Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kenneth Young and Transformative Suffering

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn charted the depths of degregation within the Soviet prison system in his landmark book The Gulag Archipelago. In the preface to the book's first volume, he wrote, "I have absorbed into myself my own eleven years there not as something shameful nor as a nightmare to be cursed." With his unshakable commitment to write about it, to honor those who suffered and perished, he could even speak of a sense of love for the "monstrous world" from which he had emerged.

At age 24, Kenneth Young has already been imprisoned for nearly as long as Solzhenitsyn. When he was 14, on the mean streets of Tampa, Kenneth was forced into helping his mother's drug dealer commit a string of armed robberies. The 25-year-old drug dealer threatened to harm Kenneth's mom, 16-year-old sister, and even the sister's baby if Kenneth did not participate in the robberies. Kenneth and the dealer were caught, and a prosecutor charged Kenneth as an adult. Then a judge who now says he didn't understand the law sentenced Kenneth to life in prison without parole.

Last Friday, Nightline broadcast a segment on Kenneth's story. Terry Moran travelled to the maximum-security prison in Claremont, Florida, to interview Kenneth, who is one of more than 100 people around the country who are serving sentences of life without parole for crimes not involving homicide that were committed when they were under 18. Following a Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, people in this group may now have a chance to be considered for release.

Kenneth Young's quiet dignity during his interview with Moran was remarkable. What must it be like to wake up every morning in prison knowing you have been sentenced to die there for succumbing to threats issused by your mother's drug dealer at age 14? It could be soul-destroying. Yet like Solzhenitsyn before him, Kenneth has clearly gone inward and "absorbed into himself" the entire experience of being given such a monstrous sentence. He prays daily, has a learned a trade (barbering), and longs to become a positive mentor for his young nephew.

At the time Kenneth Young was charged as an adult, the prosecution claimed he was a "menace to society." But Kenneth did not have a single prior conviction before he was sentenced to life without parole. The judge who sentenced him, J. Rogers Padgett, has admitted he did not understand Florida's frequently-changed sentencing law at time he imposed the sentence. Judge Padgett has submitted an affidavit stating, "It was not my intent that Mr. Young never be considered for release."

When told by Terry Moran that Judge Padgett had (at least partially) recanted, Kenneth Young took the news with the perspective that only transformative suffering can bring. His sentence was a death sentence, he said - no matter what the judge calls it now, or what he thought the parole board would do.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don't Look Back, Something Might Be Gainin'

In America, it's often said, the past is prologue. What could be more American, then, than the forward thrust of Satchell Paige's life?

The former Negro Leagues baseball star who made his debut in the (for-too-long-all-white) major leagues at age 42, offered a signature saying: Don't Look Back, Something Might Be Gainin'.

When one delves into the details of Paige's life, the multivalent meanings of that slogan become evident.

It's not just that he sought to shroud his birthdate in mystery - a completely understandable strategy for an aging athlete competing against kids half his age. Brett Favre, for better or worse, does not have that option.

It's also the fact that, as his Negro Leagues Baseball Museum profile relates, he had considerable - well (pun intended) - baggage to overcome from his early life. His given name was LeRoy, with "Satchell" becoming his moniker after an early job carrying suitcases (satchells) at the train station for tips. He eventually tried to steal one of those, and later spent time in reform school.

This backstory does not diminish Satchell Paige's accomplishments; it only enhances them. Born in poverty, one of 12 children, he had to fend for himself. But he kept on keeping on - all the way to the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Prison's Place in the Punitive Panoply

How did imprisonment go from being seen as a key component of society's solution to social conflict, at the turn of the nineteenth century, to a practice that perpetuates and exacerbates that conflict?

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault puts it this way: "We are aware of all the inconveniences of prison, and that it is dangerous when it is not useless. And yet we cannot 'see' how to replace it. It is the detestable solution, which one seems unable to do without."

Why do we keep using it, when it is "dangerous when not useless "?

Well, as Foucault notes, two centuries ago, imprisonment was conceived not merely as the deprivation of liberty, but also as an occasion for the transformation of the offender. One can still observe this in the names of many corrections departments around the country; the institutional goal of correction is right there in name of the agency itself. (Nevada, with its Department of Prisons, is one notable exception.) The idea was to rehabilitate, not simply to incarcerate.

What is left of that idea now, a generation after the widely cited meta-analysis by Martinson and others asserted that "nothing works" in correctional programming? A "what works" literature struggles to find a proper hearing, amid all the budget cuts relentlessly eating away at rehabilitative programming. It's hard not to be a warehouse, if you don't have money to do much more than feed, house, and clothe (in jumpsuits) the inmates.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rosalynn Carter on Jails as Mental Health Facilities

Is it true, as Rosalynn Carter asserts, that jails and prisons are the largest mental health facilities in America? You can get money for incarceration, the former first lady says, but not - because of the lingering stigma - for the treatment of mental illness.

Mrs. Carter has been at this for 39 years, advocating, raising awareness, and doing everything she can to shed the light of day on a major social problem that is still too often relegated to the shadows. Like her husband, she's still going strong. Earlier this month, she appeared on The Daily Show to discuss her new book, Within Our Reach, with Jon Stewart.

Her claim that 1 in 4 Americans is mentally ill is certainly open for argument. I suppose it depends on how one defines "mentally ill." But she's right, isn't she, about jails and prisons? Haven't they become a dumping ground for people with mental health issues?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Tip of Satchel Paige's Cap

"Which team's cap did Satchell Paige wear for his Hall of Fame plaque, dad?" asked my 9-year-old son, Micah. He's been discovering major league baseball lore in immersion mode, just as I did at that age - and bringing his 7-year-old brother, Luke, along for the ride. Anna Quindlen got it exactly right when she said recently that being a parent allows you to reexperience your childhood on a much deeper, richer level.

To be sure, there is considerable change amid the continuity of the game. It's all very much digitally enhanced now. We didn't have MLB 2K 2010 on Wii back in the day or constant access to ESPN. Newspapers, radio, and NBC's Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons comprised my introduction to The Show, along with occasional trips to the old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington with my dad and brother.

Another difference is that my boys are growing up in a much more racially diverse America than I did. I came of age in a virtually lilly white setting, at a time when all of the MLB teams had finally become integrated. The weight of the historical injustices that kept people of color down and out for so long did not weigh on me.

So when Micah asked his question, I had to stop and think. Though I knew Satchel Paige had been inducted at Cooperstown, I also knew that his real fame was as a Negro Leagues player. He didn't make his MLB debut until age 42, and a check of his lifetime stats there shows an indifferent 28-32 record that is obviously at odds with his legend. Did he enter the hallowed hall as a Kansas City Monarch, perhaps - honoring the Negro League team for which he starred?

Micah went online, to the Hall of Fame website, to find the answer. Satchel Paige's plaque does not even show a team's cap; the cap is tilted off his head jauntily, so that its front remains unseen. A fitting resolution, it seems to me, for the recognition of a man who, along with other pioneers, bridged the gap between segregated America and the new multiracial kaleidoscope of 2010.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

John Kline's False, White Suburban Dichotomy

In the suburbs, your mail isn't necessarily brought to your door, as it is if you own a home in the city. No, in the burbs, you often have to walk across the street, at the very least. (My friend Mary, in an adjoining suburb, says she often DRIVES to get the mail in winter.)

So today I walked across the street to get the mail and rifled through it as I walked back to my house. It was a beautiful, pacific, sun-dappled day, and I was just back from watching my boys play YMCA baseball. But my alert system started going up when I noticed a flyer from Rep. John Kline in the bundle.

Kline is the Republican who represents Dakota County, Minn., in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the 2 1/2 years I've lived here, I've contacted him only once, to ask him to be a co-sponsor in the House of Sen. Jim Webb's bill calling for the creating of a national criminal justice reform commission. At that time (April 2009), after repeated e-mails to him upon getting no reponse, I finally got a call from a staffer who completely misunderstood what my concern was.

Instead of answering my question about co-sponsorship of the commission bill, the staffer wanted me to know that Rep. Kline was doing all he could to squeeze prisoners and make them more miserable if at all possible. I blogged about this at the time, and someone commented, "Sounds like John Kline - ignoring and belittling his constituents."

Today's missive from Rep. Kline showed a picture of a white family of four on their suburban lawn on one side, and a picture of the IRS building in Washington on the other. The caption read, "Whose side are you on?" Would you be shocked to learn that Mr. Kline is on the side of the white suburban family, not the faceless agency in the nation's capital that would actually ask them to fulfill their duty as citizens by paying taxes?

In my view, this blatant pandering to the fantasies of the tea-party movement is intellectually dishonest. That white suburban family of four that you invoke, Rep. Kline, counts on the federal government for the common defense, for the care of seniors (not pictured in the representative's flyer), and in so many other ways that those who so blithely bash Obama willfully ignore.

It's called a false dichotomy, Rep. Kline. White suburban family vs. the IRS? Not really. The side you should be on is BOTH people AND the IRS. After all, the IRS merely collects the money that enables a government of the people, by the people, for the people to exist.

Yes, there have been IRS abuses in the past, and surely still are. But politicos of Rep. Kline's ilk have got to get beyond the antinomies. Otherwise, they are little more than members of what Thomas Frank calls "the wrecking crew." They disingenously seek election to government office only so they can trash the very government they are supposed to serve.

Friday, May 14, 2010

40 Years of the "War on Drugs"

President Nixon started it forty years ago with $100 million in federal funds, when hippies were passing bongs around and soliders were coming home from Nam hooked on heroin.

It's escalated ever since, to gargantuan proportions. According to a recent AP analysis, the tab now stands at $15.1 billion per year, with a cumulative total of approximately $1 trillion spent.

$1 trillion! A few billion here, a few billion there . . . and pretty soon we're talking about real money. (For example, the AP estimates that about $33 million went to "just say no" educational messages of the type closely associated with Nancy Reagan.)

The Obama administration proposes to treat drug problems with a more holistic strategy, as matter of public health as much as criminal justice. Drug policy coordinator (aka "czar") Gil Kerlikowske argues that busting drug dealers and cutting off drugs at the border only take you only so far, if you don't tackle the underlying addiction that drives the demand.

This makes sense to me, and I'm hoping we can finally turn the drug policy Titanic around. We hit the metaphorical iceberg a full generation ago, after the drug overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias and political opportunism occasioned draconian increases in federal drug sentences. They've never really been rolled back, and the AP estimates there have been 37 million nonviolent drug offenders arrested since the war began. Ten million of those were for marijuana possession.

And of course it usually doesn't stop with arrest; many are jailed or imprisoned. In 2009, half of the inmates in federal prisons were there for drug offenses, and it's cost $450 billion over the last forty years to house this population. That's almost half of the $1 trillion right there.

Yet somehow the national crackdown has staggered on, a self-perpetuating, somnambulist exercise in counter-productivity. (Some will say, "Ah, but the problem would have been so much worse without the War on Drugs." To me, that is a preposterous argument, akin to saying, in 1975, during the helicopter evacutation of the embassy in Saigon, "Ah, but we would have won in Vietnam, if we'd just sent in more troops." Some wars are misconceived from the very beginning, and their failure should not surprise us.

So to the crowded reform agenda: health care, immigration, financial services, add one more: criminal justice reform. And it starts with casting a cold eye on the War on Drugs and its deeply problematic consequences.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Inmate Count at the Bastille, July 14, 1789

The Bastille had once been a notorious prison holding Voltaire and other political detainees. But by July 14, 1789 - now celebrated as Bastille Day and often considered a transformative event in the French Revolution - its inmate count had slipped to a grand total of seven: 5 criminals and 2 "madmen."

Interesting how, then as now, in Louis XVI's France and in modern American correctional facilities, mental illness becomes intermingled with the incarceration of criminal offenders. This was no surprise to Michel Foucault, whose books Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization could be considered companion pieces.

So why was the taking of this rather forlorn prison called the Bastille such a catalyst for grand historical change? The middle class shopkeepers and artisans ("sans-culottes") who took the Bastille were not there for a jail break. They were seeking arms and ammunition to protect themselves against the possibility that the king would use force to disband the nascent National Assembly.

When the sans-culottes arrived at the Bastille, its commander ordered his troops to fire on them. 98 people were killed in this barrage, but the enraged crowed broke through, captured the prison, decapitated the commander who fired on them, and distributed arms to the citizens of Paris. Momentous decrees by the National Assembly soon followed, seeking to give form to the ideals of "liberty, equality, and fraternity."

Friday, May 7, 2010

American Apartheid Denied?

The last time I saw Anna Quindlen interviewed by Charlie Rose, it was 2006, and she was urging every American to read Out of Iraq by George McGovern and William Polk.

I did as Anna urged, and even got my copy of the book signed by McGovern through the good graces of my friends Mary and Jack in Mitchell, S.D.

Tonight, as Quindlen talked with Rose about her new novel, Rose alluded to a remark about race and class in America, from a commencement speach Quindlen gave at Wesleyan in 2009. She asserted there that, for too long, America has had "apartheid denied."

I quickly went online to check the quotation and found Quindlen's entire speech on the Wesleyan website. Here's the quotation in question:

"We need you to make this a fairer place, a more unified nation, a country that wipes out the bright lines of class and race that have created an apartheid, an apartheid too long denied."

"Apartheid" is of course a word fraught with history, inevitably associated with the white seperatist regime in South Africa that imprisoned Nelson Mandela. Former President Jimmy Carter can testify to that, after his provocative use of the word in a book on Israel and the Palestinians prompted a fusilade of criticism a few years ago.

Though Charlie Rose did not ask her why she used the word "apartheid," Anna Quindlen's motive may have been akin to Carter's: to get Americans to pay attention to hard realities that are all too easy to ignore.

How about this one? In the wake of the Great Recession, there six million people, disproportionately members of racial minorities, who must get by on food stamps alone, with no cash income.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Confederate History Month and BJS Data

Racism is not only pernicious in the present. It tends to perpetuate itself into the future, with lingering collateral damage.

I'm reminded of a quotation from Karl Marx: "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an incubus on the brains of the living." Marx was not speaking specifically of racial prejudice. Yet clearly the evil spirit animating centuries of nightmarish slavery remains alive to oppress the living.

Consider a case in point: The governor of Virginia issued a lengthy statement proclaiming Confederate History Month, but omitted any mention of slavery. Only after a national outcry did he amend it to add a mention of our heritage of human bondage.

The statistics lay out the current reality very starkly. Nearly 150 years after slavery was abolished, African Americans are incarcerated at almost six times the rate of whites. Nearly one in six black men has been in prison According to 2007 data, about 900,000 of the 2.2 million people in American jails and prisons were black.

Has Gov. Robert McDonnell ever looked at data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on how racial minorities are so disproportionately present in those behind bars? In his state of Virginia, in 2005, blacks were incarcerated at a rate of 2,331 per 10,000 population, compared to 396 for whites.

This isn't to say that the professionals who administer the justice system are racists individually. One must acknowledge, however, the burden of history, and existence of structural racism. That recognition is an absolutely necessary step on the path to overcoming it.

How about Racial Disparity Awareness Month, governor?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Garnish and Pay for Stay

Today I wrote a Web page on wage garnishment for a law firm's website, and as part of my preparation I looked up the word "garnishment" in Black's Law Dictionary.

Black's is the old standard bearer among legal dictionaries, a stuffed repository of long-established information about what lawyers call "black letter law" - i.e., statements so widely held that they are as settled as such things can ever be.

As my eyes scanned quickly down the page looking for "garnishment," I happened to read the first entry for "garnish" on the way, Quite to my surprise, it was a criminal, not civil, usage of the word. According to Black's, in English law, garnish is "money paid by a prisoner to his fellow-prisoners on his entrance into prison."

Paid to fellow prisoners, not the state? Or to private contractors hired by the state? Or to one of the state's subdivisions, such as a county?

No, the definition says the money is paid to fellow prisoners!

Superficially, this sounds somewhat like modern notions of "pay for stay," under which some jurisdictions seek to charge prisoners a certain dollar amount per day for jail stays. But the state or one of its subdivisions assesses and handles that money, not other inmates.

What archaic conception of the circumstances of incarceration lurks here, embedded in the definition of the word "garnish"?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A (Humorous) Twist on Machiavelli

Is it better for a leader to be loved or feared?

This question, famously posed by Machiavelli in The Prince, has become a political science staple.

Steve Cavell's character in The Office, when asked the question, offered a suitably self-satisfied reply. Cavell's Michael Gary Scott wants people to be afraid of how much they love him. :-)