The visiting rules at the Federal Correctional Institution at Victorville, California, are strict: no cameras, no recorders, no cell phones, no scanty clothing, no hats, no do-rags, no billfolds, no car keys. For most visitors, no notebooks or pens, either, but I have been allowed to bring one of each. I left three pages of typed questions in the rental car. One condition of my visit was "no extraneous paperwork."
It was the Saturday before Easter, 2010, and it had taken several weeks to arrange an interview with Eroy Edward Brown. The visitors' center is a concrete-block room the size of a high school gym, with a video camera stuck in the highest corner. The guards, dressed in blue, watch the visitors and the inmates from a platform. The inmates, dressed in khaki, emerge from the back corner of the room, where two bright murals have been painted. One depicts a mountain lake with swans in the foreground. The other features a mob of cartoon characters to amuse the visiting children: Mighty Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants, Batman, Superman, the Simpsons. Two ogres, Shrek and his wife, dominate the center of the mural, cuddling their green baby.
Eroy Brown emerges from the corner, looking around for me. It had been ten years since we last visited at the federal prison in Beaumont. His head is now completely shaved and gleaming. His close-cropped beard has gone salt and pepper. He wears a gray long-john shirt under his short-sleeved khaki shirt, sharply creased khaki trousers, and thick black work shoes. He had requested to be moved to Victorville from Beaumont.
"Beaumont has all the most dangerous men in America," he says.
Although he has uneventfully spent the last twenty-five years in federal prisons, Texas parole officials would probably argue that Eroy Brown is one of those dangerous men he wants to get away from. That has to do with something that happened thirty years ago, when in an instant he chose to defend himself against a Texas warden who had pointed a gun at his head. At least, that's the story Eroy Brown told, and the story thirty-five of thirty-six jurors believed. After studying the case for the past ten years, I believe him, too.
Brown's capital charge filled Texas newspapers and airwaves during the early 1980s, the same time that Texas inmates won a massive civil rights trial in federal court and changed the way their prisons were run. In that case, Ruiz v. Estelle, or more simply, Ruiz, a federal judge believed that inmates were telling the truth about the unrelenting cruelty of the Texas prison system. The major studies of the Ruiz case mention Eroy Brown in passing, a sentence here, a paragraph there, an endnote. Brown's case replayed many of the issues that had been tried in Ruiz. That a black inmate could kill two white officials and not be convicted of murder shocked the prison system and marked the end of Jim Crow justice in Texas.
Prison officials never got over Brown's exoneration. In his memoir, former Texas warden Jim Willett recalled being present when Brown was brought to the prison hospital with a gunshot in his foot.
"He looked scared," Willett wrote. "Later I learned more of the sad story. In the Ellis farm shop, farm manager Billy Moore had a problem with inmate Brown—a problem serious enough that Moore called the warden for help. The two men attempted to handcuff Brown, who somehow grabbed Pack's pistol. In the scuffle, Brown apparently shot and killed Moore, then overtook Warden Pack and drowned him in the nearby creek. How the prisoner himself came to be shot remained a mystery.
"When Brown's trial came to court, I sat in the gallery with other prison employees, all of us there on our own time. When Brown was acquitted of murder charges, the verdict hit us like a kick in the stomach. We were numb. We watched justice lurch horribly awry, and we were angry."
Another former Texas warden, Lon Glenn, wrote in his history of Texas prisons that Brown "had obtained a pistol from the warden's car while being transported." Brown's lawyer, "a controversial minority senator from Houston," "put every convict who had ever had a grudge against the warden or TDC on the stand to cry and whine about how brutal the system had been to them."
"For those of us who understand the realities of the Texas prison system," Glenn wrote, "this was a clear case of injustice. We were left knowing that a multiple-offender convict with a rap sheet a yard long had killed two good men and gotten away with it. It made me want to throw up."
Brown has spent the last twenty-five years in prison for being an accessory to a convenience store robbery in 1984 that netted twelve dollars and a couple of candy bars. He was given ninety years as a habitual criminal. The two men who testified against him got nothing.
For his own protection, he has served his time in federal, not Texas, prisons. But his fate still rests with the Texas parole board. Brown almost got parole in 2000, until someone reminded the board about his past. What he is really in prison for, he believes, is not for being a robber, but for defending himself against two Texas prison officials in 1981.
Brown seemed more expansive than last time I talked to him, when he was more guarded and cool. He resembles the actor Danny Glover a bit—a darker, contemplative Danny Glover, who smiles reflexively as he talks, and continually chews a plastic toothpick.
He feels the oppression of being in prison all these years. He has hepatitis C, probably from his heroin addiction as a young man. He says his mental health is "average," and though he is indignant about why he is in prison, he maintains a cheerful demeanor.
"I really need a single cell," he says, but none are to be had. "This is bad on me, an old man like me. I'm a sleepwalker. I fight in my sleep. When I had problems at TDC, it was sleepwalking. I would fall out of my bunk."
He would like to work. He has trained as a welder and in industrial sewing, and took classes in WordPerfect. Victorville had a program armoring Humvees for the army, and Brown had hoped to be using his welding skills, but with the recession, the program has been cut back.
Unlike Texas prisons, which never pay inmates for their labor, federal prisons pay inmates a small wage. He says he made $140 a month sewing uniforms in Beaumont. In the 1980s a proposal to pay Texas inmates a dollar a day, with fifty cents to go to a victim relief fund, was shot down. He doubts Texas will ever pay an inmate for his work. "Nah," he says, "they'll never do that."
He's hoping for a parole and a short chance at a working life. He'll be sixty-five if he serves all his time and is released in 2017. "Maybe someone might hire me at fifty-nine," he said, "but at sixty-five? Right now I could get in five or six years. But if they hold me 'til I'm sixty-five, I'll be dependent on the state. And for what?"
He answered his question the first time I asked him about his situation: "They are still retaliating."
But what happened that April day in 1981? And most of all, what does it mean? This is hardly a case of simple injustice on the part of jurors. It was a tragedy that needn't have happened, but it also became a signal moment in the history of prison civil rights, revealing everything that can go wrong in prisons.