I can’t remember who it was, but someone, I think a law blogger, was talking about a hypothetical run for office. If elected, he’d require all lawmakers to spend a week in jail. Just so they’d know what the experience was like before creating circumstances in which other people would have to go through it.
When I first started at Sumpter & Gonzalez, I liked to describe it as the “Empathy Gap” – we have an easy time condemning, but bristle at the notion that we should empathize. It’s pretty entry-level stuff for a lawyer, but I’m not one, so it seemed pretty profound. People are offended at the notion that they should have to consider someone else’s circumstances, probably because everyone feels like his own life is hard, and feels he doesn’t get the same consideration from others. Which is true enough, as far as things go, but a circular problem.
You know who’s asking for empathy now, though? Former U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent, who alleges harsh and unfair treatment while he’s serving his time for Obstruction of Justice. You can read his entire motion here, and if you do, you’ll probably agree with him, for the most part – it’s egregious and unnecessarily cruel. The part you might not agree with is the “unusual” part.
I empathize with Kent, though I don’t really have much sympathy. I think the entire society suffers when our prisoners are treated so poorly, and it does sound awful to be kept, for instance, in solitary confinement for 40-some days But sympathy? It’s not like Kent spent his career on the bench considering what might happen to people he sentenced once they were in jail. Either he didn’t care, or he chose to remain willfully ignorant, and either one of those is an abdication of his moral responsibility.
Sucks to be that guy, but I’ll save my tears.
I won’t be saving them for Lord Conrad Black, though. Like Kent, he was incarcerated in the U.S., and like Kent, he thought prison was a total drag. Black, who had owned the Financial Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and other newspapers. And yesterday he announced that he was writing a book about his awful experiences in prison. And good for him, kind of – we could always use some more literature that informs people about what the conditions of incarceration are really like, even if judges like Kent will ignore them until they’re convicted of something. But you know what would have been way better? If Black had given a damn about any of this back when he owned a stack of international newspapers and had the credibility to advocate without sounding – frankly – like he’s whining.
Yeah, jails and prisons are deeply uncomfortable places. Yup – you’re at the mercy of people reveling in unearned authority, who are given license to view you as a lesser sort of person, and you have no real recourse, because you’re a Bad Guy. But for years, people like Kent and Black saw those things as features, not bugs. Or, at the very least, not worthy of a moment’s consideration. So now, I’ll keep my tears for the woman in my wife’s class at Travis County Correctional Complex who died of an asthma attack last week. And the next judge or media baron who gets sentenced to a surprisingly harsh term can be shocked and outraged that this could happen to him.