Plain Brown Rapper
by Michael Jones
I’ve known Carl Brown since the early ’90s. At the time, I was a college dropout who was driving a delivery truck and trying to figure out how to be a writer. Carl was a disgraced politician who was rebuilding his reputation as the second coming of Hunter S. Thompson. Our paths crossed as members of “The Six Pack,” a group of freelance writers who took turns doing the feature stories in the early days of LEO. After our weekly news meetings, Carl and I fell into the habit of playing a few games of chess. It’s something that we’ve kept up for several decades. (He keeps score of how many times each of us has won, but I don’t believe it is accurate. Somehow he is always a few games ahead of me.)
Being friends with Carl is always an adventure because he suffers from Bipolar Disorder. His mood alternates between long bouts of depression, calm periods of sanity and manic episodes. The disease manifested itself in 1983 when Carl was the Jefferson County District Commissioner and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. During a psychotic break, he went through Central Park with a samurai sword searching for his former mentor – then Jefferson County Judge Executive, now U.S. Senate Majority Leader — Mitch McConnell.
Carl felt McConnell ruined his Senate race by cutting him off from big Republican donors. In the aftermath of this episode, Carl was forced to resign from his commissioner’s seat and his second marriage fell apart. The years that followed included stints in several mental institutions and prisons. In all, he has spent time in four county jails and seven federal prisons. This includes transfers that had him serving time at different institutions for the same sentence.
The first time Carl went to jail was in 1987 after he ran his car into a tree while intoxicated. He was already on probation after being caught with four ounces of marijuana in an earlier arrest. His probation revoked, he served time in the Jefferson County Jail and a federal prison in Buckner, North Carolina.
After his release, Carl stayed away from Louisville for a few years returning about the time he started writing for LEO. He would receive two more federal sentences, both for leaving threatening messages for Mitch McConnell. The excerpt you are about to read was written during Carl’s second stint in federal prison in 2000. He had been running against Darryl Owens to get his commissioner’s seat back, but Carl thought that McConnell was having his phone tapped to aid Owens. He left the Senator a series of threatening messages that resulted in a one-year prison sentence and a year of probation.
No matter his mental state, Carl always seems to keep his great respect for language. Like all great prison memoirs from Dostoyevsky’s “House of the Dead” to Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” his writing captures the colorful characters he encountered behind bars and the sense of isolation that prisoners experience. Hopefully, Carl’s spent his last night in this purgatory.
Life in the Big House
by Carl Brown
“Muzzahfuucka,” I exclaimed as I took that last bite into the stone-like chicken patty sandwich, breaking my front six-tooth bridge off, snap!
Not only would I spend another four months in the concentration camp beneficently called the Federal Medical Center, Lexington, I would spend it unsmiling and with a lisp.
I plead guilty to “threatening” U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and was sentenced to serve a year behind the bars of county joints and the razor wire of U.S. penitentiaries.
After announcing for Jefferson County Commissioner, I thought my phone was tapped. So did South Central Bell. I left some ugly messages on the senator’s answering machine, asking him to call me back.
I went to the FBI to enlist their help. They read me my rights and handcuffed me.
The last time I ran for office, U.S. Senate in 1986, I was indicted the day I filed my papers in Frankfort.
Kentucky politics — they are the damnedest.
But this article is not about Kentucky politics. Let the chips fall as they may.
This is about prison innocently calling itself the Federal Medical Center, Lexington.
A day in the life
I have five cellmates. Irony of ironies, one is a 340-pound behemoth named — guess what — McConnell. But he goes by “Big D.” He looks like a mattress. Another goes by the name “Dirty,” but I don’t know why. And we have an American Indian, heavily tattooed, who answers to “Cricket” and fills our room with smoke after every Saturday sweat lodge. Then there’s “Mack,” who prays loudly and violently on his knees every day. My bottom bunkmate answers to “Poppa” and is 65. He’s expected to crack wise when his hearing aid permits.
Time passes like molasses, dosed with acid. Surreal. As I write this, three-and-a-half months remain on my 12-month sentence. It has been a depression-laden blur: a haze that won’t lift, a funk that greets me each morning and kisses me good night as I drift into a Klonopin-induced sleep.
Mornings are the worst. I awake to the stark dread of being in a cage, of being a prisoner, of being subject to the whim of the Overlords, of being a felon.
I pass the time by reading nonsense novels, crap I wouldn’t recommend to a friend. Or a felon. My bed is my coffin. I consider the suicide option daily and know how I’d do it. My bootlace tied to a pipe in the shower stall would choke me unconscious, then strangle me relentlessly to death. For some reason, I resist the option. I suppose my curiosity as to how my rich and interesting life will turn out — and around the next curve — is stronger than my will to die.
Noon arrives and I go to work in the dining room for 12 cents an hour. Fortunately, it’s only for 2 hours and 50 minutes. My tasks vary daily. Sometimes, I wipe tables. Other days, I fill salt and pepper shakers, stuff napkins into holders, assist the multiple wheel-chair bound inmates and carry trays to the kitchen.
I give myself a smoke break every half hour, whether I need it or not.
Most of the work is completed by 1:30 p.m. Then the task is to look busy.
Nicotine is my friend. Though I seldom smoke (cigarettes) on the steet, I become a fiend when incarcerated.
I allow myself a “two-fer” when I first drag myself out of bed in the morning. I feel the nicotine rush first in my head. On a good morning, it creeps down my arms and legs. It’s the next best thing to a marijuana high.
Marijuana and acid are readily available. But outrageously priced. A Chap-Stick cap’s worth goes for up to six books of stamps.
I’ve given up my herbal medicine for the foreseeable future — especially at those prices.
At 2:50 p.m., I join a minor herd of “four-hour workers” who work three hours (can’t beat it for the money) for the dead hour before the dreaded “4 o’clock standing count.” Dreaded because when caught in the clutches of a comatose depression, standing on my feet while two key-dangling “cops” saunter through the cell counting noses is oppressive. Standing counts are likewise held at 10 a.m. on weekends and holidays.
After the 4 p.m. count, prisoners occupy themselves until “chow call” around 5:30 p.m., depending on which housing unit cleaned premises best. Inspection and rotation take place weekly.
For reasons I can’t fathom, we convicts walk through a metal detector to and from each meal. We use plastic spoons, forks and knives.
Two guards take this as serious as death, frisking wheelchair patients and those with walkers and pacemakers. What are they looking for? A cosmic conundrum.
After standing in the metal detector line, in the meal line, in the return-the-trays line comes the evening pill line. It takes up to an hour to receive my beloved Zyprexa (antipsychotic) and Klonopin (anti-anxiety, sleep-inducing) medications. They crush up the Klonopin since it’s a narcotic, which otherwise I could slip under my tongue and sell for a few books of stamps. After a gulp of water, convicts open their mouths and wag their tongues to work against the black market.
After the pill line, I grab my Walkman and put in a mile or so on the three-laps-to-a-mile paved track. Then it’s beddy-time with a book. I’m generally in a drug-induced sleep by 9:30 p.m.
In the mornings, I down a multiple vitamin, Neurontin and Tegretol — the latter two are anticonvulsant agents that serve as mood stabilizers.
But the medication allows me normal moods only one week out of five. The other month, I stumble around in a depression purple haze, shuffling one foot in front of the other, eyes glazed, speech mumbled. As best I can, I try to flow with the herd, being careful not to stumble into other convicts, knowing that if I’m found to be weak, my secret, I could become a victim.
I write during my week of normalcy, knowing I’m on the clock. The depression looms like some grim reaper staring at his watch.
Here is my perspective on my year’s sentence. Life is like a merry-go-round, say one with 80 horses. Some of the horses, one per year of life expectancy, are marvelous rides. But on my merry-go-round, one horse is defective, broken-down, tilted to one side.
That’s the horse I’m on now. The ride will be over, and I’ll make a better choice next time.
Some of life’s most unforgettable characters are met behind razor wire fences.
My best friend here is James Campbell, known as “Woody” to gen-pop. Woody has tattoos of Freddy Kruger, complete with razor-heavy claws here and about his body. He also has a pair of the most unique matching tattoos I’ve ever seen. On each calf, he has a clawed hand tearing through his flesh, pulling downward.
“Explain those tattoos, James.” I almost always call Woody, James.
“Had ‘em done a few years ago when I felt like I was being pulled under by life.”
Woody is slight, but muscular. His black hair is smoothed back, and he resembles a younger Freddy Kruger. He moves like an athlete. Woody and I walk the three-laps-to-a-mile outdoor track most nights after the evening pill line. We once traversed sheets of rain that began halfway into our first lap. “Christ!” was all we could say. We took a smoke break after the first lap.
Woody is serving out a 20-year term for teenage bank robbery. He went in with a handmade fake bomb. He came out to a law-enforcement ambush. He’s back after earlier parole on DUI revocation. Woody is a hard core Percocette man. In his favor, he is disabled with ruptured discs in his back, so the federal government dispenses his medication in the pill line.
Woody never misses the pill line. He chases the drug with a boiling cup of machine-dispensed cappuccino and waits for the arm rush to suffuse his body. “It’s like a heroin buzz,” he advises with a smile.
Woody spent 15 days in “the hole,” along with all of his roommates, for “cultivating marijuana.” The plant turned out to be an elephant ear. Nobody ever apologized.
Another unforgettable character is “L.A.,” a bank robber from Tennessee. A fellow manic-depressive, he hops from foot to foot while others stand still behind him. His speech is jet stream, fast and darting from subject to subject. He inquired about my broken toe, and I let slip that it was an ancient judo injury. He greets me now by dropping into a pseudo-karate stance and bellowing, “Ju-Jitsu!”
L.A. is quite mad.
Another man I’ll always remember is the Hapless Duck Hunter. HDH made the mistake of shooting ducks (out of season) on federal property. The federal judge gave him — to his, the prosecutor’s and his attorney’s dismay — a year and a day. He’s an expert in military history, and though I’m not, I’ve confirmed his every assertion from my own reading. Soft spoken and gentle, with no previous record, he insists on calling me Mr. Brown. Why he’s serving hard time in federal prison pushes the moral outrage envelope. A state court judge would have given him a fine and sent him out the door.
Now, his wife, with kids in tow, has left him. I wonder if federal judges take into account the collateral consequences of their high-handed decrees.
HDH wanders the unit courtyard with downcast eyes pondering his third divorce while still in his 20s, wondering if he’ll ever love again.
One man who will always be in my memory is my 65-year-old bunkmate, Poppa. I’m in the top bunk; he’s in the bottom. Poppa’s sense of humor lights up the dark corners of prison. He’s forever cracking wise. He’s got four years left, and he’s about to be shipped out to a federal camp. I will miss him greatly.
He walks six to nine miles a day. He’s lost 65 pounds since incarceration three years ago. Poppa, from time to time, would allow as to how much he was enjoying the place. “If it gets any better, they might just have to drag me out of here.” To emphasize his remarks, he’d grab hold of a bed railing for dear life. “Imagine what they pay to feed and house me, all my prescriptions (dozens), my heart defibrillator and my two hearing aids. God bless ’em!”
The smoke room
The conversation in the smoke room, the sanctuary for those escaping during room and kitchen work at the concentration camp, turned to urine tests. Prison — the university of crime. There was a general agreement that over-the-counter kits don’t work and that massive “cleansing,” drinking large amounts of water, time permitting, does.
But the best device is the Urinator — found in head shops and High Times ads. It’s a sack attached to a rubber dick, flaccid, not a vibrator kind. You whip it out, squeeze and somebody else’s urine fills the cup. You can even buy “urine pills” that dissolve in water in case you don’t know anyone with clean piss.
An African-American prison mate asked if they came in black, which brought the first belly laugh I had in a month. He then told of how he jerry-rigged the same device with a baggie. “I pinched a hole in the damned thing and made too big a hole and piss spilled everywhere!”
Another belly laugh, revealing I was missing my six front teeth.
All I want for Christmas are my six front teeth.
Prison and the aging process
Prison ages a man. I have two new wrinkles over my right eye, which weren’t there a year ago. At this rate, I’ll leave this place looking older than John Yarmuth.
“Thank you, sir,” I said to prison mate who looked to be in his mid-50s after he lit my cigarette.
“Don’t call me ‘sir.’ I’m not that old,” Bridgewater barked back.
“How old are you?” I asked.
Prison is a vacuum that sucks your soul. It somehow both compresses and expands time. You can almost see people age before your eyes in a haze.
My cellmate Cricket has 17 1/2 years to go on a 20-year stint. A multiple felon, he was found in possession of a gun. He speaks of going to an Indian reservation to live out his last years after prison. He already looks older than I.
There are more senior citizens in prison than you can shake a felony at. Most of them you never see — they are bedfast. Others crawl by in wheelchairs and on rolling walkers. Many were convicted, like Poppa, when senior citizens. Others ripened here like fruit.
Time to serve
As of this writing, I have 78 days left to serve. My out date is March 12, 2001, one day after my 50th birthday.
Happy birthday, indeed.
Perspective: Another inmate in the smoking yard told me this was his 11th Christmas behind bars. “Much time left?” I inquired. “Nineteen more years,” he replied without a smile.
One senior citizen on campus is here on a 40-year sentence. He’ll die here.
Ten and twenty-year sentences are common.
How does a man spend his 11th Christmas behind bars, with 19 more to come, and retain his sanity? It is beyond me. Yet this man walks with dignity, his head held high, a nice word to each and all.
A young man with peach fuzz on his face, in on a marijuana charge, says he’s lucky — he only has three years to serve.
Three years! Even that seems like a lifetime to me.
They warehouse us here at the concentration camp. If time is money, billions of dollars are wasted here.
I’ve 73 days left to serve as of this writing, some 1,752 hours as of this paragraph. Five days have slid into the abyss since I began writing. Where did they go? What pound of flesh did they take? Each hour is a battle with madness. Does my sanity drip away with each hour? Who will I be when I return to the streets?
It is like standing in the center of a rolling fog, screaming, waiting without patience for it to pass over you. The more you struggle, the more it thickens, engulfing you like the sea.
Time passes slowly, yet relentlessly. It mocks you for caring. You are helpless; the hourglass has been set by someone else. The Man.
I cannot imagine the horror of those who mark time by years and not weeks. How can they rise to face each day? Prison life is a profile in courage, in inevitability, in endurance. It rubs the soul raw like a stone on flesh.
You do not, cannot, leave the door the same man who entered. It wounds you, demeans you, lessens you.
And it strengthens you. As Frederick Nietzsche observed, that which does not kill us, strengthens us. This is especially true with incarceration. It hardens even as it wounds.
A man in the smoking courtyard today told me he’s served 29 years, with 17 to go. He’s 58 years old and killed a drug agent in self-defense. There was no bitterness in his matter-of-fact account. I will never feel sorry for myself again for my puny one-year sentence.