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Wednesday, November 20, 2002
Day Thirty-Seven
Federal Detention Camp
Oakdale, Louisiana


New inmates arrived at the prison today, mostly from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas. There are some twenty-five available beds here now. So I assume more inmates will be arriving in the weeks to come.

The present inmate population is about 85% black, 5% Hispanic, and 10% white. At least 85% of the inmates here are serving time for drug-related offenses. They (we) are all first offenders and the alleged crimes committed were all non-violent. (I say “alleged” because of the false charges brought against me.)

I have received quite an education about the drug world since I have been here. Crack cocaine is, according to my numerous experts here, used more frequently in the black community. The white powder form of cocaine is generally more prevalent among whites.

The penalties for selling crack are higher than those involving powder. The reason given is that crack is more highly concentrated, more potent, and goes through extensive processing. Black inmates say there is discrimination in assessing penalties. They feel the “white drug dealer” gets a better break.

Most of the cocaine obtained by these inmates comes through Mexico, although Columbia seems to be the major country of origin. And you don’t mess with the Columbians.

According to my “teachers” here, there is often an “honor system” when the cocaine is obtained by the middleman. Most of the inmates with drug convictions didn’t actually sell the drugs on the street retail. They acted as a transporter getting a commission or set fee by moving the drugs from one point to another. Often the drugs were going from the Mexican border or Houston, then on into Louisiana.

If the middleman could not sell all the goods (generally cocaine) most would take back the unsold drugs and receive payment for what was sold by the middleman. But not the Columbians. A deal is a deal. If the money is not produced as agreed, there is no re-negotiation. Your drug dealing is terminated. Permanently.

Readers in Baton Rouge will remember Barry Seale, who was involved with drugs before he became an informer against the Columbians. He was sentenced to a halfway house in Baton Rouge against his wishes. He knew, after his testimony, he was a marked man. Seale was gunned down—executed—at the halfway house. A television movie was made about his own case. I’ll be writing about Seale’s fate and what caused him to be murdered in a coming book.

The overwhelming majority of inmates in federal prisons throughout the country are serving time for crimes related to drugs. And it’s the same, for both men and women in prison.

There are almost ten times as many women imprisoned in our country than in all of Western Europe. And look at the comparisons. The population of the U.S. and Europe is about the same, and strong democracies rule in both locations. But we incarcerate ten times as many women. Why? Drugs.

So we now have in the country a huge disposable population that has produced a deep malaise many of us would like to ignore. But whether it’s convicted felons here at Oakdale, or high school kids from our own neighborhood, there is no question that drug trafficking and drug use are and will continue to be a major problem for all our communities.

* * * * * * * *

Visiting begins here in just two days. Visitors are allowed Friday from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m.; and on Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Also, on all federal holidays.

I’m extremely blessed in having family and friends come all three days and stay most of the time allowed. With so much visiting time, the week goes by much more quickly. Gladys and my son James are here every weekend. Mother and my brother Jack, with his whole family, made the trip down from Shreveport last week.

A visitor must fill out a background check form to be mailed to the prison at least a week before a visit. A visitor’s picture is taken upon arrival, and only a few basic items can be brought in the visiting area. Wallet, comb, lipstick, and change. Lots of change. I always urge friends to bring several rolls of quarters for the drinks and snacks.

I’m one of the few inmates who has visitors. On some Friday nights, I’m the only inmate. And the other inmates know. I’m always asked who came to visit, and if the tall young man was my son.

I quietly and without comment prepare for visitors. My heart goes out to so many of these fellows who have long sentences, who I know are lonely, yet have so few visits in a year, if any at all.

Book Review
(or what I’m reading on my six month sabbatical)

I never read many western novels. An occasional Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour when I was much younger. But several friends, whose opinion I respect, have told me if there is only one western novel you read, it should be Lonesome Dove. The book was written by an eccentric, odd-ball of a fellow named Larry McMurtry who lives and writes in Archer City, Texas.

Gladys and I have been to Archer City and semi-visited with its famous native son. The town is about a 3-1/2 hour drive northwest of Dallas. We were on our way to visit a friend’s ranch in west Texas several years ago, and I had read about McMurtry’s bookstores in Archer City. He bought a number of vacant buildings in the town, and purchased the inventory of bookstores going out of business throughout the country. When you drive down the single main street, you will pass the courthouse, one café, a few general merchandise stores, and some six buildings loaded with books. Books on any subject and every description. Books in a number of foreign languages. A book lover’s dream.

One building has the central office with employees. You browse and shop in the other buildings on the honor system. One of the employees there told me they do a large mail order business worldwide.

I asked for a copy of Lonesome Dove, autographed if possible. “We don’t sell any of Mr. McMurtry’s books here,” she told me. My reaction was predictable.

“You have more books here in the middle of nowhere than any bookstore in the country—and you don’t carry the owner’s books?”

“He don’t want to be pestered by his fans and have to put up with autograph seekers,” she replied. About that time, McMurtry walked in the door.

He chastised the employee in a raised voice, looked our way and rolled his eyes (another pesky autograph hound) then stomped out the door. So much for my “visit” with the Pulitzer Prize winning author.

Back to Lonesome Dove. It’s long, 856 pages in hardback. (I am not allowed hardback books in prison unless sent in directly by a bookstore. Our neighbors and friends, Sharon Pennington and her mother Honey were nice enough to arrange for the book to be sent to me.)

Although McMurtry may be eccentric, his novel is anything but. It’s an American Odyssey set in the late nineteenth century, and tells the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. The trip becomes a vehicle for McMurtry to examine the panorama of everything we even imagined about the old west. An unforgettable assortment of good guys and bad, Indians and settlers, heroes and outlaws, Texas Rangers who turn horse rustlers, and strong, marvelous western women of all descriptions.

I urge you to read it. Just don’t ask for an autographed copy.

* * * * * * * *

And finally, a little humor. What follows is a cartoon by Greg Peters about my “good life” here at Oakdale. His cartoons appear in several state papers and on several Internet websites. He has little regard for Louisiana public officials. But I still enjoy his “warped” perspective, and read him every week.

Needless to say, my fellow inmates were not particularly amused at his depiction of the “easy life” Peters portrays. But I share it with you so you can see I am maintaining my sense of humor.

Click here to view the cartoon

Peace and Justice to you.

Until next week,

Jim Brown

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