Attorney General John Mitchell in Prison: “All John Dean Had to Do Was Keep His Mouth Shut”

John Mitchell knew how to keep his mouth shut.

From “In Prison With John Mitchell,” a 1979 Washingtonian story by Ronald James (the pen name of a television news producer serving time for cocaine trafficking), who was in prison with former Attorney General John Mitchell. An earlier post, “When Attorney General John Mitchell Went to Prison: ‘You’re Just a Convict Now, Like the Rest of Us,'” described Mitchell’s arrival at the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp and his first days there. This post goes on to describe what Mitchell’s life was like in prison and how he interacted with other convicts.

The Maxwell prison camp setting is a relatively pleasant one. Were it not for the total loss of freedom and identity that any prison takes away from a man, Maxwell might be called relaxing….A wide, spacious lawn tended by the inmates fronts the Alabama River. Many convicts chose to sit out on the Green during their spare time, talking or watching the tourist-packed paddle-wheel steamboat make its way up and down the river.

Mitchell would carry his folding chair out to the Green where he, Gene Franklin, and Blackie Malaway would sit. Generally they’d be joined by three or four other inmates. They became known as “Mitchell’s boys.”

On rare occasions, Mitchell would regale his audiences with stories of his past. Once someone commented on the beauty of the Alabama state capitol building, which loomed out over the river and was beautifully lit at night.

“Yeah,” said Mitchell, “I’ll bet old ‘Bourbon George’ is up on the seventh floor and drunk as a skunk by this time.”

Pressed on the comment, Mitchell smiled and conceded that he knew Alabama’s George Wallace quite well and that the governor could put away his share of liquor.

Sometimes Mitchell would recall his Watergate woes and recount some of his feelings.

Former President Richard Nixon, he said, called him three or four times at the prison. The calls came in like telephone calls for any other con. The caller would be put through to the control building, where the caller would leave a name and number. Then the con would be told to go to the control building, which sometimes produced a state of panic because a visit could mean anything from a urine test for drugs to a telephone call.

Mitchell would say nothing about his conversations with Nixon. He did say, at one point, that somebody should have  destroyed the Oval Office tapes.

Mitchell laid blame for Watergate at the feet of Charles Colson, the former White House counsel who earlier had served time at Maxwell.

“If it weren’t for him, Watergate would never have happened. A born-again Christian? Ha! I’d take my chances with the lions,” he said.

“The classic stool pigeon,” he said of John Dean. “All he had to do was keep his mouth shut. He knew what it was all about.” Mitchell seemed to dislike Dean more than anyone else, usually referring to him as “that punk.”

Mitchell had little to say about H.R. Haldeman or John Ehrlichman. Questions about either Nixon crony were met with a puff on his pipe and something of a bitter smile.

Like any con, Mitchell relished the moment of his release from Maxwell. It came 19 months after he first had entered the federal prison. When he left, a media circus enveloped the former attorney general outside Maxwell’s administration building. Mitchell greeted reporters with disdain.

“Henceforth, don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he told the reporters.

With that, Mitchell reentered civilian life. He made some genuine friends in prison and helped many inmates with legal appears and briefs during off hours. One of them, John A. Mullis, wrote a letter to a Birmingham paper to praise Mitchell’s efforts in prison for other inmates.

“Mitchell has helped release many through his long hours spent on their cases, which less competent attorneys had failed to do, either through lack of funds or lack of desire,” Mullis wrote. “As a kindness many greet him with a smile, a thanks, and the gift of a golf ball or two for the putt-putt course to show appreciation for his friendship or counsel on legal matters.”

In the end, John Mitchell was able to overcome the animosity harbored by even the most bitter Maxwell inmates. His strong personality was partly responsible for that. But, more than that, Mitchell won the respect of fellow cons for a simple reason: He understood the code of silence, the single most important ethic in prison. He was not a fink.

Mitchell had been the cornerstone of the Watergate stonewall. In prison, too, like a good con, he knew how to keep his mouth shut.

An afterword at the end of the story: Before he went to prison, Mitchell contracted for a book about his Washington experiences with Simon & Schuster, and he received  $50,000 advance, with another $100,000 to be paid on completion of the book. Syndicated columnist Nick Thimmesch was to help Mitchell write the book, and visited with the former attorney general at Maxwell and wrote an outline. But Mitchell has not be willing to talk with Thimmesch since his release from Maxwell and the future of the book is uncertain.
John Mitchell died November 9, 1988, after suffering a heart attack while walking in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. From the Washington Post obit:

“Mitchell, a friend, confidant and law partner of Richard M. Nixon, became a familiar face on television screens across America in the summer of 1973 as he sparred with members and staff of the Senate Watergate Committee probing his role — and Nixon’s — in the Watergate scandal.

“But the dour, pipe-smoking Mitchell, who dead-panned his way through three days of testimony on television, gave away very little. Other former White House aides and Nixon administration officials decided to avoid the ordeal of a trial after indictment and plea-bargained with the Watergate special prosecutor. Mitchell, however, was indicted, stood trial and was convicted along with three other defendants in the Watergate cover-up trial.

“Eventually, he served 19 months in a federal penal institution before being released for medical reasons. After his release, he lived quietly in Georgetown, working as a consultant, occasionally being seen in restaurants, granting no interviews.”

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