Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sanctuary is hard to find

Campus shootings have plagued American life for the better part of twenty years. One of the earliest in that span, on November 1, 1991, occurred at the University of Iowa. Gang Lu, an embittered graduate student in physics, shot and killed five people and seriously wounded another, paralyzing her, before killing himself. The victims were Linhua Shan, his perceived academic rival, physics professors Christoph Goertz, Dwight Nicholson and Robert Alan Smith, and administrator T. Anne Cleary, all murdered, and Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, a student employee, who was shot in the neck, causing permanent paralysis from the neck down. Gang Lu shot the first four victims in Van Allen Hall, which housed the physics department, before proceeding to Jessup Hall, an administration building, where he shot Cleary and Sioson. Jo Ann Beard’s excellent essay “The Fourth State of Matter” deftly relates telling details behind these disastrous events.

As the shooter made his way from Van Allen to Jessup, I was in my teaching assistant office in Shaeffer Hall, near Jessup Hall in the area known as the Pentacrest. It was a Friday afternoon, suddenly wintry but otherwise quiet. Out of the blue, I received a call from the department office down the hall, telling me and anyone else in the room to close the door, turn off the lights and get on the floor. There were only two or three of us there, and we immediately did as instructed. Though I don’t now recall how long we waited, eventually we got the news about the shootings in Van Allen and Jessup.

Being on the Pentacrest while the Iowa City shootings were going down made me realize that violent crime can happen anywhere. Over the years, the list of campus shootings has lengthened, with fresh horror every time – at Virginia Tech, the University of Central Arkansas and elsewhere. Courts, churches and parks have not been immune, either; clearly sanctuary gets harder and harder to find in a society in which so many guns are so widely available.

Yet the violation of sanctuary is not an exclusively American story. In the Taize community in France, an ecumenical religious group committed to contemplation and reconciliation, 90-year-old Brother Roger, the community’s revered founder, was stabbed to death during evening prayer in 2005 by a disturbed Brazilian woman. Centuries after Henry II arranged for Thomas Becket’s “murder in the cathedral.” the story of Cain and Abel continues to echo across history. Even in the gospels, the pacific pageantry of the star, the shepherds and the angels quickly gives way to a headlong flight into Egyptian exile, one step ahead of Herod’s murderous thugs.

Monday, December 22, 2008

76,000 Acres, One Life

On December 16, 2008, a 64-year-old man facing a felony charge of starting a destructive forest fire in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness committed suicide, three weeks before his federal trial was scheduled to begin. Stephen Posniak, a retired federal employee in Washington, D.C., had discovered the BWCA while getting a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. For nearly twenty-five years, he had made trips there virtually every year, typically in early spring when the wildlife come out of hibernation.

During Posniak’s visit in May 2007, however, a wildfire broke out along Ham Lake and grew into the largest in the area since 1918. Due to extremely dry conditions, it eventually burned 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, consuming 138 buildings on the American side of the border alone. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, though the government estimated the property damage at $11 million and the fire suppression costs at $10 million. Mr. Posniak came under suspicion and in October 2008 he was indicted on a felony count of willfully starting the fire, as well as misdemeanors for failing to extinguish a campfire and making a false statement to a forest officer. With trial coming up and the government unwilling to drop the felony charge, Mr. Posniak shot himself in his backyard. His attorney accused the U.S. attorney’s office of overcharging, and even people who lost property in the fire questioned whether justice was served in prosecuting Mr. Posniak so severely.

The Posniak case is of course a vivid reminder that in America’s adversarial justice system, prosecutorial discretion looms large. Mr. Posniak is not the only accused person in recent months to apparently succumb to the pressure of criminal prosecution acting upon the excruciating inward dynamics of shame; in August, Bruce Ivins, a scientist suspected in the 2001 anthrax mailings, took his own life just before he was about to be indicted. Yet Mr. Posniak’s life and death are also an urgent invitation for us all to treat each other more humanely and be prepared to accept the consequences of fate. When asked whether she bore ill will toward Mr. Posniak, an 82-year-old woman who lost most of her possessions in the Ham Lake fire, including her great-grandparents’ Norwegian bible, said she did not. Rather than scapegoating Mr. Posniak, she simply spoke of how life can be really hard sometimes. Or, as Yeats once wrote, “we begin to live, when we have conceived of life as a tragedy.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Prisoners of Narrative

Why are there so many prison movies and virtually no probation officer movies? This was the question wryly posed by a presenter at an International Community Corrections Association conference I attended in Ottawa in September 2000. The answer, it seems to me, goes beyond the obvious – the more overt opportunities for drama in the jailhouse setting – to offer a glimpse into social dynamics of punishment.

The prison movie is a time-tested genre. Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption are only the leading examples. These movies are so common that on PrisonFlicks.com you can select among tabs for your subgenre of choice: not only prison dramas, but prison comedies, prison musicals (yes, musicals), women in prison, prisoner of war movies, and more. Do you prefer your Alcatraz movie with Burt Lancaster or with Clint Eastwood? You have a choice. On the smaller screen, the series Prison Break has been a playing since 2005. Kiss of the Spider Woman was a hit stage play before it became a movie, and so was Chicago. All world's a stage, and many of the players seem to be prisoners.

What is the appeal of the prison genre? To be sure, there is an elemental “good guys vs. bad guys” aspect in play. The punishment that prisoners are supposed to receive is something that, in our bureaucratic modern world, usually takes place off screen. No more public executions or lashings. Instead, try to sanitize the attempted vengeance by consigning it to the courts and the correctional system. A prison movie offers a peak behind the curtain, a window into a world where the vengeance is operative. Quite often, this occurs in ways that reverse the expected social script. Instead of good guys vs. bad guys, we may find shades of grey, or even an outright reversal, as in Shawshank, where the prisoners seek redemption and the guards fall from grace. If this rhetoric of reversal seems eerily familiar, it may be because the narrative of the wrongful arrest, detention, and punishment of Jesus is so embedded in our culture. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is not on Prisonflicks.com, but maybe it should be.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I

Growing up as a preacher’s kid on the prairie, I knew nothing of the criminal justice system. I lived with my family in small farming towns, where life revolved around church and school, people knew their neighbors, and serious crime was a non-issue. Though I recall vague references among my peers to “being sent to Red Wing” (where there was a juvenile reformatory), anything to do with jails or prisons was not even on my radar. In the summer of 1977, however, in between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided to read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The KGB’s arrest of the dissident Anatoly Sharansky was attracting considerable press coverage, and The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I was selling well enough to be available in paperback in a small, independent bookstore in Owatonna, Minnesota.

Over thirty years later, the shocking scenes of incarceration recounted by Solzhenitsyn remain indelible. The stark image of a bare cell, with only a bucket for excrement, a moldy, bug-ridden bedroll on the floor, perhaps an equally moldy crust of bread or thin, bug-ridden gruel, and a cell mate who may very well be an informer. Sleep deprivation, dragging down the spirits. Even more horrific was the slow-motion description of a jackboot, poised to press down on a prisoner’s testicles – on “that which made you a man.” A little less than five years later, when I reread Volume I for a college history course, the jackboot image tended to become conflated in my mind with Jack London’s “iron heel.” And yet conflated or not, the image of torture and abuse remains, calling out for a response.

In my prairie Eden, “I sang in my chains like the sea” (Dylan Thomas). Reading Solzhenitsyn opened my eyes to the gulags that can lie in wait after the garden is gone.

The Age of Goetz

In the mid-1980s – one might call it, in criminal law terms, The Age of Goetz – Professor Bruce Berner taught me criminal law and procedure at Valparaiso University School of Law. It was The Age of Goetz in the sense that the Bernhard Goetz “subway vigilante” case was the highest profile criminal case of my law school years. The lively discussion about the “not guilty by reason of mental illness” verdict in the trial of John Hinckley for shooting President Reagan was starting to recede in the general public’s mind. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling had published their influential “Broken Windows” article in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic, but the broken windows response to crime was only beginning to emerge. The fateful explosion in federal drug penalties that followed the fatal overdose of basketball star Len Bias in 1986 had not yet occurred. But starting in December 1984 and throughout 1985, the Goetz case, involving a claim of self-defense by a white commuter who shot four young (18-19) men on the New York subway, dominated the news.

Professor Berner seamlessly worked the Goetz case into his teaching of criminal procedure in the winter and spring of 1985. A year earlier, he had taught me the basics of criminal law so well that the elements of common law crimes have become fixtures in my memory. The elements of burglary? Breaking and entering, of a dwelling house, in the nighttime, with the intent to commit a felony, of course. Does the “curtilage” count as a dwelling house? Is walking through a wide-open front door a “constructive” breaking? Bruce has empowered a generation of Valpo law students to think like lawyers, using these old chestnuts as the building blocks.

Monday, December 15, 2008

the burr under my saddle

For six years, from 1997 to 2003, I worked in research and planning on sentencing and corrections projects in state government - first in Idaho, then in Iowa and Minnesota. It was long enough to put a burr under my saddle when it comes to sentencing. Why does America incarcerate so many people compared to other developed countries, marking the lives of millions and causing corrections budgets to cut into educaton and other needs? More broadly, what are the proper goals of the criminal justice system and how well are we doing, as a society, in achieving them? The questions are both large and numerous, and the economic downturn can only make them even more vexacious than ever.

Maybe that's partly why I'm feeling the burr in my saddle again. But it also has something to do with trying to understand, in this Advent season of fading sun and rising hope, what light the Christian gospel can shed on these questions. In announcing his ministry in Luke 4, Jesus quoted a passage from Isaiah about setting the captives free. Why? Rene Girard, Gil Bailie, Howard Zehr and others have ventured provactive answers. More than two centuries after the "birth of the prison" famously descibed by Foucault, and nearly a decade after John J. Dilulio suggested that two million people incarcerated in America is enough, we're still stuck on that number. Is it time for a change?