My First Real Prison Experience? Meeting the Aryan Brotherhood (And No, I am not one of THOSE guys)
Recently, a long lost friend of mine came back into my life. I hadn't seen her for over 30 years. She had been reading up on me and saw the work I am doing now with various companies, groups, and law enforcement.
She said something that struck me. She said she would like to read more about me as a person, some of the experiences Ive had throughout. It struck a chord. Ive been writing almost exclusively about cybercrime, exploits, etc., but very little about me as a person or my past. I've left out the human element.
I realized that during every single speech I've given I have shared a great deal about my personal life. So why not also on social media?
I'm going to begin posting some of the experiences I've had along the way. My hope is maybe someone can learn from my experiences and avoid some of the mistakes I've made in life.
My First Real Prison Experience:
I escaped the first prison they sent me to.
Well, I don’t think of it as escape. I prefer to think of it as the institution could no longer benefit me, so I decided to release myself on my own recognizance. The federal government had a different opinion. They came and arrested me, again.
I was sentenced to an additional 15 months for the escape. I then spent 7 months in solitary confinement, before being transferred to a federal prison in Big Spring, Texas.
What can I say about Texas? They know how to do two things right. They know how to barbecue. And they know how to build prisons.
I count entering Big Spring Federal Prison as my first real prison experience. I had spent over a year in county jails. Then I was sent to a prison in Ashland, Kentucky. But I escaped from Ashland shortly after getting there. Then there was the solitary confinement.
All of that, yet I still consider Big Spring as my first prison experience. Why? Because it was then that it hit home. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere for years and there was no escape. I was there for the duration. Shit had just got real.
After my capture and additional sentencing for the Ashland escape, I was sent to the hole for seven months to await transfer to Big Spring, TX. The trip from Ashland to Big Spring was a journey. I was transported from Ashland to the Maximum Federal Prison in Atlanta, GA. There, all the inmates being transported are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. You get out an hour a day to shower, use the phone, whatever. Atlanta Federal is an imposing prison. Old school imposing. It has a 30-foot high concrete wall around it. Everything is gray concrete, dim lights, unfriendly guards, clanging doors, screaming inmates, fighting inmates. Walking in there, you know shit just got real, again.
Al Capone went through Atlanta. Others as well. The worst of the worst. The Cuban Prison Riots broke out there. Lots of murders, lots of rape. If it is your first time through Atlanta Federal? You are scared to death.
Did I mention the bugs? When you slept at night, you needed to put your head in a pillowcase and tie it around your neck. Why? To keep the roaches from crawling in your mouth as you slept. If you were lucky enough to have any excess food, you couldn’t leave it in your cell. You had to eat it. If the roaches weren’t all over it, the rats would come and try to steal it during the night. Sometimes during the day. It wasn’t uncommon to have inmates sent to the infirmary to be treated for rodent bites.
I was there for 6 weeks.
Then it was time to hop on Con Air. The guards told me I was going on Con Air and I got excited. At least I was leaving Atlanta. Plus, I liked the Nicholas Cage movie and figured it would be cool. I figured if I ever got out of this Hell, it would be a great story to tell.
Con Air is nothing like the movie. It is a regular airplane, with regular seats. Inmates are shackled at the feet, waist, hands. The US Marshals service operates it and they are all business. They are polite and friendly, but they don’t take shit either.
I was flown to the Federal Prison Holding Center in Oklahoma City. The holding center is located at the airport. The plane pulls directly up to the prison. As an inmate, your feet never touch the ground. You literally step from the airplane into the prison.
Oklahoma is just as intimidating as Atlanta, except in a modern sense. There is an X-Ray chair all inmates sit on to make sure they haven’t hidden weapons in their rectums. Inmates are processed quickly and much like products on an assembly line. The prison is built to instill a sense of hopelessness in the inmate and it succeeds, admirably. I felt like I was a number, nothing more. 26477-018 was my new name. I didn’t matter anymore. There was no escape. I was there to stay. Period.
I spent 2 weeks there and finally caught a prison bus from Oklahoma City to Big Spring, Texas. West Texas. Nothing out there but scorpions, oil, prairie dogs. It got so hot during the summer that warnings came on the radio saying the asphalt had melted and not to drive on it.
By the time I got there, I didn’t care. It had been such hell in solitary and then in transit that Big Spring had to be better. At least there was a large compound where I can get outside and walk around. At least there was a library and I could get a book to read.
I was processed and sent to the unit where I would spend the next few years.
I relive my entry to Big Spring regularly.
I remember walking up to the Unit and a white kid was standing out front. Tattoos all over him. On his chest was a large swastika with the words, “Even On My Worst Day I’m Still White” circling it.
“Oh shit”, I think.
I go to walk past him and he steps in front of me. He isn’t a big guy. Skinny, lanky. Not really intimidating other than those damn tattoos. I notice the word, “Natzi” inked on him and have enough time to wonder if he could spell before he asks me:
“Hey Man, any more white guys come in with you?”
“Uh, yeah. Four or Five others, I think. They’re heading this way.”
“Nick Sandefur.” He sticks his hand out for me to shake.
Well, shit. This is my new home. Best to get along. No need to be shy. “Brett Johnson,” I say, and shake his hand.
Nick nods and asks while we're shaking “What you in for, Brett?”
Nick stops shaking and looks at me hard. “Computer crime?”
I think he’s about to hit me. There is real anger in his eyes. This is not going well.
“What’d you do, Brett?”
“I ran the largest online identity theft and credit card fraud ring in the world.”
I sense Nick relax, but can tell he is still on edge.
“We’ll talk more later. Some questions I want to ask about that shit.”
“OK,” I tell him and walk into the unit.
Nick Sandefur was the treasurer of the Aryan Brotherhood. It was kind of his job to check all the white guys coming in to make sure they didn’t have any funny charges. Yes, the Aryans have a treasurer. I guess they collect dues or some shit.
Turns out when I told Nick I had committed “Computer Crime” that was the worst thing I could have said. In prison, saying “Computer Crime” doesn’t mean stealing money. It doesn’t mean fraud, or credit card theft, or stealing identities. Nope. It means Child Porn. I had mistakenly told the Aryan Brotherhood I was in for being a pedophile. The only thing that kept my ass from being beaten then and there was Nick had never encountered ANYONE who just came out and told him they were in for kiddy porn. Nick was so shocked he knew something was wrong. So he gave me a chance.
Within 2 hours there was a small gathering of Aryans at my bunk asking I explain why I was serving time. I had the distinct feeling if they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear I was going to be hurt.
“Credit card fraud,” I say. “We phished for information and used stolen credit cards to buy shit online.” I broke the entire process down for them, step by step. I told them how we got the information, how orders were placed, how we would cash out. Everything. I told them how I was the head guy, how I built a lot of the systems, had trained others how to do it. I told them how we had been caught as well.
“So how much did you make?” Asks Farmer John. He was the biggest one there. Huge dude with a handlebar mustache just as huge.
“About $4 Million dollars,” I say.
Farmer rubs his chin. “From just credit cards?” He asks.
“I did a bunch of tax fraud, too”
I walk the Aryan Brotherhood through the tax scam. I tell them how to file fake tax returns on dead people. I tell them how to steal W-2s from people and file tax returns in their name.
“How much you make doing that?” Farmer asks.
“$160k a week for 10 months a year.”
Farmer stands there looking at me and starts nodding after a minute. He motions for Nick Sandefur to follow him. There are still three other Aryans gathered around, but I’m feeling less in danger. I figure if I was going to get beaten it would have happened by now.
Nick comes back over and tells the other guys they can go about their business.
Just me and Nick now. I ask him what the hell is going on.
“You said “Computer Crime”
“Right. Because that’s what it is.”
“Why didn’t you say fraud?”
“Because its computer crime.”
Nick shakes his head. “You say that, people think child porn.”
I look at Nick, dumbfounded. “What?”
Nick nods at me. “Child Porn.”
I’m a bit in shock. “I’m not in here for child porn, Dude.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“I told you what I was in here for.”
“And?” I ask.
“You tell a good story.”
I stand there looking at him, not knowing what to say. I told the Aryan Brotherhood I was locked up for being a pedophile. Shit.
“Now what?” I ask him.
“You are OK for now. We’ll find out what you are in here for one way or the other.“ He looks at me hard for a moment. “If you are in here on some fucked up charges, you need to just go ahead and tell us.”
“I told you what I was here for, Dude.”
It took a month to clear everything up. Throughout that month, rumor around the compound was Brett Johnson was incarcerated for Child Porn.
The proof arrived via Wired Magazine. Kevin Poulsen had written an article about a friend of mine, Max Butler. Butler had stolen several million credit card numbers, then gotten paranoid and hacked every fraud forum on the planet, taking them over. Turned out some of those fraud forums were actually undercover police operations. Max was sentenced to 17 years.
I was written about in the Wired article. My picture was in the magazine as well. That was the second Wired article I was in in under a year.
Well, at least the article proved I wasn’t a pedophile, right? Yep. Well, there was one small problem. Kevin Poulsen wrote my introduction as “Brett Johnson, Secret Service Informant….”
“So you ain’t a pedophile. You just a snitch.” Some black dude said that to me later that evening.
The next morning, I’m called to the Warden’s Office. I walk in and there are all kinds of guards there, my counselor, the whole nine yards.
The warden doesn’t do pleasantries. Soon as I walk in, he starts.
“You’re in Wired Magazine.” He says.
“You read it yet?”
The warden looks at me a long time. He then opens a file and starts reading through it. He stops on a page and says, “You didn’t tell the intake officer you worked for the Secret Service.”
I don’t answer.
The warden closes the file, leans back, “Do you feel safe on this compound?”
I know what that shit means. Hell no, I don’t feel safe. But if I tell him that then they send me to the hole until I’m transferred. I’d sit in solitary for another 6-8 months. Hell, no. The last bout of solitary almost drove me crazy. I’ll take my chances.
“Yes, Sir,” I say. “Completely safe.”
The warden looks over at my counselor, “What do you think?”
My counselor looks at me, “He said he’s safe.”
The warden pushes his chair away form the desk. “Back to your unit, Johnson. If you think there is going to be trouble, you better fucking let us know.”
The Warden shut down the compound and set about confiscating all the copies of Wired magazine.
Did it work? Well…
Three days later I walk into the unit. Nick Sandefur is laying on his bunk, reading. Reading what? Yep, Wired Magazine. Just fucking great.
No need to pretend otherwise. I walk over to Nick. “Hey, Dude.”
“What you doing?”
“Oh, just doing some reading.”
Nick lays the magazine down and looks at me, “It’s getting that way.”
“Well, mind if I save you some time?”
I pick up the magazine and turn to the “Secret Service Informant” part. I hand it to him and point it out.
“Yeah,” Nick says.
Fuck it, I think. “Do we have a problem, Nick?”
Nick sits up on his bunk. “Did you snitch on anyone that is on this compound?” he asks.
“No, no one here.”
Nick nods. “Well, until someone shows up on this compound you told on, we don’t have a problem.”
“OK,” I say.
“By the way, I want you to talk to some people for me.”
In federal prison all inmates have to work. Doesn’t matter what kind of job you do, but you gotta do something.
I got a job in the education department, teaching literature every Wednesday night from 7pm to 8:30pm. My students? Every member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Only, I didn’t teach literature. Every Wednesday night, from 7pm until 8:30pm, I taught fraud.
That’s how I kept my ass from being beaten. No, I didn’t join the Aryans. They knew I didn’t agree with their belief. But they also knew I could teach them how to steal money. Because of that, I was under the protection of the Aryans for the duration of my stay. Never beaten, never stolen from, never victimized.
I go on to teach a variety of classes to a multitude of students. I teach public speaking, Game Theory, Debate, and more.
Not saying that was because of the Aryans, but my path to redemption started around that time. It would take over two years at Big Spring before I came to terms and accepted responsibility for my actions.
As a side note to this story. Prison can be a violent place. But prison is also completely different than the picture painted by most people. Most people locked up don’t want any trouble. They don’t cause any trouble. They are just trying to get out and get back to their families. That doesn’t matter if you are Black, White, Hispanic, Indian, Asian, whatever.
Also, most prisoners try to help one another. It is common for a new inmate to be met at the door by other inmates to give him supplies he may need (Shower shoes, soap, toothbrush, etc). Most inmates are like that.
That said, there are a good number of dangerous people there. While at Big Spring I saw numerous people beaten with padlocks tied to the ends of belts. I saw two people killed. I saw people extorted and intimidated.
The key to prison is to find out who you want to be as a person. Do you want to be the person who keeps coming back to jail or do you want to be the person who learns from their mistakes, accepts responsibility, and works to become a productive citizen? It took me two years, but I learned I wanted to be the person that helped instead of hurt. I wanted to be the person people respected not out of fear, but because I did the right thing.