwan's Atonement reviewed in last week's Column.

One of the nice things about my job in the kitchen is the quiet time I'm allowed in the small library during the day. The other inmates are working throughout the prison grounds during the time that I'm off. So the library is usually mine alone, where I can write without distraction. Since arriving here at Oakdale, I have written a column every week.

I have recently completed a book about my entire case, and describe in detail how the justice system failed me. It will hopefully be published by late summer. And I have gathered a wealth of information about the federal prison system I hope to turn into a second book later in the year.

The letters and emails received from so many readers of the Column have been overwhelming to me and deeply appreciated. I have spent many late nights answering as much of the correspondence as possible. I've been particularly touched by the new acquaintances who seem to have adopted me. Weekly letters arrive from a number of readers who tell me everything about their family life. People I've never met have given me a detailed history of their children and personal experiences in their daily lives. I'm flattered they would take me into their confidence and share special events that are obviously important to them. And perhaps I'm serving some worthwhile purpose by being a good listener.

By any measure, my physical fitness results have been a success. My final weigh-in earlier today read 174 lbs. That's 24 lbs. Lighter than the day I arrived six months ago. My body fat was 19 on arrival, good for someone my age. Today it's 9.6. So I return home in excellent physical shape and can no doubt afford to put on a few pounds at some good restaurants in the weeks to come.

I have been training several new inmates to take my place in the kitchen. My supervisor comments that I will be hard to replace and perhaps I might want to stay a while longer. I tell him I'm open to offers.

"On the outside, my consulting fees are $250 per hour. Now I know that's a little above the 17¢ per hour I'm being paid now. But if you work out the extra money, I'll be glad to drive up two or three days a week to help out," I tell him.

He laughs.

There is little to pack. Several boxes of books and legal files. By tradition, an inmate leaving the prison to go home gives away all he has acquired here. The sweat clothes, workout gloves, radio, food and toiletry items are all left behind to be shared by other inmates. A number of friends on the outside have asked me to bring souvenirs. There are numerous requests for a sweatshirt that says "OAKDALE FEDERAL PRISON" on it. But everything stays. I might go to a sporting goods store when I get home and have a batch printed up. Who knows? You might even find them for sale on my website in the coming weeks.

* * * * * * *

It's been a busy final week for me. Many requests from fellow inmates to be of help. Toni from California asks me to help him write out his will. He is divorced and wants to leave more to his children. Grill from New Orleans wants advice on putting his resume together. He wants to be upfront about his conviction, but hopes to get beyond it and convince a prospective employer of his many skills. Puff from New Orleans asks for help in drafting a letter to his attorney.

Even the prison staff seeks me out. One worker asks for a suggestion of a lawyer to use in Alexandria for a domestic dispute. And a supervisor wants advice on his health insurance. Since I am the only attorney in the camp, there are numerous requests for "jailhouse justice" and advice to be given.

Of course, I'm anxious to leave this whole world behind. But I will no doubt look back from time to time on melancholy memories. Specific occurrences, taken out of context of the tragedy of my being here, will stay with me for years to come.

Getting to know some fellows here who made a mistake, and paying a great price. On the outside, they are all lumped together as hardened criminals who should stay in prison most of their lives. But they are generally people like you, who care about and miss their families, and want to go home to rebuild their lives. The majority of them here pray at every meal, shower every day, brush their teeth twice a day or more, who cover their lockers with pictures of their loved ones, particularly their children, and who write and call home often. There are a number of these fellows I will enjoy introducing to my family one day and have visiting in my home.

My bed stands close to the telephones, and I can't help but overhear conversations. I have many memories of fellow inmates talking to their children. Trying to give advice, but knowing their children know they are in prison. The calls always end "I love you." Then they slowly walk away with their heads hanging down.

I'm not sure I would be in as good physical shape if it wasn't for the intense surroundings of the workout area. The blaring rap music of Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Puff Daddy and 50 Cents. The four letter epithets that were screamed out to push one more rep of lifting. And the urging of my training partners to "don't stop yet! You can do it one more time."

I will occasionally remember back to the nights I was the only person awake here. In the library reading or writing at 1:00 a.m. Even the guards were dozing. Not a sound: almost like being in a tomb.

Of course, you get lonely here. But keeping busy helps. I've never really felt sorry for myself. Bitter at how the justice system failed me? Yes. But I've kept it inside.

There's been some sad moments. Times my mind wandered back home. I've never shed tears. Well, maybe once. I was in the kitchen a few weeks ago. 5:30 a.m. Alone, cutting up bell peppers and onions for breakfast omelets. A Nora Jones C.D. was playing.

Like a flower waiting to bloom
Like a light bulb in a dark room
I'm just sitting here waiting for you to come home
And turn me on

Boy, did I miss my wife, my family and being back home. A few tears came down the sides of each cheek. Just then, the supervisor walked in.

"Are those tears?" he asked.

"It's the onions," I said.

But I wasn't sure.

So it's now time to pass one more night and complete my personal Purgatory. Then home to start a fresh and rebuild my life. And I have much to be thankful for. Week after week, so many readers of this column have written or emailed their strong opinions of support and encouragement. For this I am thankful. This will be my last Column, at least for a while. I have a lot of catching up to do when I get home. But I am available at this web address and will certainly answer any emails I receive. My mailing address is Box 44515, Baton Rouge, LA 70804.

I feel like a returning POW, having been captured and incarcerated by an unjust legal system that failed me. Pogo said it pretty well a few years back. "We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us." Sad but true. But it's time to put all that behind, and get back to family, good friends and good food. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

I have lived through my darkest hour. I can only hope that the recent difficult years are part of a larger story that overflows with faith, family love, good health, curiosity and full engagement in appreciating and unwinding the mysteries of life.

British poet, William Henley, wrote the words that follow more than a century ago. I carry them with me and have read them every day I have been in prison.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced or cried aloud;
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade.
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)

May peace and justice be with you and your family throughout the coming years.

Jim Brown

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