Unfit for civic duty (part the second)

On returning to my car, I discovered that I had, in a fit of sleepiness-induced dunderheadedness, left the lights on when I'd arrived. Which meant a dead car. My cell phone wasn't very juiced either, considering the amount of the day I'd whiled away playing JAMDAT Solitaire. (Four wins, many losses. It was that kind of day. And who writes a computer solitaire program you can't cheat on, anyway?) But I managed to get AAA on the line and request assistance. I jogged down to the ramp entry and told the security guard there that a truck would be arriving, and if he could please direct the driver up to 3A that would be brilliant. Five minutes later a guy with a portable jump kit showed up from the office and got me on my way. I gave him ten bucks and called AAA back to cancel, because that's the kind of sensitive guy I am. Also the jump service had my phone number, name, AAA number and license plate, and I could do without any more tow trucks following me around looking for revenge. On the drive home I gave some thought to the judge's questions (as he'd directed us to do). I also started thinking about what I'd seen at the prison I'd visited. Conditions at California prisons are pretty bleak. But you knew that. It's prison. It's not supposed to be happy fun time rehabilitation center. But there's a big difference between having in the back of your mind the notion that prison must suck big time, and actually having been there. Here's what the defendant is probably in for, if convicted: As an alleged gang member (and whether this is proven at trial or not will make little difference to the Department of Corrections, which has a lot of latitude in how it classifies prisoners, because prisoners and rights are not two great tastes that live anywhere in the same area code as each other) who's convicted of a violent offense has a reasonable chance of ending up in a SHU (Secure Housing Unit), which in less enlightened times you might have known as The Hole. Granted, in today's modern, high-tech prisons, they are slightly cleaner, much better-lit Holes, but they're still tiny, solitary cells, which can be lit for 24 hours a day. Prisoners may get out of their cells for as much as 90 minutes a day, in which they may be able to shower or spend a little time "outside" in a roughly ten-by-ten cage. They don't get much in the way of phone calls, and nothing in the way of vocational or rehabilitation-oriented programming. Alleged gang members can and will be held in a SHU in order to prevent them from having contact with fellow gang members. Relatively "casual" gangs become a lot more intense on the inside, as you can imagine. Prisoners might be held in the SHU until either they renounce their membership in a gang (which, as you can imagine, makes them persona non grata once they get into general population) or until they agree to snitch on their gang (again, persona non grata, or even persona non viva). So getting out is problematic. The fun doesn't remotely stop there, though. As a Hispanic, the defendant is quite likely to end up on a yard in which all the Hispanics (regardless of gang affiliation) are locked down. The DOC can euphemistically refer to this as "modified program". Here's how the program is modified: Instead of being let out of your cell for vocational training, visits, yard time, etc, you're kept in your cell 24/7. You get out once every three days to shower, and you have two guards with you when you do this. At the prison I visited, the whites and Hispanics on one yard had been on "modified program" for over two years. Two. Years. So then the question becomes: can I sentence someone to this? I know that as a member of a jury my position is that of an arbiter of fact. We don't hand out the sentences, we just decide whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty of the allegation. But, as I said, there's a big difference between having the gist of what a long prison sentence means, and having seen it in ugly detail. So I had some thinking to do.


Blogger CJR said...

Interesting delimma. And even though this blog came to my attention for totally different reasons to the post, I think I'll comment none the less.

First off, I don't believe that you should take into account the form the punishment takes in terms of finding guilt or not guilt. Whether or not someone is subjected to 2 years of anguish doesn't make them more or less guilty. They are found guilty or not, and your job is to decide, to the best of your ability, whether or not they are.

Second, while I agree that prison conditions don't sound like something that you or I would like to be subjected to, not convicting someone is not going to change the system.

Third, I totally agree with you that the prison isn't supposed to be happy fun time rehabilitation centers, and *that* is the part that is supposed to be a deterent. Look, we don't subject people to torture any more (unless you are in an certain Iraqi prison run by Marines). We have prisons that are *fairly* sanitary in historical terms. But 24/7 of total isolation for 2 years sounds horrible- and if that makes people think twice about doing a drive by with your homies, then its done part of its job. Why don't you run down that fool in front of you in traffic that's playing JAMDAT Bowling while he's driving? Why don't you run him off the road? Because you know that prison is a terrible place, even knowing that the warden isn't going to put you on the rack and torture you.

All that being said, I commend you for putting the thought and care that you are into your Jury service. Its commendable, and you are doing more than I have ever been able to do. But given the contemplative nature you seem to exhibit (I don't know you, so this is purely based on the two posts I read), you are going to be kicked off the panel before you even get on the jury.

12/15/2004 05:49:00 PM  

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