‘Barrister’ Behind Bars

‘Barrister’ Behind Bars A Look At 1 Inmate Who Keeps Courts Busy

January 16, 1988|By Elizabeth Wasserman of The Sentinel Staff

In a cell at Lake Correctional Institution sleeps one inmate whom authorities across the state wish they’d never met.

Michael Barfield.

He’s been butting heads with the system for years. He got thrown in jail for forging checks and stealing a car. He got tangled up with the FBI — something about a Russian spy probe. His name is infamous in the state attorney general’s office because he files lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit.

No prison superintendent wants him.

Transfer his friends, and he sues. Let him have friends, and he sues on their behalf. Tell him he can’t go to the law library, and he’ll find a judge to issue an injunction and, then, tip reporters to the story.

”He’s been here for four or five months,” said Lake Correctional Superintendent George Bedingfield. ”And I tell you, since the day he got here he’s done nothing but file.”

A self-trained ”jailhouse lawyer,” the 25-year-old has a high I.Q., a low tolerance for what he views as ”retaliation” against prison inmates who file lawsuits, a reputation for commanding the attention of some of the top judges in the state, and not a lot of patience.

Why else would he try to hop a fight to France with onloy weeks to go before his sentence was up?

Who is Michael Barfield?

Why did end up in Lake County?

And will we ever wash our hands of him?

It’s hard to say when it all began.

Sometime after he dropped out of high school in Pensacola and got his General Education Development diploma, Barfield’s parents signed a waiver allowing him to join the U.S. Navy.

He was 17, 5-foot-10, 135 pounds.

And good-looking.

In the Navy, Barfield says, he got involved with computer research on two aircraft carriers. The project studied the effects of climate on weapons systems. He also got involved with a female Naval intelligence officer.

That fizzled. And then he got involved with a French woman old enough to be his mom. The Navy didn’t like that, he says. They asked him to break it off. He declined. And Barfield says he and the Navy parted company after two years with the help of an administrative discharge, something the Navy won’t confirm.

Barfield fell on hard times. He managed a Sambo’s restaurant in Arkansas; it went out of business. With an accomplice, he decided to earn a quick buck by setting up a fraudulent company, forging and cashing payroll checks, and stealing credit cards and a car.

Barfield landed in the slammer. He was 20, but was placed in the youthful offender system.

Soon, the ex-girlfriend intelligence officer wrote to him at Cross City Correctional Institution, he says. A ”friend” would be in touch to ”help him out.” That’s when the suspicious phone calls started from a man in New York. The man, ”David,” quizzed him about Navy research.

That’s when Barfield says he called the FBI.

What happened next, though, ”sounds so crazy,” said Lee Barrett, an Orlando attorney who has befriended Barfield, ”but it’s true.”

Two FBI agents came to see David H. Brierton, the state Department of Corrections’ inspector general, according to Brierton’s sworn statement filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Pensacola.

The agents asked him to have Barfield ”secured.” He was suspected of passing secrets to the Russians. When Brierton balked, he says, the agents assured him a federal grand jury would indict Barfield within 60 days.

Brierton suggested Florida State Prison, the system’s most secure facility and the only one for males sentenced to die.

Barfield’s transfer was in August 1983. The 20-year-old youthful offender, eligible for a work-release program, instead was transferred to a Death Row cell at Florida State Prison.

He says his cell was 20 feet from ”Old Sparky,” the state’s electric chair.

The next 60 days were the worst in the young man’s life. Communication with his family was cut. He lost 14 pounds in two weeks. Worst of all, he says prison guards taunted him that, well, he was next.

Once one said: Guess what Barfield? Your death warrant has been signed by the governor, and your execution has been set for 7 a.m. in the morning. We’ll be shaving your head right after lunch. What would you like for your last meal?

Brierton now is a defendant in Barfield vs. Brierton et al., which seeks damages from the corrections department for allegedly violating Barfield’s right to stay in a youthful offender facility.

Barfield also sued FBI agent Doug Jones. Barfield vs. Jones et al., seeks damages, claiming Jones lied to prison officials about Barfield’s supposed spying.

Both suits are unresolved.

According to Jones, Barfield is full of baloney. In an affidavit he filed in his defense, Jones says Barfield was caught in lies and contradictions during interviews and polygraph tests.

The spy stuff was something Barfield made up, Jones says, thinking he’d get a break for cooperating with a far-flung Russian spy probe, the idea for which he found in a paperback, Operation Lemonade.

Barfield, however, says the FBI was harassing him about secret Navy documents that he just did not have.

Whatever. . .

Even his attorney didn’t believe it.

That’s why Barfield joined the ranks of ”jailhouse lawyers,” the inmates who file about 900 suits per year against the state. They keep Arthur Wallberg, an assistant state attorney general, his full-time staff of 8 lawyers and a part-time staff of 4, quite busy.

Wallberg said ”jailhouse lawyers” file suit over everything — alleged beatings by officers, sentences that are too long, cold peas, rules against ”religious headgear.”

Let’s step back. When no indictment was filed, Brierton sent Barfield to Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center to recuperate from a hunger strike. Then he finally got his work-release and was placed in his hometown.

But while Barfield was selling shoes by day and returning to Pensacola Community Correctional Center at night, he says, FBI agents started stopping by. Again.

With weeks to go before he was to be through with the Florida prison system, Barfield walked away. He was afraid of being sent back to FSP, he says. Destination? France. And the French woman.

He ended up in prison. Twelve years for trying to escape.

The dark-haired, slight-built man, who prison officials say has a 140 I.Q. — he says it’s only 130 — started filing civil rights suits against the state and federal governments, Brierton, Jones, prison superintendents, and nearly any corrections officer who looked crossly at him.

”Everyone has rights under the law, no matter what they’ve done,” said Barfield, dressed in prison blues for a recent interview.

”That’s not to say some of the guys in here haven’t done bad things,” he said. ”They have. But there are efforts made — sometimes subtly — to discourage inmates from carrying out their constitutional rights.”

Last September, Barfield won an injunction against Union Correctional Institution, where he went after the escape conviction, for denying him the right to use the prison law library once he finished his daily prison job of mopping floors and washing walls. The job took 30 minutes a day.

The week before Circuit Judge Stephen P. Mickle issued an injunction in Barfield vs. Robinson et al, which claims prison officials denied Barfield access to the law library, Barfield was transferred to a landscaping job that ran from 8 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. Two days after the ruling, Barfield was moved to Lake.

His latest suit, in which Chief Circuit Judge Ernest C. Aulls Jr., in a telephone hearing Friday, denied a temporary injunction, claimed that Lake Correctional officials conspired to ”retaliate” against inmates who file suits. Each time an inmate asks Barfield for advice, the inmate is mysteriously transferred within days, he says.

His friend, Louis Masiello, is a good example. Masiello, 27, was in for armed robbery and was having his own trouble with access to the law library. He heard about Barfield’s reputation. One thing led to another and Barfield helped Masiello file Masiello vs. Hunt et al., in which Masiello claims he was denied access to the law library.

The suit was mailed last Dec. 4. Within five days, Masiello was transferred to Glades Correctional Institution in Belle Glade.

”I did not request a transfer,” Masiello said. ”I did not want a transfer,” he said. ”I believe the sole purpose for my being transferred was because Michael assisted me.”

Barfield says it happened in other cases too.

Bedingfield, a defendant in Barfield vs. Bedingfield et al., the latest suit, says the allegations are false. Prisoners are transferred all the time. It sometimes takes six to eight weeks to arrange. Moreover, all was quiet until Barfield arrived, he said.

Besides, Bedingfield said, two of the three inmates were transferred because of ”population adjustment,” and a third ”for psychiatric reasons.” Masiello says he was told there was a law clerk position open, that he fit the bill, and was going to be moved. He now hoes sugar cane.

Bedingfield said Barfield would be up for a review at the end of January to see if he is safe enough to work with a transportation department crew outside the prison fence. But, one day after Barfield met with a reporter, and one day after the reporter met with Bedingfield, Barfield got his first D.R. (disciplinary report) in months.

Stolen dictionary. He says he didn’t do it.

One D.R. within six months of a review can jeopardize an inmate’s chances to work on the roads outside of the fence.


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