The Attorney General Who Went to Prison: “They weren’t sure how to treat this celebrity criminal”

Nixon Attorney General John Mitchell.

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.

Shortly before noon on June 22, 1977, a chauffeured Cadillac edged up a shrub-lined road toward the inevitable….John Newton Mitchell—former attorney general of the United States—prepared to enter  the Maxwell Federal Prison Camp in Montgomery, Alabama.

The highest-ranking official of the American government ever to be sentenced to prison was embarking on a four-to-eight year term of confinement, imposed by Judge John Sirica. The crime: the Watergate cover-up—conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice….

Mitchell’s first hour in prison was spent following the routine of the Receiving and Discharge process at Maxwell. He was registered under his new identity—#24171-157. Then he was fingerprinted four times. “In case we make a mistake,” the receiving guard told him. He was photographed for prison files a dozen times. “Different copies for different offices,” he was told. “I’m sure you know all about it.”

After having his clothing measurements recorded, Mitchell was issued a temporary prison uniform—a faded khaki shirt and trousers….Mitchell’s watch and ring were taken from him. (“You can’t have a watch worth over twenty bucks and we don’t allow jewelry here.”) The cash he carried in with him was credited to his commissary account (“Inmates aren’t allowed to have any money at all”)….

For his first meal in prison, Mitchell was taken to lunch by an inmate from the Receiving and Discharge office. His first confrontation with one of his fellow inmates took place in the chow hall. Making his way  through the cafeteria-style food line, Mitchell waited his turn like all the other convicts. He was conscious that all eyes were on him. Moving down the line he came face-to-face with Bobby Lawson, a con who was dishing up soup.

“Welcome to Maxwell, Mr. Mitchell,” Lawson said. “You put enough of us here.”

“You sonofabitch. I didn’t put anybody here,” Mitchell said, looking Lawson straight in the eye before moving on down the chow line.

Lawson had more reason than most to feel bitter toward John Mitchell. His case was one of four in which the former attorney general claimed to remember having authorized a federal wiretap that ultimately resulted in a bookmaking conviction for Lawson.

Later, Mitchell and Lawson became close. When the federal parole board turned the bookmaker down, even though Lawson met all the guidelines for parole, Mitchell helped him file a writ of habeas corpus with a federal judge in Montgomery. When the judge denied the writ, Mitchell told Lawson, “Now isn’t that a damn shame. I appointed that son of a bitch. I didn’t realize I appointed such a bunch of idiots.”

Like  most who undergo the prison experience for the first time, Mitchell appeared pale, apprehensive, and a bit afraid during those early days. He simply did not know what to expect.

Inmates weren’t sure how they should treat this man, this celebrity criminal who had been thrown into their midst. At the beginning, most tended to maintain an attitude of casual aloofness toward Mitchell.

There were those who attempted to gain Mitchell’s confidence and friendship, either for what they hoped would be personal gain or to enhance their self-images through their association with the man.

“A  hellluva lot of ass-kissing and boot-licking going on around that man,” an old con said one day after no fewer than four inmates had popped into Mitchell’s cubicle to deposit an assortment of newspapers and magazines for him to read.

Another inmate who had opposed having anything to do with Mitchell prior to the former attorney general’s arrival quickly changed his tune. After being introduced to Mitchell, the inmate spent an afternoon talking with him about their separate experiences in Washington, DC.

He’s polite, intelligent, and the victim of a raw deal,” the con said. That con was the first to begin leaving the Washington Post on Mitchell’s bunk each day. Mitchell later began receiving his own newspapers via the mail, taking the Washington Post and New York Times. Both arrived two or three days after publication.

“I never know whether to call him John or Mr. Mitchell,” the con said, “and he doesn’t seem to want to let you know which he prefers.”

Most of the inmates who met Mitchell were courteous to the point of being almost reverent in his presence. Mitchell, with his stone face  and ever-smoking pipe, seemed to have an aura about him that commanded respect, even in prison.

Rarely did he watch television. While dozens of cons crowded around the television on successive nights to view ABC’s fictionalized Watergate saga, “Washington: Behind Closed Doors,” Mitchell never ventured an interest in the program.

For several weeks, Mitchell was able to enjoy his cubicle in privacy. He occupied the lower bunk in the two-man cubicle and had no roommate. Then a huge black inmate was moved into Mitchell’s cube and assigned the top bunk. It became immediately apparent that Mitchell would not warm up to the idea, or the reality, of having a man bunked above him. The new con’s skin color seemed to have less to do with it than Mitchell’s desire for privacy.

That afternoon, when Mitchell arrived for what had become the daily bull session with his clique of friendly inmates, he was more than a little angry. He knew that the Maxwell administration was in violation of the law by cramming two inmates into one of those cubes. He didn’t like this new roommate arrangement and was damn well going to do something about it.

“Ah, John,” said Maurice “Blackie” Malaway, one of those who had taken a shine to the camp celebrity. “You can’t do anything about it. You’re just a convict now, like the rest of us. They can do anything they want.”

Mitchell rested his gaze on Blackie and took a deep draw on his pipe.

“Well,” he said, “I’m going to see Warden Grunska about it and if I don’t get some satisfaction there, then I’ll call Norm Carlson [director of the United States Bureau of Prisons] and see if he can do something.”

“Carlson? Really?” asked Blackie. “Do you really think he’ll do anything for you?”

“Are you kidding?” Mitchell said. “I appointed him.”

With that, John was off to see the warden. The following day Mitchell’s new roommate was transferred.

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