This world is full of people who proclaim, “I’d be willing to die for my beliefs,” or “I’d be willing to go to prison for what I believe in.” Of course, most of these statements will never be put to the test, luckily for the folks who make them.
Well, Tom Brown did go to prison. Here is his story. I wrote this piece in 1999,and it is included in my book, “Ozark Mosaic.”
The Return of Tom Brown
Activist readjusts to freedom
“Even if we were doing a good thing with prison, even if the people that went to prison had the opportunity for rehabilitation because they had a problem which had been impacting on someone else in society, and if they were given a realistic opportunity to change, they would still be behind the wire. And being behind the wire, being shackled and chained all the time you leave the wire is such a negative pain, that even in the best of circumstances, no one wants to be in prison. And what we have today is not the best of circumstances, by far.
“You never leave prison when you are in prison . . . I am free of that now. I had been held down for almost five years, so there is a certain rebound effect. Some of it is negative. I went into IGA to try and buy food for a meal, and it took me three trips to get everything needed because I had forgotten how to shop. I knew what I wanted, but I couldn't organize it. That is a pain, to walk into a store, and not be able to shop.”
Tom Brown is once again a free man. Imprisoned in 1994, sent to prison as a result of what the United States government refers to as the “drug war,” Brown returned to Fayetteville earlier this spring. Though on parole, his is once again a life without bars, shackles, or high walls.
A slim man in his 40s, Brown - who once sported a salt and pepper beard - now has a full beard of mostly white hair.
Brown, once a member of “Our Church,” a religious group who utilized marijuana as a sacrament during services, deeded a portion of his land to the church in 1994. Arrested and tried later that year, Brown faced a terrible impasse while attempting to defend himself in court.
The legal issues occupy Brown's mind now, just as much as in 1994.
Based upon several legal battles fought in the past - issues raised by Mormons, the Amish, and Seventh Day Adventist among others - Brown should have been able to deal with the marijuana as a “fact” issue - i.e., is marijuana really a danger to society? Brown says, “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act says whenever a law infringes on religious exercise, the fact test demonstrate in the Sherbet case and the Yoder case must be engaged. That means that I would get to prove to the jury that marijuana doesn’t hurt you.”
But such was not to be. The presiding judge in Brown’s trial followed the ruling of another court (which has since been overruled) so that the “fact” issue did not have to be heard, even though well before the trial, there had been five cases published that said whenever someone’s religious exercises are imperiled by government action, the government must prove the fact of compelling interest in the situation.
Brown says, “Judge Waters ignored the published precedent of his own circuit,” when he ruled against him on the case.
Currently, Brown has an appeal before the 7th Circuit, a writ of habeas corpus, in which he hopes to successfully make the case that he was deprived of his constitutional right to present a defense to the jury as to his guilt or innocence. Further, he argues that the government was obligated to present a body of evidence dealing with his “factual” guilt, showing a compelling reason why he should have been imprisoned.
Throughout his ordeal, Brown says that he has been aware of something he calls a “presence” which has been communicating with him. “Not in words,” he says, “and it is very subtle, but in a way that I cannot ignore this presence is saying, be cool, it’s all right, this is what is supposed to happen.”
In January of 1994, when Brown had a dream which inspired him to deed over a portion of his land to Our Church, he began having second thoughts. He immediately began thinking he was about to do a really stupid thing. But reasoning that he couldn’t get arrested for giving land to the church, he said to himself, “I’m not going to do this alone. If a whole bunch of people don’t come out, I won’t do it. Well, a whole bunch of people came out!”
The marijuana plants on the land scared Brown to death. “I didn’t want to go to jail, but every step of the way, something would come along and say, keep cool, it’s all right.”
The presence of which Brown speaks is not a physical manifestation, but it can manifest itself in the physical world in terms of connections. In speaking of the presence, and his other strongly held beliefs, Tom Brown displays a part of himself that was not in evidence prior to his imprisonment. At that time, his conversation was almost entirely political, leading some in Our Church to believe that he was there for other than spiritual purposes.
He smiles at that. “I hadn't read the Bible then. I read the Bible five times in prison. Nobody's hangups can be used to keep the truth in the Bible from me anymore.”
The 1994 trial itself was intensely frustrating for Brown. “During the trial, I knew I was screwed. I was already boxed in so that I didn't have an attorney. I knew that I was probably going to prison, and that my only hope was eventually getting an appellate court to reverse the decision. I knew nothing about the law so I was completely at their mercy.”
After his conviction, Brown was denied bail, even pending an appeal. This is particularly galling to him, especially since at the same time a local pharmacist accused of murder was allowed his freedom before entering prison. “I wasn't prepared to go to prison. I had my two dogs at home, it's getting cold, and they will be in severe danger. I cared about them a lot. And then, of course there were all my personal possessions. What was going to happen to them?”
While some of his possessions were stored by others while he was in prison, Brown never learned the fate of the dogs.
One thing he learned about first hand was the booming prison industry in the United States. In one job he was making close to $250 a month. Since federal prisoners can no longer receive anything other than letters, books, and magazine subscriptions, all other needs must be bought from the prison store, at wildly inflated prices. It wouldn't take long for money accrued to be gone. In addition to his study of the Bible, Brown availed himself of the prison law library - a necessity since he was once again acting as his own attorney.
The experience gave him a clearer vision of all the infamous jailhouse lawsuits which critics claim are clogging up the court system. “This bullshit that the federal court system is over burdened with lawsuits and appeals is crap. The fact is, you file a piece of paper, the court clerk looks at it, and basically makes a decision whether you get anything, based on legal grounds, or the politics are either for or against you.
“In either case, you can be told yes or no, by a clerk, in a matter of hours. And they don’t do any research.” Like many other prisoners, Brown also became a victim of “lost” legal documents. “This is the standard way the prison system has to repress and slow up any kind of prisoner advocate. The bottom line in federal prison is repression.
“I saw this guys who played their game, too. They all got screwed.”
Brown has found intriguing changes in Fayetteville since his return. “To my way of seeing things, things are better downtown. All of the people I know who I have been in contact with have advanced in significant ways.” Speaking in a larger sense of the Fayetteville community, Brown says, “This spiritual thing is so critical, that those in the community who are on the path are going to find themselves, and the community will find them to be very beneficial.”
He adds, “My personal experience has been Nirvana since I have been back. Not that there haven’t been disruptions, but they have been minor glitches, in an overall, pleasant and fulfilling picture . . . For somebody who has come out of prison, and says I am here to talk to you about spirituality, immediately I was given forums. This was total coincidence in the sense that I did not ask for these forums. I did not seek them. I was simply being myself, and they were given to me.”
Brown can be found in Fayetteville’s Wilson Park on Sunday mornings conducting a service of hymn singing. So far, no humans have joined him, but he says that he has been accompanied by the birds. Showing off a hymn book, he says, “These are standard hymns, and I have gone through them and removed reference to blood, since I am not into bloody sacrifices. I’ve removed kings, thrones, and crowns. I have tried to edit them so that they reflect the vision of Jesus, and the spirituality that I have been given.”
What does he hope for by going to the park? “To engage in a spiritual exercise,” he says simply. “Just like someone who might pray in a closet.”
Today, life for Tom Brown means simple things, praying in the park, shopping, riding a bike down a city street, with no shackles, chains or wire. Life is good.
Ozark Gazette- May 31, 1999