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The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail: We’ll Take the Hole SHU-bang

I was released back into the relative freedom of the jail unit the other day after spending a month and a half in the hole, or “SHU,” where I had been confined due to an accusation by a wacky guard that I had instigated a “semi-disturbance.” A lengthy investigation by the prison administration having eventually concluded that there was no evidence that I had instigated anything at all and thus ought not to be punished for such an offense, I was finally let out of the, er, punishment cell. But I did participate in the “semi-disturbance” in question, along with some 30 other inmates, and so I was charged with “Engaging in a Group Demonstration,” pleaded guilty, and had my family visits and phone call privileges taken away for three months. It’s probably worth mentioning that the semi-disturbance/group demonstration which it turns out I didn’t instigate was directed toward the same wacky guard mentioned above, whose wackiness we simply wanted to bring to wider attention. I’ll go into all the wacky details at some later date when I’m out of this wacky prison’s wacky clutches, but in the meantime I have another story from the SHU that I will be kind enough to relate to you now.

One day, my red-headed Mohammedan cellmate, D, and I were being led back to our cell in handcuffs after one of our thrice-weekly showers when we noticed several paper bags sitting outside our door that hadn’t been there earlier. A brief but spirited exchange with the guard revealed that these were packaged foodstuffs an officer had confiscated from D after having determined through some mysterious federal calculus that his possession of them constituted “hoarding,” which is not permitted. Actually, the snacks in question had been saved up from past meal trays to serve as D’s breakfast on those days when the staff failed to bring him his morning repast before sunrise, as they’re supposed to in accordance with their own religious freedom regulations, as this was Ramadan and D is, in his own way, a very observant Saracen. Naturally he was upset about this; it’s hard enough to refrain from so much as drinking water throughout the day when one is being held in a non-air-conditioned cell throughout a Texas July without also having one’s backup breakfast seized by infidels.

After the guard left us, D turned to me and said something that I didn’t quite catch, not being conversant with his bizarre country-gangsta dialect, but which from the context and also from the fact that his entire body had just turned red I took to indicate that he had become angry and was now intent on wreaking havoc against our toy fascist jailors.

“Very well, then,” I replied to whatever it was that he had said. Then I grabbed my books from the floor and clambered up to the top bunk, which struck me as a safe place in which to ride out the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation that always ensues when these dynamic young jihadis start mixing it up with the various Western nation-states.

Drawing upon 10 years of experience with the notoriously tumultuous Texas state prison system, D immediately set about fortifying our little cell. First he cut a slit in his mattress cover in order that he might hang the whole thing from the sprinkler head situated above the door. This would prevent the unbelievers from being able to see through the door grill, thereby denying them valuable intelligence; it would also serve as an effective barrier, making it difficult for them to rush in on us if things came to that. But the covering tore, not being strong enough to hold the weight of the mattress.

Undismayed, D moved on to the offensive itself: he used some plastic bags to seal off the half-inch gap between the bottom of the cell door and the floor, clogged up the toilet with a towel, and started flushing. The purpose of this exercise is to accumulate a good six inches or so of water in one’s cell and then release the plastic bags or whatever one has stuffed under the door, thereby flooding the hallway. One can also dispense with all this blockage and accumulation and instead just flood the hallway gradually, but in that case one’s efforts are far more likely to be detected by the guards before one manages to cause any real problems. Inmates also consider this latter method to lack artistry. At least, I’m assuming they do. I certainly do.

As D stood there flushing the toilet over and over again, wondering aloud how long he could fill up our cell with water before a guard happened to come by and get wise to what he was up to, I found myself facing an antediluvian dilemma of my own. I knew that if matters escalated past a certain point, the prison’s in-house SWAT team would be sent in to subdue us, but first a video camera would be set up on a tripod opposite the door to record the proceedings so as to discourage the cops from beating us up too badly in the process, as is the custom among cops. I figured the resulting video would be pretty hilarious if, while they’re storming into our tiny flooded cell and D is fighting them off and yelling, “Allah Akbar!” or whatever, I would just be sitting up there in my bunk reading the most thematically inappropriate possible book for the occasion, preferably something very erudite or sentimental or both.

The problem was that I couldn’t decide on a book. If I’d still had the little personal library I’d managed to store up back in the jail unit, I would obviously have picked Brideshead Revisited, with a volume of memoirs by Malcolm Muggeridge coming in a strong second. Here in the hole, though, my choices were more limited. Although the hard-bound collection of works by Thoreau that someone had sent me the previous week would work in a pinch, for some reason it just didn’t tickle my funny bone. I also had a copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but then the only thing funny about Philip K. Dick is how awesome he is; in fact, I reflected, one could make a strong case that Philip K. Dick is so awesome that it’s not even funny. This led me to reflect in turn on the injustice of a world in which someone like Philip K. Dick can spend much of his life broke and having to borrow money from Robert Heinlein while someone like Orson Scott Card can make a real success of himself, whereas in a more perfect world Philip K. Dick would have been living it up in a gold-plated space station while Orson Scott Card starved to death in a gutter. Then I got back to the task at hand, considering and rejecting several more titles, including The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I dismissed as too apropos.

Finally, I settled on William Shirer’s The Collapse of the Third Republic, which charts that ill-fated government from its inception in 1871 to its fall to the Nazis in 1940. Though the title was far from ideal for my subtle comedic purposes, I wanted to get back to reading it anyhow, as I had left off at an interesting point; it was that part where the institutions of a free and pluralistic society inevitably come under assault by authoritarian Catholics. Ha, ha, just kidding; that’s pretty much the whole book. But I really was at an interesting part — the French generals were all agreeing with each other that the military had little use for airplanes or Jews — and it had also now occurred to me that I was putting too much energy into the setting up of a sight gag that would almost certainly be lost on its sole audience of prison officials who review SWAT extraction videos. Collapse it would be, then.

Meanwhile, D’s watery onslaught against the Decreasingly Great Satan had run into another snag after a passing guard noticed a puddle spreading outside our cell; in the throes of his fanaticism, D had not sufficiently sealed the space under the door. The guard stopped in his tracks and contemplated the puddle for five or six seconds, at which point he seemed to decide that it was unauthorized. After that it was only a few seconds more of investigation before he came to grasp that this particular liquid might perhaps be best understood as merely a portion of some much larger body of liquid, perhaps originating from, say, the nearby cell from which it was clearly originating. And so finally he looked through our door grill and saw the inch or so of water that had accumulated in our cell, saw D standing there muttering in Arabic and repeatedly flushing a toilet which in turn was visibly clogged by a towel, saw me sitting on the top bunk staring back at him and taking notes — he saw all of this and he said, “Fuck.” Then he ran back down the hall.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows!” I called after him, that being the only appropriately ominous Bob Dylan protest lyric I could think of at the time. Then I went back to my book.

“Everybody get yo’ shit off the flo’! Imma flood this bitch!” D yelled through the grill for the benefit of the other SHU inmates, whom I could hear rushing to comply with this most practical of fatwas lest their property get soaked.

“You ain’t floodin’ shit,” came the dismissive reply from another, more competent guard who had just walked up and now threw down a stack of blankets in front of our door just as D was pulling the barrier, effectively blocking in most of D’s would-be flood. Whatever water that did manage to soak through the blankets was soon taken care of by an orderly with a mop, orderlies with mops being the real victims of most guard-inmate conflicts of this sort. And pretty soon the guards had shut off our water altogether, leaving D with few offensive options. This was just as well, as he had stopped being angry about 10 minutes prior and was now just going through the motions for form’s sake. So when the guards came back a minute later to put the “shield” over the door grill — the shield is a rectangular transparent plate intended to deflect any urine that an inmate may decide to toss from a cup at a guard, but which, being transparent, doesn’t obstruct the guard’s view of the inmate — D felt obligated to at least attempt to knock the thing off the grill. This is tricky, as the grill is laced together rather tightly such that nothing wider than a pencil can be pushed through. Thankfully, Dank — the gangster, pie tycoon, and accomplished SHU insurgent whose own adventures I detailed in the last edition of this column — was already shouting instructions to D from his own cell down the hall. His method involved pencils and pieces of paper rolled up to make a tube by which the pencils can be more easily grasped and then pushed through or something of that sort, which I didn’t quite follow as I’ve always found physics to be confusing and, frankly, kind of suspicious. Plus I was now distracted with a new problem: I’d decided to provide D with moral support by singing the “The Song of Marseilles,” but then I remembered that I didn’t know the lyrics in French, or the lyrics in English, or the tune. To clarify, I’ve almost certainly heard the tune before, but I wouldn’t be able to pick it out from among several other tunes that I vaguely associate with France and revolutionaries and whatnot. It really wouldn’t do for me to try to start singing what I suspected to be the “The Song of Marseilles” but which would actually turn out to be “Le Internationale” or something by Daft Punk. And, come to think of it, there was no good reason to bring the French into a situation that was already complicated enough. So instead I just shouted, “Down with all human institutions!” in a sort of self-parody.

D now managed to pry the shield loose using his mystical pencil-paper contraption, and it fell to the floor with a very satisfying clatter. Just then a captain showed up. Those clever bastards at the prison administration had opted to send in the kindly old black man whose grandfatherly ways melt all opposition (they’ve also got this soccer mom-looking guard that serves the same purpose; during the “semi-disturbance” standoff, when we had refused to go back to our cells after being ordered to do so, after being ordered to do so in a somewhat more menacing tone, and after being ordered to do so by a guard who was meanwhile shaking up his pepper spray, they brought in Lieutenant Probably Someone’s Mom, who came up to us, looked around, put her hands on her matronly hips, and said, “Well, I think y’all better turn around and put your hands against the walls!” at which point we all turned around and put our hands against the walls).

“Now, what’s wrong, D?” asked this infuriatingly venerable old captain, his face treacherously composed into a mask of understanding and earthy good humor that is almost certainly genuine but which still enrages me for some reason. D responded with a litany of vague complaints that had nothing to do with his original and quite legitimate grievance, which, naturally, he had already forgotten. In conclusion, he explained, “Sometimes I just need to express myself!”

I swear to God that D actually said that. And apparently this struck the grandfatherly old captain as a very reasonable answer, because he nodded knowingly and went off to get some more towels with which D could begin to dry our floor. Actually I’m quite fond of the grandfatherly old captain, and I like to imagine that he and the handful of other humane and pleasant guards argue on behalf of us inmates in the secretive Council of the Guards, taking our side against the more numerous Evil Guards, who are forever proposing that we all be be fed to wild dogs or sold to the Chinese. And the Good Guards are all like, “No, no, let’s just give them candy!” It’s all very Olympian.

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Bible Verse of the Day: Daniel 8:5-7

“As I was reflecting, a he-goat with a prominent horn on its forehead suddenly came from the west across the whole earth without touching the ground. It came to the two-horned ram I had seen standing by the river, and rushed toward it with savage force. I saw it reach the ram; enraged, the he-goat attacked and shattered both its horns. The ram did not have the strength to withstand it; the he-goat threw the ram to the ground and trampled upon it. No one could rescue the ram from its power.”

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[Editor's note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated since September 2012. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas. This is the 12th installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to read earlier installments. Go here if you'd like to send him a book or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]