Seedlings in Flowerpots- Part I


The Cornbread Mafia

I have stated before that my immediate neighbors in my unit and the other residents of this compound are a mixture of basically two categories of convicts- druggies and white collar criminals (wcc). Not being a druggie has drawn me mostly to the wcc stories, as you have figured out, but I fully intend to spend more time balancing out these stories, so that your take on a Federal Prison Camp reflects the reality of it. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the opportunity to relate the perspective of one of the CO’s (Corrections Officer) or “po-lease” here (as in, “Po-lease! Comin’ in hot!” at count time), but for now I’m completely unable to imagine how that opportunity will present itself.

Several weeks ago, “Cornbread” left us, having completed his sentence. I always figured the nickname was prison-given, due to his giveaway Southern accent. I never got his personal story, but before he left he gave me this book and indicated his close connection with these people. Leafing thru the index, I failed to see anyone by his name referenced but found a guy in one of the pictures with the same last name, and my guess is it’s this guy’s father. In any event, there’s no doubt he was exceedingly proud that this book (The Cornbread Mafia, James Higdon) was written about the people he knew and grew up with, and from the little he told me about having cash, trucks, farms and farm equipment seized by the feds, I suppose his case could easily fit into this book.

One of the book cover blurbs said that this is the perfect bookend to Ken Burns’ documentary, “Prohibition”, but I think its better thought of in reference to J.D.Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”. However, I’ll agree to the notion that the three make a perfect trilogy. That same blurb says, “It unflinchingly details the damage done by both those who flout our nation’s drug laws and those who enforce them.” (Pinckney Benedict) I’ve come to agree, in general, with that cautionary take-away; at least as it pertains to the feds.

One of the sub-themes of the book is that, not only were the ‘Cornbread Mafia’ the descendants of moonshiners of prohibition days, and that they were Ky (Kentucky) hill people, but that even more specifically, they were Catholics. That may have been a relevant fact due to the commonsense oddity of it, given that Catholics were a distinct minority amongst Kentuckians, but also the incongruence of a religious connection to lawbreaking. Higdon builds a strong case that the most distinctive feature of the CM, was the unbreakable code of silence amongst them (0% snitchery) and that was due to having a minority mindset (us vs. them), but also that the church had an accommodating doctrine- the recognition that under heaven, there are two competing systems: man’s law and God’s law. God’s law was surprisingly malleable, in that it could rationalize the care and well-being of poor farmers needing a supplement to their meager incomes. The heavy-handedness of their Protestant neighbors and the brutality of the law further solidified the separation from their point of view. That the parish priest in the early days of the community was an alcoholic helped blend all remaining ingredients.

Higdon said it much more vividly than I just did. He says it took 5 1/2 years of work for him to get to the answer of the question, “Why Marion County”?

The answer, he says, lays in understanding “a series of cause-and-effect relationships throughout history, starting with refugee Catholics moving to the frontier and settling in central Ky’s peculiar geography and climate, which fostered a robust whisky-distilling industry before, during and after the Civil War, interrupted only by Prohibition, which created a culture permissive of moonshining and bootlegging, which made Lebanon a hoppin’ stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit until the Vietnam War brought marijuana home, where the whole thing exploded like a science-fair volcano.”

The central character to the story came to local celebrity as a 13 yr old, when the 4-H office in Lexington Ky announced Johnny Boone from Washington County the winner of the 1957 District Tobacco Championship.

Daniel ‘Johnny’ Boone, got used to violence in the way many did- by regular beatings his alcoholic father administered to his wife and all their kids. His maternal grandfather, a farmer of large tracts of land, became his mentor. A veteran of Prohibition, his papaw- Poss Walker, taught him moonshining as well as how to circumvent the law enforcement of the USDA and their strict regulation and limitation on the amount of tobacco that could be grown. Johnny learned the secrets of hiding the patches for their illegal tobacco, a very handy skill when the money-crop became pot.

By 1977 the marijuana business was in full bloom. Boone had bred the best of the best ever grown in Ky. A local boy that Higdon never identifies but wrote into this story as a key recurring figure- Mr. X – made a career of hopping continents in search of the seeds that would produce the highest potency (THC) ‘sinsemilla’ (seedless female plants) possible. (His seeds were from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, etc) Boone would further customize these to grow well in Ky. (Afghanistan had the same approximate latitude as Ky) It wasn’t long before he had firmly put Ky marijuana on the map, as equal to any import known to the pot-smoking world.

Though Johnny Boone never served in Vietnam, a lot of his friends did and “fighting in a war that seemed to lack rules certainly prepared” them “to succeed in a world back home where obeying the law kept a person poor and breaking it turned farmers into millionaires”. The war also provided them with a ready-made network of fellow veterans spread across the country, most pot-smokers like themselves.

The beginning of the end for the big production going on in the center of the Cornbread Mafia’s activities, Marion County, Ky, was in 1980 when the Ky State Police got their first ‘eye in the sky’, a helicopter with a pot-spotting pilot. Within a few weeks they had found and destroyed a couple hundred acres of marijuana plants growing in and amongst corn. By the end of 1980, With 9 Marion County men facing federal charges, “Marion County saw the largest number of food stamp applications, 973, in its history.”

By 1983 most of the Cornbread Mafia were behind bars. On July 25, 1984, Pres. Ronald Reagan announced to America six key measures that the Republicans had pledged to bring to the floor for a vote. The first was for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, the 4th, allowing tuition tax credits, and the 5th, a comprehensive anti-crime package to crack down on criminals by tougher sentencing and stricter enforcement of drug trafficking laws. The press asked many questions, but “no one asked the president anything about his views on the potential long-term costs of his proposed anticrime legislation.”

To be continued…

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