Monday, April 12, 2004


You know, for someone who has had his collective list of clients sentenced to more time than my whole block has probably been alive, I know remarkably little about jail. Sure, I'm sure I know more than most people who watch CSI or the Practice, or who see those documentaries on A&E or the History Channel. I've seen them too, so I understand that stuff. I've also spoken to people about prison numerous times, so I have a great understanding of some of the mechanics of it. I go to the jail once a week or so to visit clients, where see them coming from somewhere and going somewhere, but really only see them in a sterile interview room. I have even taken a tour of the county jail here, so I've seen some of the bowels of our local jail (one of the largest in the world).

That being said, I still really have no idea what it must be like to be in jail, how the different jails compare to eachother, what goes on day to day, how safe or dangerous they are, how people survive every little thing that goes on in there. I imagine that Oz (the HBO TV show) probably portrayed life behind bars somewhat realistically, but even that is different.

The reason I cannot imagine it is because I have never lived the daily grind of it. Lights on, wake up, get out of your cell, what do you do then? What is feeding time like? How often are you under threat of attack in any particular day? Are the guards really venal assholes? Do they protect you? Do they leave you out there to kill or die on your own? If you are not willing to kill, will you be killed? What does it do to regular folk who do not live in an atmosphere of violence every day in the outside world? How do people survive their time there? What do they need to do to survive? Does time fly in prison, or does it crawl? You hear stories about people being able to watch TV, work out, have a "life," is that true?

I have heard it said that every Public Defender and District Attorney should spend a weekend in jail when they start their job. This will give them a perspective on every situation where they either ask for jail (in the case of DAs), or recommend jail (in the case of PDs).

I have had clients say to me, when I'm telling them that the offer of 3 years is a good offer, "have you ever done 3 years?" Of course, the answer is no, and in some respects I am less able to fully represent them because of it (I'm not saying I want to go to prison for even a day, but I have to tell you that I would probably have a better perspective of what this was all about if I had been to prison). In fact, one of my co-workers years ago, a Public Defender I worked with and knew pretty well, had been to prison. A couple of decades earlier he had been there for dope, even for robbery, I think (I don't actually know exactly why he went to prison, but he had later been pardoned after he changed his life around). He would sometimes say things about prison, or an offer, or talking to a client, that made me realize he really understood what these clients were looking at when looking at prison. He could understand what they were about to go through, how hard or easy it would be, and he would even tell his clients that he had been there, so not to worry, or to worry, whatever the case may be.

He understood what Life in Prison meant.

I sure don't.

I have done this for 9 1/2 years now, and when I think about the fact that I just pled an 18 year old kid a few weeks ago to 12 years in prison, I realize that he will spend as much time in prison as I've been working at my job. In that time I have grown as a lawyer, as a person, I have had 2 children, bought a house, become a much better lawyer, become a better person, traveled the world, gone out to many different restaurants, done millions of little things every day that this client will not do for almost the exact same amount of time that I have been a public defender. When I think about that, I realize how little I know about hard time, and how little of an appreciation I have for it.

He has an exit date. Some of my clients do not. I remember every one of my clients who have been sentenced to life in prison, only four at this point. I have had cases transferred from me to other collegues where the client later received life in prison, but I don't count those because they weren't given life on my watch (not to say I would have received a different result on any of those, luckily, I didn't have to sit next to the person as he was sentenced to life, though). Most of those who have received life deserved it, and I certainly won't lose any sleep over their cases, in that I did everything I could to prevent it, and there probably wouldn't have been a different result regardless of who represented those defendants. But, as long as we all live, those defendants will be in prison, and I know it. And the reality remains that I really have no concept of what they are going through.

Perhaps it is best that I don't. If prison really is the true horror that I think it probably is, it would bother me too much every time I represented someone getting a long prison sentence. Perhaps this is like my wife's giving birth, I want to be there, but I don't need to be so upclose and personal with the baby as he comes out of her. I'm happy sitting next to her head and seeing it from a little distance. I think this is what I need at work as well. I'll never forget the time I pled a woman with no prior record to 5 years in prison for something. I thought the sentence was excessive, but it was clear she was going to get more if she proceeded. When I got back to the office, my secretary had brought in a copy of Oz. I remember I had never been as depressed about my work as I was on that day, watching Oz, and thinking about this client. Perhaps a little bit of ignorance is really best in this situation.

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