After four years behind bars, journalist and activist Barrett Brown was released from federal prison on the morning of November 29, 2016, and ordered to report to a halfway house in Dallas, Texas.
“I was picked up by my parents and Alex Winter and his camera crew,” Brown told Shadowproof. “They filmed me on the six-hour drive over to Dallas. We had to get to the halfway house by 4:00 pm, or it would be an escape charge. So, we barely made it.”
“[The Bureau of Prisons] originally gave me less time than was necessary to get there, and I had to go in there and forcibly get them to give me an hour more,” he said. “They also told me falsely that I could go in any car, and it wouldn’t be any problem, when in fact I could actually go back to jail for not being in a registered car.”
Brown faced 100 years in prison in 2013 for charges stemming from the hacking of the private intelligence firm Stratfor the year before. The hack—of which the hacker groups Anonymous and LulzSec took credit—revealed Stratfor was hired to spy on activist groups for corporations, such as Dow Chemical.
He was pegged as a spokesperson and co-conspirator for Anonymous despite renouncing ties with the group in 2011, and the most controversial charge brought against him by the Department of Justice was for linking to hacked data. That charge was eventually dropped.
Brown accepted a plea deal, under which he pled guilty to lesser charges for threatening an FBI agent in a YouTube video after the FBI raids. He also pled guilty to being an accessory to a cyber-attack and to obstruction of justice for putting his laptops in a kitchen cabinet. After over two years of pretrial incarceration, he was sentenced to 63 months in prison.
While incarcerated, Brown wrote award-winning columns, where he documented prison life and administration. He wrote about an endless stream of abuses and misconduct by BOP officials seeking to silence him and violate his rights and the rights of other prisoners. This includes multiple stints in solitary confinement and restrictions on his access to the press and use of email.
The Halfway House
The halfway house Brown currently calls home is operated by the nonprofit Volunteers of America under BOP jurisdiction. While halfway houses are supposed to help people get jobs and reintegrate into society after prison, Brown said the BOP “has a number of regulations that kind of get in the way.”
“Until recently, [halfway house residents] weren’t allowed to have cell phones,” he said. “Now they can have cell phones, but they can’t have iPhones or any phones with cameras or web access, which rules out 99.9% of phones. So people have to sort of scramble around. People have to find these phones that are allowed.”
Such hurdles are “pretty typical,” he said. “There’s some bureaucracy and some requirements. There’s rules that make those requirements hard to deal with.”
Brown said the director of his halfway house is “actually a pretty good guy; very, very dedicated to what he does. The assistant director, a guy named Woody something-or-other, he’s a wacky little rat creature that sort of runs around, a hyperactive bureaucrat.”
He shared he was written up the day before for smoking outside the facility. “Everyone goes out and smokes in the front area, they really don’t screw with you. But, me being who I am, I’m always subject to scrutiny,” Brown said, adding, “It really didn’t mean anything but I did had to get a 5 minute lecture about propriety from this rat creature.”
“A lot of my bandwidth has gone toward nonsense here, but at the same time, I’ve been able to get a lot done. I’ve got some projects. I hit the ground running on getting things launched, and that’ll be made public fairly soon.”
After his stay at the halfway house, Brown will be confined to his home, which he said is “not very restrictive in terms of what I do.”
Computer Restrictions & Employment
“When I’m on probation six months from now, we have very clear restrictions where I can use a laptop,” he said. “I have to bring a new laptop to the DOJ’s office, and they’ll install monitoring software and that’s it. I can use the internet just like any other civilian.”
“Until then, I’m still under BOP jurisdiction, and that’s where things get interesting. I’ve yet to get a written, any kind of written declaration of what I can’t do as opposed to other ex-convicts.”
Brown explained he was planning to bring a Playstation 4 to the halfway house “so everyone could have video games,” but “the assistant director, this Woody something, said, oh, let me go check on that. And, of course, if you ask the BOP if I can have something, they‘re going to say no.”
“In this case, they said I could turn it into a microcomputer. I don’t know what a microcomputer is exactly. Even the DOJ doesn’t say I’m a hacker.”
Brown renounced his ties to Anonymous in 2011, and while he was previously labeled as a spokesperson for the group, it was established at his trial that he is not a hacker.
He did not participate in the Stratfor hacking for which he was incarcerated. Yet, even before the Playstation 4 incident and despite his trial, the BOP labeled him as someone who should not be allowed around computers.
For example, Brown said federal prisons typically circulate lists of around 15 inmates once a month, which include their pictures and information about them. Staffers are supposed to memorize the information. “I was informed by a couple of staff members that I had been sort of cultivating that I’m on that sheet at Three Rivers listed as a hacker,” he said. (Federal Correctional Institution Three Rivers is where Brown was imprisoned for part of his sentence.)
Brown feels the DOJ’s probation officers are on his side, agree he’s been wronged, and understand he shouldn’t be under constraints except as provided for by law. “They’re trying to accommodate me,” he said.
The DOJ’s probation officers sent emails to BOP requesting clarification on what kinds of jobs he is allowed to have, but Brown said the BOP has not been responsive or helpful.
“I’m trying to get a job, a physical, 9-5, 40 hour week job at D Magazine down in Dallas,” he said. However, it is unclear what he’s allowed to do under the conditions of his release. “Can I touch a computer? Can I look at a monitor?” Brown asked.
“I had Tim Rogers, the editor down there, call the BOP representative down here and she said, I can’t give information about that case. Keep in mind, this is my employer trying to find out what I can do.”
“It’s not her this is coming from,” Brown said, again noting the absurd bureaucracy that not only frustrates him but obscures who it is within the BOP that he can hold accountable for such a decision.
“She is just passing on something from someone. That’s why I went in there to the director first couple days I was here and said, look, I need something in writing. Tell me exactly who is saying I can’t have a Playstation because that has implications about whether or not I can have a computer or touch a computer or be in a room with a computer.”
The BOP has not answered Brown’s questions, and he vowed to more forcefully ask “for them to explain what their authority is for making these declarations” and show in writing “exactly what they think my stipulation should be under BOP jurisdiction.”
Brown questioned whether the BOP was setting a dangerous precedent with their treatment of him, noting his columns had “already exposed a lot of the BOP’s activities and have already sort of made formal complaints of retaliation against me.” His email access was previously revoked for a year by the BOP.
Another obstacle Brown faces is the more than $890,000 in restitution he must now pay, the vast majority of which is owed to Stratfor.
“My restitution was $200 a month for a while, then $100, and it’s based on how much money I brought in previously. That was determined by the case manager at the prison. Now that I’m out under a halfway house for the next few months, I don’t have to pay anything and then it goes back up to be calculated based on my income.”
When he begins probation, he will have to pay Stratfor and his the other “victims” a percentage of his income in restitution, and if he is compensated through a bequest or an award, he has to pay half of it.
“The bottom line is I do owe over $800,000 to Stratfor, Combined Systems, and the nonexistent law firm of Puckett and Faraj, which was quite literally destroyed by [Jeremy] Hammond. That’s still the case, and we’re going to make as much of that as we can.”
“The way I see it is we’re paying a bit of a price each month in order to remind people of what these firms are doing,” Brown argued. “That’ll stay in the news as long as we can keep it, and it’ll be a monument to the age we live in and to the injustice of the system. I think eventually Stratfor may decide they want out of that. We’ll see what happens.”
A Real, Cogent, Viable Opposition To The State Of Things
Assessing his plans now that he’s out of prison, Brown said his main objective is the same as it was around the time he started Project PM in 2008-2009: “to launch a global platform, a method by which to generate a real, cogent, viable opposition to the state of things; opposition to the nation state, corporations, the existing order.”
“At this point, it’s more viable for me to get something like that launched and make it quickly viable than it would have been years ago. Because at this point, I’ve got a degree of respect from the activist community and even establishment figures, who I think years ago would not have been as interested in radical solutions as they are now.”
“Obviously, the election results sort of sealed the deal in terms of getting people to realize there’s a problem here,” he said. “The grown ups are not in charge.”
“The greatest, most important fact of the 21st Century will be that any individual can collaborate with any other individual,” he explained. “That’s vaguely obvious now, but […] you’re going to see, on a global scale, an unprecedented non-state opposition grow up as little entities develop and evolve and start connecting with each other. That’s the period we’re entering. We’re entering a period of conflict.”
He described the first phase of this as “the last six years of Wikileaks and Anonymous and these different groups challenging the system.” Brown pointed to Wikileaks’ role in the 2016 election, saying they scored “sort of an unfortunate success to the extent that the election was somewhat thrown by [Julian] Assange.”
“It’s not the way I would have wanted it to be, but it does go to show that this is the age of non-state actors,” he said.
Brown said he would soon make an announcement with more concrete details about his upcoming projects. But for now, what is important is to understand the most pressing issues facing society “have to be addressed by outside forces, well organized systems in which we channel dissent.” His goal is to “channel peoples’ capabilities and skills and resources in a way that they don’t have to work through the Democratic Party, for instance, which is an organization in which scum rises to the top.”
“You look at someone like Dick Morris and then you think about all the twenty-something kids out there, who are actually very, very talented, very knowledgeable, they’re honest. But they have no viable way, for the most part, to get involved and bring their talents to bear and bring their honesty to bear.”
“If we give them something where they can rise, where they can channel those talents, if we create something for them and say, there’s no more excuses, here it is, here is your ability to change the system, and we do it in the right way and we provide charismatic leadership and an ethos that works to burn off this morass—this ridiculous over-entertained culture, then we will finally see results.”
Brown asked people to “start thinking about what obligations they have to the civilization they’ve been born into. Think about the people who have come before us, who have made sacrifices, much more considerable sacrifices than we’re asking of anybody. We’ll be asking people for their time and for their efforts without any real risk.”
“Just think about if they are going to take and enjoy the fruits of our liberty and this civilization or if they feel that they have a moral obligation to put something back into it,” he said.