Category Archives: criminal “justice”

a horrible crime (not by the alleged offender)


NY Times 2-7-2022



Black Woman’s Bid to Regain Voting Rights Ends With a 6-Year Prison Sentence: Missteps by various officials put a Tennessee woman on a collision course with the law. Supporters say the sentence underscores racial disparities in voter fraud cases.

By Eduardo Medina

The New York Times

February 7, 2022


There are complexities in the case, as is often the case with situations involving human error and law breaking. It’s hard to keep track of all the details.

It does seem to be the case that there are racial disparities in sentencing. And if we are talking about voter fraud, how about — to give just one example — the Trump supporters who enacted a scheme of fake electors for the 2020 presidential election? Think they will be arrested any time soon?

At bottom, I find the following inequities, as well as rank injustice, in the so called “criminal justice” system:

the undeniable fact of racial disparities in sentencing — the numbers don’t lie;

excessive punishments — sentencing — often for victimless crimes that should not require incarceration;

a total lack of common sense and humanity on the part of prosecutors and judges.

Regarding the last point, has anyone asked — do, would they, ever? — or taken into account, when assessing the magnitude of an offense — a crime (in the eyes of the law) — whether and to what extent harm was done? Who was harmed by Ms. Moses’s “crime,” and why is the judgment against her in any conceivable way deserved or justifiable?

It doesn’t take any mental effort to see that the sentence is wrong, and what this says about our criminal justice system.


Roger W. Smith

   February 8, 2022

Sheldon Silver


The following quotes are from The New York Times. (My comments are in boldface.)

“Sheldon Silver, Former N.Y. Assembly Speaker, Will Finally Go to Prison: Mr. Silver receives a sentence of 78 months after two trials. He had asked for home confinement, arguing that he was vulnerable to the coronavirus.,” By Benjamin Weiser and Jesse McKinley, The New York Times, July 20,2020




“Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said Mr. [Sheldon] Silver [former New York State Assembly speaker] ‘will now finally report to prison to begin serving a sentence that can begin to repair the harm his conduct caused.’ ” [italics added]

Such reassuring words. I will sleep better knowing this? (I mean that sarcastically.) This is actually sophistry, masked as sober reasoning.


“During the sentencing [of former Assembly Speaker Silver, to six and a half years], Judge [Valerie] Caproni said she recognized the risk of Covid-19 in prison — ‘I do not want Mr. Silver to die in prison, either,’ she said — but she noted a variety of safeguards that could be taken to protect him.

” ‘I cannot guarantee that Mr. Silver will not contract Covid in prison,’ the judge said. ‘But I also can’t guarantee that he won’t contract Covid if he stays out of prison.’ ”

The judge is getting off on making what she is sure is a gnomic, wise statement — will be taken as such — showing her cleverness and perspicacity. It’s actually nonsensical and cold blooded, and shows that she has no common sense and, at the best, scant regard for humanity.





What is the point of inflicting a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence (plus a million dollar fine) on a seventy-six-year-old man with no prior criminal record?

To punish him for naked greed and corruption. For abusing his office and the power and influence accruing to and entrusted in him thereby.

To make an example of him. To provide an implicit warning to other officeholders who might be tempted to commit similar crimes.

I presume that’s what the answer would be.

Money is undoubtedly one of the main temptations man faces. It’s so hard to come by, to accumulate. When it seems to be there for the taking, the temptation is hard to resist. Especially because money provides access to expensive luxuries and pleasures that an honest person on a fixed income probably can’t afford.

How many people have I known, including close relatives — or friends or relatives of relatives or friends — who cheated on their taxes, betting (almost always rightly) that they wouldn’t be caught? And not suffering any qualms that they were “cheating” the public.

Sheldon Silver’s punishment is pointless. It will not serve as a deterrent. It’s also gratuitously cruel and harsh. He will suffer. The damage to the body politic or injury to the public will not be repaired. Should one somehow feel better about things in general knowing he is in jail?

No one will consider or care about him or his plight.

What would be a “just” punishment? As I was thinking about this, my wife, whom I had been discussing the case with, almost took the words out of my mouth. A fair and sensible punishment/penalty for such a crime would be (1) removal from office and loss of the power and privileges that go with it; (2) requirement that the offender make restitution.

Jail makes no sense, does no one any good. And ruins the remainder of a flawed person’s life.

We are all flawed. And capable of doing things of the same nature — if not necessarily of the same magnitude or with the same degree of notoriety — ourselves.


— Roger W. Smith

    July 21, 2020



addendum, July 28, 2020


Under questioning by Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, Mr. [William] Barr [United States Attorney General] agreed that the prosecutors’ recommendation was within sentencing guidelines. “But it was not within Justice Department policy in my view,” he said.

In an especially heated exchange, Mr. Johnson retorted: “You are expecting the American people to believe that you did not do what Trump wanted you to do? You think the American people don’t understand that you were carrying out Trump’s” wishes?

“Let me ask you,” Mr. Barr replied. “Do you think it is fair for a 67-year-old man [Roger Stone] to be sent to prison for seven to nine years?” [italics added]

— “Barr Defends Protest Response and Stone Case Intervention in Combative Hearing,” By Nicholas Fandos, Charlie Savage and Sharon LaFraniere, The New York Times, July 28, 2020

Come, let us gloat over the beast in the cage.


Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

— Matthew 2:40


This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp’d slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”



“I would love for Harvey to have a restorative justice process in which he could come emotionally to terms with his wrongs. The criminal justice system is a distant second to a more humane kind of process. This is what he has created for himself: prison, lack of remorse, lack of accountability. The man is going to prison for sex crimes.” — Ashley Judd


“Harvey Weinstein needed to be held accountable. But sex offenders have a horrible time in jail. It is going to be terrible, state-imposed suffering and torture. I have a hard time feeling happy about that. If accountability can only come through decades in horrific conditions in jail, I don’t love that. Not for anyone.” — Aya Gruber


QUOTED IN “ ‘Finally’: Ashley Judd and Other Weinstein Accusers Respond to Verdict; The women, other key figures in the #MeToo movement and legal scholars shared their thoughts with The New York Times.” by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, Grace Ashford, Catrin Einhorn and Ellen Gabler, The New York Times, February 24, 2020



“He was a target of a cause and of a movement,” defense attorney Donna Rotunno.



Harvey Weinstein.

A caged animal.

His life is over.

He won’t offend again.

They wanted to make a symbol of him. They couldn’t wait to celebrate his conviction.

Their post-trial smugness is dispiriting.

Harvey Weinstein was a sexual predator who behaved like a monster. HE is not a monster.

Weinstein is not subhuman and should not be treated as if he were not human.



There is no possibility of a just or good outcome from Weinstein’s trial.

No person is beyond redemption.

No one should be punished more than is necessary.

Punishment is often inflicted for the sake of punishing.

It does no good.

It has nothing to do with rehabilitation or restitution.

In the karmic sense, it makes the world a worse, not a better, place.



I have personal knowledge about a recent court case overseas which involved a sex offender. The criminal offense was far less worse than Harvey Weinstein’s.

A close relative of the offender is a friend of mine. I know this person (the accused one). He is not a bad person. (I say this with conviction, from personal knowledge.)

He was driven by a compulsion to his criminal acts. They were of a coercive and exploitative nature, like Weinstein’s, although not nearly as bad, and they occurred over a much shorter period of time.

The offender could have been imprisoned for several years. He is much younger than Weinstein. The judge sentenced him to an indeterminate term of confinement in a psychiatric facility, where he will be closely supervised, and to a mandated term of therapy for paraphilia. After which an evaluation will be made of the outcome and a decision will be made whether further confinement is necessary.

This is sensible.

In the US, he would probably be looking at ten to twenty years and the lifetime onus of sex offender status.



Warehousing is a horrible aspect of our criminal “justice” system. It shows just how inhumane and bankrupt the system is:

Willie Bosket — imprisoned for almost his entire life, beginning at age nine. Has spent approximately thirty years in solitary confinement. Now in a maximum security facility in New York State.

Bernie Madoff

Larry Nassar

El Chapo


— posted by Roger W. Smith

  February 26, 2020

gratuitous cruelty


‘after false drug test he was in solitary confinement for 120 days’

‘Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings’

El Chapo – Washington Post 2-14-2019

Where El Chapo Could End Up’ – NY Times 2-15-2019


“In a memorandum on April 16, 2003, [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld approved 24 of the recommended [interrogation] techniques [for at the American-run detention site at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba]. … An action memorandum presented to [Rumsfeld] on Nov. 27, 2002, recommends that he approve a number of interrogation techniques for use at Guantánamo, including one described as ‘the use of stress positions (like standing), for a maximum of four hours.’

“Mr. Rumsfeld, who labors in his Pentagon office at a stand-up desk, added this handwritten postscript: ‘I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?’ ”

— “Files Show Rumsfeld Rejected Some Efforts to Toughen Prison Rules,” by Douglas Jehl, The New York Times, June 23, 2004



As I was walking downtown in the City on Thursday morning last week. enjoying the quiet, early morning streets — it seems that there is always something interesting or beautiful to see — I had a feeling of elation. The sun emerged from behind clouds at approximately 9 a.m.

I was thinking what a wonderful thing (which I assume as a given) freedom (personal, one’s own) is. And how awful is must be to be deprived of it.

My mind was wandering. I thought of an article I had read in the Times that morning: “After False Drug Test, He Was in Solitary Confinement for 120 Days.”

One hundred twenty days, four months, in solitary confinement. For testing positive for drugs while incarcerated. (The test results proved to be wrong. The inmate was not using drugs. The drug-testing equipment used was defective and failed to produce accurate results.)

The stupidity and cruelty of how the prisoners in the article (others suffered similar injustices and pain as the result of the same flawed drug tests) were treated seemed so unjustified, and just plain that.

Then I thought of the so-called supermax (a term meaning highest security prison): the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colorado (also known as the ADX), where recently convicted drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera (El Chapo) is imprisoned.



“This place [the ADX] is not designed for humanity,” Robert Hood, a former warden, told The New York Times. (“Where El Chapo Could End Up: A Prison ‘Not Designed for Humanity’ ”).

Inmates spend 23 hours a day inside cells the size of a bathroom with little human contact and only one window three feet high and four inches wide. Every part of the prison’s 500 cells is made of poured concrete. Each cell has a bed, a concrete slab covered with a thin foam mattress, and a “combo toilet, sink and drinking water unit.” Some cells have a single slit in the door that shows a sliver of the hallway.

In an essay published on the internet, an inmate at the ADX wrote that even when prisoners are let outside their cells, the surroundings are severe. “No mountain, bush, tree or blade of grass is visible from the yard, just the sky,” he wrote. “The cages have just enough room to do aerobic exercises. Other than the opportunity to breathe fresh air and feel the sunshine on your skin, the outside cages are just cells that are open to the sky.”

Meals, mail and medicine are all delivered. “Everything the inmate needs comes and goes through the door slot,” the inmate wrote, adding that “the basic setup is for long-term solitary confinement.”

“The purpose,” the intimate wrote, “is to gradually tear a person down mentally and physically, through environmental and physical deprivation.”

“The segregation is intense; it’s a punitive environment as harsh as any place on Earth,” Duncan Levin, a former federal prosecutor, told the Washington Post (“El Chapo escaped two prisons in Mexico — but no one’s ever busted out of the American ‘ADX’ ,” February 14, 2019).



I was also thinking about Albert Schweitzer.

In my adolescence, I read Albert Schweitzer’s Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography (originally published as Aus Meinem Leben und Denken). The book made a profound impression on me. I was greatly impressed by the principle of Reverence for Life adumbrated by Schweitzer:

“[T]he man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own. He accepts as good preserving life, promoting life, developing all life that is capable of development to its highest possible value. He considers as evil destroying life, injuring life, repressing life that is capable of development. [italics added] This is the absolute, fundamental principle of ethics, and it is a fundamental postulate of thought. …

The ethic of Reverence for Life is the ethic of love widened into universality. It is the ethic of Jesus, now recognized as a logical consequence of thought.



Applying this to the case of notorious criminals such as El Chapo,* it seems to me true in principle that:

El Chapo must be locked up. He was the violent and feared leader of a criminal enterprise who had escaped from prison in the past and who would seem to be beyond redemption, should that be a matter of consideration. Along with accomplices, he habitually carried out murders, often brutal, of rivals, witnesses, and underlings who ran afoul of him.

But he should be allowed to see and embrace his wife and daughters as visitors. To be confined in something less than a virtual torture chamber. Because all prisoners are persons: human beings.

I feel that the operating principle should be: Do the minimum human harm possible. Regardless of how evil an individual is considered to be.

Gratuitous cruelty gives pleasure to those who inflict it.

I like to think (it is consistent with Jesus’s teachings) that somewhere in the afterlife there will be an accounting, a reckoning, for each individual, of one’s benevolent actions and one’s evil actions with respect to harm done to others in whatever capacity, whether it was a crime or actions supposedly not evil, but nonetheless equally so, done in an official capacity. Human suffering should be minimized.

Donald Rumsfeld’s comments encapsulate all of this. All of the above reflections of mine.




As I observed in a previous post

is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?

sometimes, if not often, one can assert, or stake out, a position only to find oneself thinking otherwise almost, as it were, in the same moment.

I also read an article in last week’s New York Times about a young man convicted of murder in Pennsylvania:

The bodies of four victims were found on the farm [in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania] after an extensive search. They had been partially burned in a roaster made out of an oil drum, and had been buried in a 12-foot-deep hole. (“Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings,” The New York Times)

The man was convicted of first degree murder for the killings this week. He seems not to have shown remorse. His cousin pleaded guilty to the murders last year. “Your Honor, I want the four families to know I am so sorry,” the cousin said at his sentencing. “I hope that they find some peace in knowing that I’m just genuinely — I can’t even come to terms with what occurred. I’m sorry.”

As Leo Tolstoy observed, one’s horror at the depravity of heinous crimes seems to vary inversely with the length of time passed since the crime was committed:

A sinking man who clutches at another and drowns him; or a hungry mother exhausted by feeding her baby, who steals some food; or a man trained to discipline who on duty at the word of command kills a defenseless man–seem less guilty, that is, less free and more subject to the law of necessity, to one who knows the circumstances in which these people were placed, and more free to one who does not know that the man was himself drowning, that the mother was hungry, that the soldier was in the ranks, and so on. Similarly a man who committed a murder twenty years ago and has since lived peaceably and harmlessly in society seems less guilty and his action more due to the law of inevitability, to someone who considers his action after twenty years have elapsed than to one who examined it the day after it was committed. [italics added]

— Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace; First Epilogue

Well, in this case, the brutality of the murder and depravity of the killer seemed such to me that no punishment seemed too harsh. Prosecutors initially had sought the death penalty, but the district attorney changed his mind after meeting with the families of the victims.

Philosophers have been trying to come to terms with questions pertaining to what is just since Plato. The following is a passage from a book I am currently reading:

The natural law denotes the eternal and archetypal rule of right action flowing from the will and wisdom of God and guiding men possessed with free will through their ability to reason. Whereas revelation represents a direct communication of divine decrees to a privileged portion of the human race, the natural law proclaims itself with varying degrees of clarity to all rational beings, even to those deprived of biblical truths. Most of mankind came to acknowledge and obey this providential source of all earthly law and order, not through pure ratiocination, but through the historical attempt to discover empirically the conditions of life needed for optimum happiness: “…

Throughout the series the natural law comes close to being associated with a crucial principle of human necessity behind social progress. Such a principle ultimately reflects an elemental drive within human nature for self-preservation and social interaction, both of which generate mankind’s historical pursuit of happiness and preference for a civilized habitat to satisfy that drive. This principle of human necessity provides a norm for measuring the value of actions according to their strict “utility” in fulfilling the contradictory selfish and social impulses of humanity for the protection and fellowship of a civilized community. … But at the heart of all civil development lies an unremitting trial-and-error effort to meet man’s basic physical and psychological needs within the limitations of his earthly environment. If human nature craves social fellowship and protection, it also requires the restraints of a strong sovereign power to curb its egotistical appetites and enforce order and cooperation in a world left inherently unstable by original sin. …

— Thomas M. Curley, “Editor’s Introduction,” A Course of Lectures on the English Law: Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law; And Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, Volume I, Edited by Thomas M. Curley (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), pp. 40-41 (summarizing the contents of Chambers ‘s lectures at Oxford. which were influenced by,  and influenced, the views of Samuel Johnson)

The book has been worth reading for reasons other than those that primarily drew me to it, and I see that while I find the law disagreeable and punishments often cruel and odious, the former is necessary.

— Roger W. Smith

   November 26, 2019


* Did Schweitzer intend for his thoughts to be applied to criminals and depraved human beings? I am sure that was not what he was thinking of. After all, serial killers don’t have “reverence for life.” Nevertheless, what I feel is that if one (in Schweitzer’s words) gives “to every will to live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own,” one by implication — or extension of Schweitzer’s principle — must not deny the humanity of others, without exception.




“El Chapo escaped two prisons in Mexico — but no one’s ever busted out of the American ‘ADX’ ,” by Deanna Paul, The Washington Post, February 14, 2019

“Where El Chapo Could End Up: A Prison ‘Not Designed for Humanity’,” by Alan Feuer and Alan Blinder, The New York Times, February 15, 2019

“Man Sentenced to Life Without Parole in Brutal Farm Killings.” By Sandra E. Garcia, The New York Times, November 18, 2019

“After False Drug Test, He Was in Solitary Confinement for 120 Days: Hundreds of New York State prisoners were locked in cells, denied release or removed from programs when tests erroneously showed they had used narcotics, according to a lawsuit.” by Jan Ransom, The New York Times, November 20, 2019

I heard the flute in the Andante.


At the end of the second movement (Andante) of Mozart’s Symphony No 40 in G Minor.

In a splendid performance this evening at Carnegie Hall.

It induced a feeling of serenity, of gladness. Of being lulled into peacefulness.

In such a state, I thought — with such pleasure — who can hurt me? Let them try. I have music. Literature.

I have nature — yes, here in the City. I was walking all afternoon today. There was a slight hint of spring in the air.

I love my City. I am in daily intercourse with city dwellers — either in earnest; or transitorily, casually, in a ceaseless intermingling and flux best described by Walt Whitman. I receive (in Whitman’s words) love and return it:

“If you meet some stranger in the streets, and love him or her, do I not often meet strangers in the street, and love them?”

— Walt Whitman, Chants Democratic

“I am in love … with all my fellows upon the earth.”

— Walt Whitman, Chants Democratic

I have a loving and supportive wife who is devoted to me and makes it her business day in and day out to make me as happy as possible and to see me fulfilled.



My love of such things, both tangible and ethereal, and of people who share and reciprocate such feelings, cannot be destroyed by petty persons who envy me.

See my post

“Cruelty has a human heart.”

“Cruelty has a human heart.”


— Roger W. Smith

   Valentine’s Day,  February 14, 2019




I read in today’s New York Times the following:

Where will El Chapo most likely go to jail?

We won’t know until sentencing, but it’s probable that Mr. Guzmán will be sent to the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo., more commonly known as the ADX.

The ADX can house up to 500 prisoners in its eight units. Inmates spend their days in 12-by-7-foot cells with thick concrete walls and double sets of sliding metal doors (with solid exteriors, so prisoners can’t see one another). A single window, about three feet high but only four inches wide, offers a notched glimpse of sky and little else. Each cell has a sink-toilet combo and an automated shower, and prisoners sleep on concrete slabs topped with thin mattresses. Most cells also have televisions (with built-in radios), and inmates have access to books and periodicals, as well as certain arts-and-craft materials.

Drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (El Chapo) was certainly guilty, and he is not a nice guy. He was a brutal criminal who murdered — or ordered and witnessed the killings of — opponents and underlings viciously and sadistically without compunction. A psychopath.

But reflecting upon my blessings today, I felt, why must the maximum amount of suffering and deprivation be inflicted upon criminals locked up? It’s another kind of cruelty; organized, state sanctioned cruelty.

I am not trying to find reasons to extenuate El Chapo’s crimes. Except, perhaps, to say that the worst psychopaths seem to have been doomed to be what they became from the start. Deprivation of the worst sort, not solely or primarily economic, must have resulted in their growing up without the normal, so called human, feelings that bind us together.



“We should treat with indulgence every human folly, failing, and vice, bearing in mind that what we have before us are simply our own failings, follies, and vices. For they are just the failings of mankind to which we also belong and accordingly we have all the same failings buried within ourselves. We should not be indignant with others for these vices simply because they do not appear in us at the moment.”

— Irvin D. Yalom, The Schopenhauer Cure



I have hardly ever used drugs in my lifetime — with the exception of marijuana and hashish in earlier years, that is. I have no desire to. In fact, I am averse to drugs on principle. I don’t like putting foreign substances into my body, even aspirin. There are exceptions; I have complied occasionally when I was prescribed medications.

Nevertheless, I did — like, it seemed, practically every other youth and college student in the 1960’s — use marijuana off and on during that period of my life, specifically during my senior year in college (plus a few times right after graduating).

In other words, occasionally. I wasn’t a pothead. I believe there were a lot of people like me at the time who flirted with marijuana because everyone else was doing it.

I hope it’s okay to confess it. I inhaled. Presumably the statute of limitations will protect me from any consequences.

I remember that the first time I tried it, at the instigation of college roommates, it seemed like nothing was happening. “Don’t worry,” they said, “it’s always that way the first time.”

I remember some enjoyable experiences. Mostly, uncontrollable laughter. Sometimes in the presence of others who weren’t indulging and didn’t know what was going on. I almost never laughed so hard before or since.

Listening once to The Rolling Stones’ new song “She’s a Rainbow,” being mesmerized, and thinking it was the most beautiful song I had ever heard. (It’s not that good.)

Later, I some bad experiences with marijuana and, occasionally, hashish. Just the opposite. Lows instead of highs. Feeling bummed out instead of giddy. On such occasions, I felt profoundly alienated and isolated. Instead of giddiness, an unbearable sadness.

I never was involved in making a purchase. I had no idea where or how my friends made purchases, or how much they cost. It seems they got marijuana and hashish of widely varying quality. Some of it seemed to be laced with something, and very powerful. I saw the Beatles film Yellow Submarine while high. It seemed like I was hallucinating and the colors were flashing on the screen.

I never used marijuana after graduating from college except a couple of times, and that was in the period right after graduation, when I was still living near the campus and associating with some of my college friends — I have not used marijuana for over 45 years. For some reason, in those last few experiences, which were in the late 1960’s, I had extremely depressing “highs” — actually, lows. This led me to believe that one’s experience of being high depends a lot on one’s mood going into it. I was depressed in general at the time.

Another thing I found, from experience, was: don’t mix grass with alcohol. I had at least one experience I recall of getting drunk and high at the same time. It was horrible.

I never did any other drugs: no psychedelics. In hindsight, I am very glad that this was the case. For me, it was a good thing.



My college friends progressed, in short order, to doing psychedelic drugs: LSD and mescaline. They wanted to try and experience everything.

I became aware of this during the summer of 1967 when a group of my closest college friends made a cross country trip, unbeknownst to me. I received a postcard from one of them from the West Coast, which was the first I had heard about the trip. I had always had a desire to do a cross country trip by car and probably would have gone with them, had I been asked. But one of them later told me that they had deliberately declined to invite me. The reason was that they thought I was a square when it came to drugs and that it wouldn’t have been fun to have me along because of this. They wanted to take a trip in the conventional sense of the word and also to be able to trip on psychedelic drugs.

I never shared their enthusiasm for drugs, although I did not then and never have tended to be the censorious type.

My friends were speaking with something bordering on rapture about the great trips they were having. But, something held me back, an instinctive caution. I didn’t like the idea of putting chemicals into my bloodstream, and I was afraid of bad trips. It was an intuitive, instinctive thing, a foreboding. I am certain that I would have had very bad experiences had I used psychedelic drugs.

I worked as a psychiatric aide for a couple of years shortly after graduating from college and observed patients whose use of hallucinogens had triggered psychotic episodes. All of them were young. (This was some time after I myself had used or even considered using any kind of drugs, so the fact that I observed this was not relevant to my own behavior. The caution and wariness I had about drug use predated my hospital experience.)



Because I myself have practically never used drugs or craved them, I am not outraged or offended by drug users. Drug use seems to me to be a waste of time, energy, and resources, a depressing aspect of life for many. But, I am not horrified at the thought of drug abuse. I feel it is unfortunate, but, in my mind, it does not seem to be criminal.

Does this mean that I am a softhearted type? Perhaps. An ostrich with its head in the sand? I don’t think so.

Off and on throughout my life, I have experienced alcoholism second hand by observing it among relatives and friends. I have never had a severe drinking problem, so — somewhat as is the case with drugs — alcoholism never alarmed me. But, it did hit a bit closer to home, and so I was consternated when I observed close friends of mine dealing with a drinking problem. A couple of my friends announced out of the blue to me that they had joined AA. I was a bit alarmed, thinking to myself, initially, I didn’t realize the problem had gotten so bad. But, that was it. I never regarded alcoholism as criminal or whatever pejorative term one might care to use. Merely as a problem for some people. A problem that can have serious consequences for them and their families. But, not one that one should be penalized, ostracized, or shunned for.

Which brings me back to drug addiction. I feel that it is unfortunate, but I do not regard it as criminal. Obviously, treatment would be desirable in most cases. But, why are drug users subjected to draconian sentences? Why are they treated as monsters, as scourges of society?

The penalties are far too harsh. Lock ‘em up? For twenty or thirty years or more? How about saying, we require you to complete a mandatory drug treatment program.

Vague, all-encompassing charges (so designed, I would imagine, so that they can “fit” all kinds of offenses, like a one size fits all sock) — such as possession with the intent to distribute — for nonviolent drug offenses result in unbelievably harsh sentences. Such persons get treated like monsters — it seems at least sometimes worse than murderers. They are rent from loved ones and families and incarcerated for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years. For what? For harm done mostly to themselves.

If such people are to be treated as scourges of society and as menaces to the public good and wellbeing or safety, why aren’t such harsh penalties inflicted on offenders with other addictions: gambling, say, or drinking? The criminal “justice” system is inherently unjust — is not rational, reasonable, or fair. (Writers such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens figured this out a long time ago.)



What is it that makes some types of substance abuse and victimless crimes so repugnant, so abominable, so shocking, so horrifying to most people, I wonder. (And, why is alcohol abuse penalized so harshly in Muslim countries while winked at, judicially speaking, here, whereas the situation is somewhat the reverse when it comes to drug abuse?)

It seems that a kind of psychodynamic is going on whereby the authorities, serving, as they see it, as the incarnation of public sentiment, as the standard bearers of virtue, denounce and prosecute activities that perhaps they themselves have been tempted to engage in, a repressed desire. So, that by wiping out the “scourge” — by trying to eradicate it through draconian penalties (which do not stop people from engaging in such behavior) — they are removing vermin from the face of the earth, and at the time removing temptation from the front view mirror.

I used to wonder, when A. M. Rosenthal was a columnist for The New York Times, what it was that made him so hysterical when writing about the topic of drugs. Or about the time when New York Post columnist Pete Hamill wrote an op-ed piece asserting that we should carpet bomb Turkish poppy fields.

People become enraged over miscreant behavior that doesn’t actually do harm, such as the case of nonviolent drug offenders. They become zealots in the manner of a Robespierre.

Take the example of former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 after it was publicly disclosed that he had been patronizing escorts. As state attorney general, Spitzer was known for going after prostitution rings. A few journalists noticed this and commented on Spritzer’s hypocrisy after his immoral behavior, for which he could have been prosecuted, came to light.

There have been countless examples over the years of public servants and civic officials who were caught engaging in the same type of activities that they had publicly denounced as immoral and criminal.



If I may, I would like to conclude with a couple of additional comments based upon my own experience.

I do not myself find addictive behavior to be — a priori — pleasant to witness.

In 1970, I saw the film Trash, which got a lot of notoriety and which, it seemed, appealed to my generation. There was a scene where the actor Joe Dallesandro injects heroin into his veins. I almost fainted. Which I guess is my way of saying that the nuts and bolts of drug abuse are not something I like to contemplate.

At a later time, I saw a documentary film made in Amsterdam the title of which I do not recall. It seemed that the filmmakers intended to be objective, and to portray graphically what it was like to live in a country with lax laws regulating vice. I kind of expected to see that Amsterdam was a liberated, fun place. But, in the film, that did not seem to be the case. Indeed, it seemed depressing. There were interviews with prostitutes, all of them middle aged, who were matter of fact about their business. There was a scene of a sexual encounter between a stripper and a customer in a strip club that was dispiriting to observe. And, there were a lot of scenes shot in cafes where aging hippies with headbands were smoking pot. Everything seemed seedy and depressing.

Bottom line. I am not saying, am not advocating: let’s all have a good time and indulge in whatever activities or immoral behavior we feel like. It’s a personal matter, and also one that often has an impact on the quality of life, both on the personal and on the social, public levels, But, when people — out of curiosity, boredom, frustration, or despair; or perhaps because they harbor antisocial tendencies — do engage in behavior that is not pretty but does not directly harm others, I believe that the first thing we should try to do is to understand them and help them to perhaps see that there are alternatives.


— Roger W. Smith

   February 2017; updated June 2018




According to an article in The New York Times:

“Attorney General Orders Tougher Sentences, Rolling Back Obama Policy”

The New York Times

May 12, 2017


Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects, he announced Friday, reversing Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug violations. ….

Mr. Sessions’s memo replaced the orders of former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who in 2013 took aim at drug sentencing rules. He encouraged prosecutors to consider the individual circumstances of a case and to exercise discretion in charging drug crimes. In cases of nonviolent defendants with insignificant criminal histories and no connections to criminal organizations, Mr. Holder instructed prosecutors to omit details about drug quantities from charging documents so as not to trigger automatically harsh penalties.

This is truly sad.

Dispiriting, depressing.

It is also sad to consider that this story and the attorney general’s cruel (sometimes the plainest word is the right one) directive will probably not get much attention, given that media attention and criticisms of the Trump administration are focused — to the exclusion of practically everything else, it would seem, at times — on President Trump’s firing of FBI director James B. Comey, which has just occurred and has dominated the news all week.

Slightly less than half, 50 percent, of the total of over 200,000 persons incarcerated in federal prisons have been convicted of drug offenses. Of course, the preponderance of them are minorities.

Of the total incarcerated in state prisons, almost a million and a half individuals — about one out of every six — had a drug crime as their most serious offense.

How many of these “criminals” do you think are violent offenders. Want to make a guess?


— Roger W. Smith

   May 13, 2017


See also:

“Unity Was Emerging on Sentencing. Then Came Jeff Sessions”

The New York Times

May 14, 2017

Note that the article states that “Mr. Sessions, … as a senator from Alabama supported legislation that would have made a second marijuana trafficking conviction a capital crime.”



— Roger W. Smith

   May 14, 2017



See also:

She Went to Jail for a Drug Relapse. Tough Love or Too Harsh?

By Jan Hoffman

The New York Times

June 4, 2018

This article provides a textbook example of the absurdity and cruelty or our policy towards drug offenders.

Besides finding confirmation of my views, I was struck by a couple of paragraphs near the end of the story:

… recent studies show that replication efforts failed. They reduced neither rates of drug use nor crime.

Probation, writes Fiona Doherty, a clinical professor at Yale Law School, is “a hidden body of law” that needs scrutiny because judges and probation officers have wide latitude to define a defendant’s “good behavior.”

The [Julie] Eldred case [the focus of the Times article], which challenges that power, is, ironically, a continuation of the origins story for probation. In 1841, John Augustus, a teetotaling Boston bootmaker, described as the father of modern probation, posted bond for “a common drunkard.” By his death, he had supervised nearly 2,000 people, many arrested for intoxication, their records expunged in exchange for avowed sobriety.

Note how alcoholism was treated back then.


— Roger W. Smith

    June 5, 2018

mothers (and babies) in prison



“Raising babies behind bars: A bold experiment in parenting and punishment is allowing children in prison. But is that a good thing?”

by Justin Jouvenal

The Washington Post

May 11, 2018




The article notes:

Hundreds of pregnant women give birth while serving time each year. Most of them must endure the horrible experience of giving up their newborn almost immediately after the baby is born. Can you imagine how devastating emotionally this must be?

Destiny Doud, featured in the Washington Post article, is serving a 12-year sentence for bringing methamphetamine across the Illinois state line. Her daughter Jaelynn’s father is also in prison. He got a lengthy sentence for meth trafficking.

Ms. Doud and her daughter are in the Decatur Correctional Center in Illinois. Ms. Doud was allowed to participate in a Moms and Babies program at the prison, which allows some incarcerated women who give birth in custody to keep their newborn infants with them while they serve their sentences.

The children are allowed to leave the prison only to attend pediatrician appointments.

The practice of shackling pregnant women during childbirth is common in prisons, although some states have done away with it.




My thoughts:

Prison is not the place for these babies. Or their mothers.

Which is not to say, if they have been incarcerated, that mothers should be separated from their babies. (Or fathers. What about them?)

Destiny Doud is a drug addict. (The article notes that she has been participating in a treatment program at the prison). She attempted to finance her addiction by selling drugs. This is NOT a horrible crime, if it is a crime, notwithstanding how society views it.

How about compulsive gambling? Sexual addiction? Alcoholism? If we are going to treat drug addicts as the lowest of the low, deserving of draconian punishment — including the unspeakable, inhuman (note that I didn’t say inhumane) practice of separating mothers from their children (and imagine what harm it does emotionally to the children), why aren’t other addicts treated the same way?

I had a neighborhood friend growing up whose mother was an alcoholic. He lived with his birth mother and a stepfather. The mother’s behavior at times was probably embarrassing to him, because she would be observed totally drunk and falling down in public.

Should she have been locked up to “teach her a lesson.” To remove a “scourge” like her from society? Depriving my friend of a parent. I guess you might say, she drank mostly in the privacy of her home and wasn’t a “rum runner.” Whereas Destiny Doud, featured in the article, was not only an addict; she was caught trying to transport drugs across state lines for the purpose of making a sale. Let’s say she had succeeded. She would have enabled other addicts to procure drugs and would have made money, which she needed to support her habit. Not edifying behavior, but was the harm done to society (or that might have been done; she was stopped and arrested) such that she should have been subjected to practically the cruelest punishment, short of a gruesome death, that a woman can be subjected to?




As I argued in my post “drugs”


Addictions are not pretty and have harmful consequences, mostly for the individual. They can harm that person emotionally and financially and often have similar deleterious effects on one’s family and loved ones. They do minimal social harm and should not be treated as crimes. Singling out drug offenders for prosecution is wrong and harmful — to us, the public; to society, aside from the undeserved consequences for offenders. It has filled up our jails with mostly nonviolent offenders. The offenders in this horrible scenario are the prosecutors and jailers, not the supposed criminals.




The following are some comments by readers of the Washington Post article:


And, you wonder why the “criminal justice” system can’t be reformed, if not done away with.


Let’s hope the reporter becomes the victim of theft then let’s see how “minor” he thinks it is. Wonder if he edited the copy the DNC sent him or filed the story verbatim.


Prison is exactly where these criminals should be. Prisons are expensive so they should be outsourced to Mexico.


Sounds like dumb solution. You don’t get special privileges for being a criminal.


No one is jailed for being addict. They are jailed after being found guilty of crimes.


Just as there is fake news there is fake research. Some goofy bleeding heart emotional marshmallow social worker fabricated research to reward junkies and pushers and other criminals so they can keep their babies in with them in prison. Never mind the harm it does to the kids and society to have criminals raising the kids.


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2018

piling on (the Cosby trial)


Regarding the Bill Cosby trial.

And his conviction last week.

Newspaper accounts noted that the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania district attorney, Kevin R. Steele, asked that Mr. Cosby’s $1 million bail be revoked, suggesting he had been convicted of a serious crime, owned a plane, and could flee.

This prompted an angry outburst from Mr. Cosby, who shouted, “He doesn’t have a plane, you asshole.”

Judge Steven T. O’Neill said he did not view Mr. Cosby as a flight risk and said that Cosby could be released on bail but that he would have to remain in his nearby home. The judge did not set a date for sentencing.

Cosby was convicted on three counts of aggravated indecent assault, all felonies, each punishable by up to 10 years in state prison. Cosby, the former star of the 1980’s television program “The Cosby Show,” lives in an expensive compound outside Philadelphia. He is appealing the verdict, which could potentially delay his imprisonment. Cosby is 80 years old and is legally blind.



The prosecutor’s remark about the possibility of Cosby fleeing prior to sentencing, possibly in a plane, remined me of comments of mine in a recent post on this site:

“the punishment of Anthony Weiner”

the punishment of Anthony Weiner

I wrote as follows:

Trials are a game. Like kids playing tug of war, Old Maid, or Monopoly. Or sports contests. The two sides — prosecution and defense — only want to WIN. (And, to run up the score, if they can. Just as a football team doesn’t want to win by 3 points if they can manage to win by 30 points, prosecutors argue for as long a sentence as they can manage to see imposed, no matter the justness of it.) Perhaps — probably — to bolster their resumes. In the process, what’s fair and what the explanation for misdeeds might be — and many other considerations that ought to be taken into account in resolving thorny questions of motivation, guilt, responsibility, accountability, and so on — get brushed aside.

The truth and what’s fair are irrelevant. Compassion for the individual on trial is considered irrelevant, not to the purpose. …



The prosecutor knows, everyone knows, that Cosby is not going to flee. He is a celebrity known to all — concealment and absconding would be impossible. He is 80 years old and legally blind.

So, what is the point of the prosecutor’s request, and of his making the remark?

Lawyers (a prosecutor has a law degree) are supposedly educated persons with an undergraduate degree and a JD. Which means they are capable of making a distinction between what is reasonable to claim and what is patently absurd. So that, when the prosecutor makes such a claim, it is not a case of ignorance or incapacity. It is rather a matter of intentional heedlessness of what is pertinent and relevant; and of wanton cruelty.

It is simple cruelty, the desire to inflict maximum hardship upon the defendant. A sadistic desire to do so. To find any and all possible means, including the littlest, to inflict an onerous burden upon — as many afflictions and indignities, of a cruel, petty, and malicious nature, entirely uncalled for and unneeded — to humiliate and degrade, the defendant. The same things are done continually in prisons.

This little detail of the trial shows what our criminal “justice” system is really about. Not justice or fairness. Not restitution or rehabilitation. Unquestionably not. It is about winning at all costs and seeing convicted persons suffer as much pain as can possibly be inflicted.

This is not justice. It is institutionalized sadism. It works in ways large and small. From the courts to the prison system.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 29, 2018

Martin Shkreli


This post concerns recent news stories about the former hedge fund manager and convicted felon Martin Shkreli, who has been dubbed — with what seems to be meanness characteristic of the press, as well as the public — “The Most Hated Man in America” and “Pharma Bro.”

Last month, Shkreli was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The details of the case do not interest me; however, I have provided some background information below. The purpose of this post is to point out what I regard as being as clear as day, though hardly anyone ever seems to take notice of it:

— that the “criminal justice” system is blatantly unfair, and that this can be seen in disparities in sentencing, in arbitrarily harsh sentences which are supposedly given because a defendant deserves them, but are really imposed just to prove a point, to make an example of a defendant seen us repugnant to judge and prosecutors, or out of plain old-fashioned venom;

— that the way sentences are arrived at, the process by which they are determined and punishment is meted out, shows a travesty of justice occurring.

Draconian sentences, totally uncalled for. Ruining people’s lives. For crimes in which often the actual harm done to individuals or society was minimal. Making examples of defendants whom the system and the public find contemptible, but whose crimes did not result in inflicting damage upon others that by any stretch of the imagination calls for such penalties.

Ganging up on the defendant.

I have already discussed these inequities (and, I should also say, iniquities) in a previous post of mine:

“the punishment of Anthony Weiner”

the punishment of Anthony Weiner



In December 2015, Martin Shkreli was charged with eight counts of wire and securities fraud, stemming from his time running two hedge funds and, subsequently, a pharmaceutical company, Retrophin. In August 2017, a jury found Shkreli guilty of three of the eight counts against him: two counts of securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud.

Prior to his sentencing in March of this year, Shkreli had been in jail for approximately six months. In September 2017, during the time that he was out on bail awaiting sentencing for his fraud conviction, federal judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto revoked Shkreli’s bail and remanded him to prison. The reason? He had made two Facebook posts offering cash to anyone who could “grab a hair” from Hillary Clinton during a book tour. “On HRC’s book tour, try to grab a hair from her,” Shkreli had written, referring to Ms. Clinton. “Will pay $5,000 per hair obtained from Hillary Clinton.” Prosecutors requested that his bail be revoked. Shkreli was remanded by Judge Matsumoto to the Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn, a notorious prison.

Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn is known as a horrible place to be incarcerated. It is a “much harsher prison than one might expect a first time offender not guilty of violent crime to be sentenced to. He’s in the worst prison that he’ll ever be in, considering the charges he was convicted of,” a defense lawyer told a New York Post reporter covering the story.

Clinton had criticized an egregious price increase by Shkreli of the drug Daraprim — an anti-malarial and antiparasitic drug used to treat patients with AIDS-related and AIDS-unrelated toxoplasmosis — by 5,000 percent, to $750 per pill, when he was CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, a company he founded.

Judge Matsumoto said that Mr. Shkreli’s Facebook post could be perceived as a true threat. She said that it was “solicitation to assault in exchange for money that is not protected by the First Amendment.”

Mr. Shkreli edited the post to say that he had meant it to be satirical, and he later took it down altogether, but prosecutors contended that there was a risk that one of Mr. Shkreli’s social media followers would take the post seriously and act on it. They noted that Shkreli had also made a sexual threat toward a female journalist on Twitter.

In my opinion, Shkreli’s behavior was aberrant and ill considered, but he did not represent a “threat” and did not deserve to spend six months in the worst prison in New York City awaiting sentencing. I repeat: did not represent a “threat.” Anyone with an iota of common sense could have seen that.

Except for the judge.



Regarding Shkreli’s sentencing last month, the following is a digest of articles in The New York Times and other newspapers.

The prosecutors had sought a sentence of at least 15 years. The defense had pushed for 12 to 18 months. This glaring disparity alone demonstrates how divorced from any idea of fairness or reasonableness — from considered judgment — the “criminal justice” system is. They belong in Laputa.

As she imposed the sentence, Judge Matsumoto said that Shkreli seemed “genuinely remorseful,” but he “repeatedly minimized” his conduct, including in statements and emails after his conviction.

Mr. Shkreli’s lawyers noted that he had ultimately paid back his investors, meaning there was no financial loss. Judge Matsumoto rejected that argument, citing legal precedents establishing that fraud losses cover property whether or not it is returned. She ruled that Mr. Shkreli would also have to forfeit $7.36 million to the government to cover his fraud. The judge also imposed a fine of $75,000, separate from the $7.36 million in forfeiture that she had ruled that he must pay, after noting that his net worth was $27.2 million.

During and after his trial, Mr. Shkreli’s behavior online exacerbated his plight. As the proceedings wrapped up, for instance, he wrote on Facebook that if he were to be acquitted, he would be able to have sex with a female journalist he often posted about online. It was one of several posts that prosecutors cited in a pre-sentencing submission in which they argued that any remorse Mr. Shkreli claimed to feel was only for show. [This is a stretch. What prosecutors were doing was cherry picking to find any behavior, including frat boy type humor, to pin on Shkreli in hopes of making him appear deserving of a harsh sentence.]

In deciding the sentence, Judge Matsumoto pored over dozens of letters from Shkreli’s supporters and recounted his “lonely” childhood and abusive parents. “I do believe he is genuinely remorseful for the betrayal of the trust of investors,” she said. “Although he is convicted of fraud, I do believe he is truly a kind and generous person.”

But ultimately, Matsumoto decided that his conviction was the result of an “egregious multitude of lies.”

“This is a serious crime. I do feel that time is necessary to protect the public,” she said. [Seven years? Protect the public? From what? I am a member of the public. Should I be thankful that the judge is looking out for me. That Shkreli is in jail where he can do me no harm?]

Shkreli’s lawyers asked for a more lenient sentence of 12 to 18 months with community service — insisting that he was remorseful and a changed man. His lawyer Benjamin Brafman implored the judge not to sentence Shkreli “simply for being Martin Shkreli.” Prosecutors wanted at least 15 years, which the defense blasted as “draconian.”

“What motivates Martin Shkreli is his own image,” said prosecutor Jacquelyn Kasulis. “He can’t just be an average person who fails, like the rest of us. He needs to be mythical. He needs to be larger than life. He wants everyone to believe that he is a genius, a whiz kid, a self-taught biotech wonder, the richest man in New York.” She cited a psychiatrist’s report that found Shkreli “cannot tolerate failure and instead will lie and rationalize his failures to perpetuate his self-image.” [Ms. Kasulis, probably ten times worse a person than Shkreli, here assumes the self-appointed role of psychiatrist while looking for skeletons in the closet.]

Before she adjourned court, Judge Matsumoto encouraged Mr. Shkreli to continue teaching inmates, as he had already been doing in jail. [Does this not warm the cockles of one’s heart? Meant to be taken as sarcasm.]



In a recent New York Timesarticle:

“Shkreli vs. Holmes: 2 Frauds, 2 Divergent Outcomes. Were They Fair?”

By James B. Stewart

The New York Times

March 22, 2018

Mr. Stewart, a well known business writer, commented retrospectively on Shkreli’s sentencing. He compared two recent cases, one of them Shkreli’s, that were similar in terms of the alleged crimes, but in which there seems to be a disparity in sentencing. (The other case has not been resolved.) He stated:

Few white-collar defendants have been more reviled than the man known as the Pharma Bro, Martin Shkreli, even before he was convicted on multiple counts of securities fraud. The Atlantic called him “the perfect and very hateable combination of arrogance, youth, and avarice,” after he gained notoriety for acquiring the rights to generic drugs for rare diseases and then jacking up the prices.

Mr. Shkreli was convicted of fraud for his activities at two hedge funds he ran, not for anything related to drug pricing. [Shkreli’s attorney] argued that Mr. Shkreli eventually repaid all of his investors, and some realized large gains. Still, a jury ultimately found Mr. Shkreli guilty on three counts — acquitting him on five others — and this month he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Stewart goes on to discuss the case of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the Silicon Valley blood-testing start-up Theranos, who in March 2018 was accused (along with the company’s former president) by the Securities and Exchange Commission of masterminding a “massive fraud” at Theranos. “… the relatively lenient treatment she’s gotten so far,” Stewart says, “compared with Mr. Shkreli’s seven-year prison term, provokes the question: Is this fair?”

The article quotes John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at Columbia Law School who teaches classes on white-collar crime. He told Stewart: “Typically you get more sympathy from the criminal justice system if you’re an attractive young woman than a brash, arrogant young male.”

“At the heart of both cases are lies,” Stewart notes. “At Mr. Shkreli’s sentencing, federal Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto referred to Mr. Shkreli’s ‘egregious multitude of lies,’ and the same might be said of Ms. Holmes. But the financial consequences of her deceptions were in another league. Judge Matsumoto said it didn’t matter that Mr. Shkreli later repaid the investors he defrauded, or that some of his investors made millions.”

“In theory,” Stewart concluded, “Mr. Shkreli’s well-publicized bizarre antics, both in and out of court, should have had no bearing on his guilt or sentence. As Mr. Brafman [Shkreli’s attorney] put it in his opening statement, Mr. Shkreli shouldn’t be found guilty for being ‘ ‘odd,’ ‘weird,’ or having a ‘dysfunctional personality.’ But prosecutors cited his behavior to assert in closing arguments that he ‘had no respect for the law.’ At his sentencing, Judge Matsumoto suggested his actions called into question whether his purported remorse was genuine.”



I have a dream, a fantasy. Call it a vision. Of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges sitting down together for a confab, actuated by pure — the highest — motives; concerned that in dealing with miscreants, they do what’s right and best — not for them, their reputations, or careers; not necessarily what others think is right — but what is right in the eyes of God. And, that they take it as a solemn obligation to do the least harm to all concerned (or affected by the case), including the defendant. That, if they deem punishment necessary, its severity be no more than seems required, and that, rather than treating sentencing as a game where the outcome (years sentenced) is treated as a football score in which one side claims victory and exults in it — measuring success or failure by how severely the miscreant was or was not punished — on the contrary, sentencing would entail gravity and sober mindedness in deliberations as well as a desire for fairness, justice, and no more, so that justice is really served, with full attention given to all parties and Christian forgiveness is not, in principle, regarded as obsolete or irrelevant.

And, that prosecutors forbear a natural inclination to do all they can to blacken defendants — in short, trash them — and portray them in the worst possible light, solely for the sake of achieving “victory,” with scant regard, if any, for facts of the crime which do not fit their predetermined conclusions, or for possible extenuating circumstances, or what kind of person the defendant really is, and whether redemption or rehabilitation is possible. With no thought whatsoever given to possible consequences for the defendant’s family, relatives, or loved ones.

Here’s how my wife put it: “cruel and sad, and not just.”


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2018



See also my post:

“crime or indiscretion?”

crime or indiscretion?

Maya Schenwar on the cruelties perpetuated by the criminal “justice” system


“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead (1862)



A recent acquaintance with the writings of Maya Schenwar has given me gleanings about what the horrors of the U.S. prison system are actually like.

Maya Schenwar is the editor-in-chief of Truthout, described on its web site as a “nonprofit organization dedicated to providing independent news and commentary on a daily basis.” See

Ms. Schenwar’s sister Kayla has been jailed numerous times for victimless crimes: heroin use and dependency, as is explained in the former’s book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (2014). When the book was published, as is noted in the concluding pages, Ms. Schenwar’s sister had just been released from prison. Her current status is unknown, to me.



I first became aware of Ms. Schenwar through an op-ed piece of hers in The New York Times:  “A Virtual Visit to a Relative in Jail,” By Maya Schenwar, The New York Times, September 29, 2016

She writes:

Computer-based video visitation allows people in jail or prison to see loved ones who can’t visit in person for whatever reason—the long distance, disability, illness, a busy schedule or responsibilities at home. However, what Securus [a private company that manages phones in jails and prisons] doesn’t advertise is that, in many cases, you’re not allowed to visit any other way. …

When my sister began serving a sentence at the Lake County jail outside Chicago in July, I … planned to drive over immediately to see her. My sister had been incarcerated before, and I’d always relied on regular visits to help show my love and support. But I discovered that in-person visits were not allowed. All “visits” were to be conducted via video, through Securus’s system.

My options were to schedule a video visit at the facility (sitting in a booth alone) or at home. I scheduled an at-home visit, paying $5 for the privilege. Many jails charge more, but even $5, at regular intervals, can be a burden to families of incarcerated people, who are often poor. …

Moreover, at Lake County and a number of other jails that allow visits only by video, visits must be booked 24 hours ahead of time, which can be an impediment for families struggling to juggle busy schedules with the obligations that come with having an adult (often the primary wage earner) missing from a household.

In my attempt to visit with my sister by video, my visitation privileges were initially denied because of a blurry ID photo: Securus requires that you take a picture of your ID card with your webcam, an endeavor that’s harder than it sounds. This delayed me by a couple of days.

Eventually, I was able to schedule a visitation. The day before, I spent an hour researching and downloading the necessary system requirements for my computer. For people with an older or otherwise incompatible computer or less knowledge of technology — not an unlikely scenario, given the demographics of families of incarcerated people — those requirements could prevent a visit.

My preparation did me no good. I signed on at the required time … and waited. The minutes ticked by as a box telling me my “inmate” hadn’t yet arrived hovered on my screen (although my sister later confirmed she’d been present). After 10 minutes, I called Securus’s tech support. There are no extensions with video visitation; after the half-hour slot you’ve paid for has passed, your connection is cut. I sat on the phone with a helpless tech person, crying. I knew my sister would be devastated. I was worried she’d think I hadn’t shown up.

After a half-hour, the box disappeared. My visit was over. Despite several follow-up calls to tech support and emails to Securus, I never found out why it hadn’t worked.

The second time I tried a video visit, I succeeded in connecting. I was relieved when my sister’s face popped up on my screen. But our video conversation was glitchy: Her face was dim and her words were delayed and didn’t sync with the movements of her mouth. For much of the visit I saw only half her head, and neither of us could look each other in the eye, no matter how much I fiddled with my setup.

These problems weren’t unique to my experience: Technological issues are a common complaint with such visits. When the camera flickered off at the half-hour mark, I felt our conversation had hardly begun.



This article induced me to read Ms. Schenwar’s book: Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.

“The book … debunks myths about conjugal visits in prison, lays bare the ways that businesses gouge and exploit the family of prisoners through charging exorbitant rates for phone calls, highlights the importance of letters for and to prisoners, describes the deplorable treatment of pregnant and parenting mothers, underscores that ‘re-entry’ for most prisoners is exceedingly difficult because of the barriers they face and more.”



The sections about Ms. Schenwar’s sister were heart rending:


When my parents and I visit Cook County Jail for the first time in February 2009, it is a Saturday and the place is jam-packed. We squeeze into the slow-snaking security line, which curves around several ropes and bumps up against the doorway. Some visitors stare at their feet, hands stuffed in their pockets, trudging forward every few minutes when the line loosens. Others shout to their children to stay within the roped boundaries, fearing that they’ll be booted out for causing a disturbance. A thin, shivering woman standing in front of us is shaking her head over and over, rocking a blanket-covered baby in her arms.

As we inch closet to the metal detector, a guard pulls a tall young woman off to the side, gesturing to her short skirt and scoffing, “You think you can come in here like that? Huh?” After a few hesitant protests—”Sorry, sorry, I didn’t know”—she walks away slowly, toward the exit, face in her hands. We follow commands, removing our shoes and socks, stepping through the metal detector, raising our arms for the pat-down, following the officer who escorts us across the yard.

After a three-hour wait, we’re called into the visiting room, and we file through the narrow door. It’s a short, dim corridor lined with wobbly stools facing a thick wall of plexiglass with several barred holes. On the other side of the plexiglass, Kayla shuffles in with a few other women. They scrunch down in a row, each opposite their visitors, and lean toward the holes. We start talking—well, screaming—back and forth. We don’t scream because we’re fraught with emotion, though we are. We scream because we can’t be heard otherwise, due to the thickness of the plexiglass divide and the compressed cacophony of the fellow visitor-screamers competing with us on either side.

Eventually, I just go for it and press my mouth up against the bars of the hole so Kayla can hear me. I taste sweat and sour steel.

“How’s it going?” I scream.

“It sucks, what do you think?” Kayla shouts back. “I feel like my life is over. But, at least, I’m working out.” She twirls, her dismal blue smock flaring wearily.

Kayla’s arms have grown quite muscley (push-ups are a favorite pastime in jail), and her eyebrows are meticulously groomed, if a little greasy.

“Your eyebrows look awesome!” I yell.

“Thanks—we did them with thread that we pulled out of our jumpsuits!” she yells. “They don’t let us have tweezers! I learned it in Audy Home.” The “Audy Home” is the old name of Chicago’s juvenile detention center, where Kayla spent some time in 2005 and 2006. Now she pauses, then knocks her head lightly against the plexiglass, her eyes closed. “But no one gives a shit about my eyebrows, if you think about it. I just don’t know what else to do.” Mom and Dad take turns. Then I’m back on the stool. We quickly run out of things to talk about: Kayla doesn’t want to belabor how hopeless and miserable she’s feeling, and I don’t want to carry on about the happy things in my life—or the frustrating things in my life, most of which seem ridiculously trivial given the circumstances. Later, my dad observes, “What’s left to scream?”

Soon, a jarringly loud buzzer sounds, silencing all conversation. A guard calls time: Our thirty minutes are up. Kayla and her companions rise to march out. “I miss you I miss you I miss you I love you … ” Kayla calls, the ends of her words quivering. She touches her fingertips to the plexiglass before she’s led away. Then, “TIME!” a guard barks on our side of the glass, and we fall in line, too. …

[My] parents and my partner Ryan visit Kayla at Decatur Correctional Center (a central Illinois prison) in early summer of 2012—she’s in for retail theft, stealing over-the-counter medications to sell in order to pay for under-the-counter heroin. … Decatur is a minimum-security women’s prison. Unlike Cook County Jail, there are no long, cramped lines punctuated by guards barking orders. The waiting room is quiet and barely populated; family visits are much less frequent here. The four of us are privileged to be able to take the day off and spend the money to travel to this far-off spot.

A correctional officer (CO) leads us silently through a heavy door into a hallway, and my mother and I are intercepted by a female CO and pulled into a narrow, dusty room that smells like Lysol. Ryan and my dad are pulled into another. We’re patted down firmly, and I flinch as the CO’s hands pass over my breasts and between my legs. This is a mild ordeal compared to the strip search that prisoners themselves must undergo prior to each visit.

Inside the visiting room, the incarcerated women, all garbed in baggy, pale blue uniforms, are nevertheless dressed for the occasion: fingernails freshly lacquered in bright pinks and greens, just-applied layers of lip gloss and eyeliner. Later in an interview, activist and former prisoner Kathy Kelly tells me of how women hand over their meager dollars to the commissary (the prison store, which sells a rotating stock of overpriced items) for makeup and hair supplies, prepping compulsively for the visits of their partners, family, or friends. When Kathy first went to prison in 1988, the commissary sold only things like “oatmeal and Cracker Jacks,” but the selection has ballooned along with the size of the prison-industrial complex, feeding off prisoners’ desperation. Unable to control any other circumstances, many long to know that when family and friends catch a glimpse of them, they’ll think, “At least she’s looking good!”

Unlike Cook County’s heavy-aired, crowded cavern with its shouting-through-the-glass misery, Decatur’s visiting area is a real room, in which one can move one’s arms and legs and even walk around. We hug Kayla, sit down with her at a small, round table, and watch babies play with their incarcerated moms, although, of course, that scene is not uniformly cheery. When conversation stagnates, we can stroll over (without my sister, who must stay seated) to the vending machine and purchase aged treats: Kayla has come to favor a stale-tasting peanut butter and marshmallow lump, the offspring of a Moon Pie and a hardened Twinkie. …

“You would love it here, My,” I’m happy to be able spend an hour with Kayla face-to-face. But the relative “comforts” of visiting the prison bring to mind the fact that, unlike jail, this place is—for many of its inhabitants-—a very long-term residence, very far from home. And despite her soy dog jokes and vending machine enthusiasm, Kayla’s face is damp, stained with the residue of tears and sweat. She’s shaking like crazy and explains that she’s been sedated on large doses of prescription meds dubiously assigned for “anxiety,” then abruptly pulled off of them. Our chatter is peppered with “urn’s.” We revolve around safe topics, reaching for hypothetical fun activities we can do after she’s out, which mostly just involve hanging out in public. Ryan and I share plans for our upcoming wedding, for which Kayla has a slew of ideas—-purple candles, a rhinestone headband, a cheesy love song we both adored as kids. We nod and laugh and emit meaningless witticisms that skirt the fact that Kayla won’t be there for the wedding, that she’ll be here, crossing off the wedding day’s box on her countdown calendar, probably crying.

Undergirding our visit is a sense of quiet desperation. We know Kayla has practically nothing to do all day besides paint her nails with polish purchased off the commissary. We know she encounters regular violence and degradation from guards.

We know that the drug treatment program in which she was enrolled upon entering prison has since been eliminated due to state budget woes, and Kayla, by her own admission, spends a fair amount of her ample free time yearning for crack and heroin. We also know this: Though Kayla will be released in six months, she has absolutely no postrelease plans. How could she have plans? I wonder. In prison, “outside” exists as a diaphanous dream; untouchable, it’s sometimes tough to comprehend that it really still exists.

As we slip out, walking backward and waving to Kayla until the door shuts, Mom says, “It’s so weird that now she just stays here.” I look at her, then around to the other tables, where other prisoners’ families are hugging and sobbing and leaving. “It’s just a room, like any other room,” Mom says. “It’s almost as if she could just walk out with us!”

But of course she can’t. We spun plenty of vague dream-plans for our future life together as we sat around that table. (Traveling to New York to see Grandpa! Playing basketball with Ryan! Finally meeting each other’s friends! Writing together! Thinking together! Being “real sisters”!) But later that year, a couple of days after Kayla’s release, the two of us are “visiting”—joylessly munching cookies at a coffee shop and talking about nothing. She looks up at me and shakes her head languidly. “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I don’t know what to say to people here. The only thing I know how to do is be in prison.”

In mid-June, my parents and I drive four hours to central Illinois to visit Kayla at Logan Correctional Center. Unlike her previous prison, Kayla’s current abode is a medium/maximum-security facility, and she has been assigned to a “maximum” unit. It’s a strange placement. The offense for which she’s incarcerated this time, we now know, is the theft of a bottle of perfume, intended to be a Christmas present. (She’s stolen before, usually planning to sell the items for heroin money, but this time she got caught.) However, this spot is the location where almost all of Illinois’ pregnant prisoners are placed. Kayla is now housed with women who are serving very long sentences, and seeing the years that stretch out before them seems to have a sobering effect. Kayla had a big group of friends—affectionately referred to as “my girls!”—-her last time down, but she’s not looking to re-create the scene. As we sit down at our cable, after Kayla has hugged us so tightly that our ribs ache a bit afterward, she says, “I just want to keep my head down and do my time.”

We move on to an extended debate about what to purchase from the vending machine, and settle on Fritos, strawberry milk, and an immense packaged cinnamon bun. I am dispatched, as Kayla is not allowed to get up. But I promptly fail my mission. Glum and distracted, I leave our prepaid vending machine card—no cash is allowed in the prison—in one of the machines after my first purchase. Only the strawberry milk is salvaged. I return to the machine after realizing my mistake and ask, “Has anyone seen my card? It had $20 on it.”

“Ugh, My,” Kayla groans, humiliated. “This is prison! You’re not gonna see that card again.”

Resigned, I hold the milk carton out to her. She shakes her head.

“I can’t even think about it,” she says, and it takes me a second to understand that she doesn’t mean the milk. “It’s just gonna be so hard this time.”

You’ll get through it,  we say, though none of us can imagine carrying out a pregnancy while in prison, along with the agonizing anticipation of separation from her baby.

“I know,” Kayla says. “But what am I going to do?”

“Just think about the day you get out,” I say.

She pauses, and I realize again that we are talking about very different things.

“OK,” she says. “But what am I going to do the day after that?” …

Giving Birth

It’s late July and humidity drenches the sweat-scented air of the visiting room at Logan prison. Kayla is shifting back and forth in her stiff chair, tugging at her pink polo shirt, which is standard attire for incarcerated pregnant women. The pink identifies them as particularly vulnerable bodies, should “something happen.” (The example Kayla gives is a physical fight: A person will get in more trouble, she says, if her adversary is pregnant.) She pushes impatiently at her belly, which is beginning to usurp the rest of her body. “I’m just moving Angelica around,” she explains. “She’s getting up in my rib cage.” Kayla’s a month and a half from her due date. We ask if her fellow prisoners avoid the topic of the pregnancy. Kayla shakes her head.

“People put their hands on my baby, and say, ‘Aww, when is she due,’ and am thinking, Who the hell did you murder?” she says, rolling her eyes. Logan houses all but three of the women convicted of homicide in Illinois. Kayla heaves her long hair into a pile atop her head, dark drizzles of makeup residue sliding out the corners of her eyes. “The next day, I find out. Oh great, you killed your kid! And your dog? Thanks for the good luck.” She smiles. Kayla’s sense of humor may be floundering a bit, given her current pool of material, but she’s still got it.

Murder jokes notwithstanding, Kayla often reminds me not to make assumptions about people based on their conviction. She’s friends with women convicted of murder—women who, in the midst of gang violence or domestic violence or any number of circumstances, made one horrible decision that condemned them for the rest of their lives. “Those crimes happened within a few minutes, usually,” she says. “And then they’re here forever.”

The clock inches toward our visit’s 7:30 departure time. We scoot closer, and Kayla grabs each of our hands to put on her belly. We feel the baby kicking. “Do you feel her now? Now?” she asks, and turns to Mom with a sudden, eager grin. “Are you excited to be a grandma?”

As we hurry back out to the car, I’m laughing and forgetting about the heat, bouncing a little as I make my way through the somber, emptying parking lot. The circumstances are wretched, but still—I’m going to be an aunt!

“I Want to Hold Her Forever”

At 4:47 a.m. on September 3, 2013, Mom wakes me up with news—”Kayla called she’s on her way to the hospital she’s really scared naturally whoa I can’t believe this is happening!” No one really can, including Kayla. Her water hasn’t broken, and she’s not having contractions. Yet, at the convenience of the prison, her labor has been scheduled for today: It will be induced.

Mom and I commence waiting by our phones. No family can be present during labor and birth. Kayla’s only company will be medical personnel and prison guards, who must watch her at all times. At some point after the birth, she’ll get one phone call to let us know the baby has arrived. Once Angelica is born, Kayla will have twenty-four to thirty-six hours with her. Then the baby will be taken away, and Kayla will return to prison by herself.

I’ve never seen someone give birth in real life. My images of it, culled from movies, books, and friends, all feature groups of anxious, excited loved ones clustered inside and outside the birthing room, radiating warmth and comfort, preparing to ring in a time of communal celebration. I can’t imagine anyone having to go through it alone. Kayla will not only be alone but also literally confined to her hospital bed: As soon as she’s given birth, she’ll be shackled to the bedposts.

Finally, at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Mom calls the prison and pleads for news. She’s transferred around and finally handed off to a counselor. He doesn’t have much information, he says, and he shouldn’t be telling her anything, but here’s what he knows: “Ten fifty-two a.m., seven pounds, five ounces.”

“EEEEE!” I dance and cry around the kitchen. “Ten fifty-two, seven pounds, five ounces! Ten fifty-two, seven pounds, five ounces!”

Then I stop. Is Kayla OK, health-wise? How did she handle almost twenty-six hours of labor? Did she get to breastfeed? When will they be separated? Aside from weighing seven pounds and five ounces, what’s Angelica like? How is she dealing with methadone withdrawal? (Kayla has been kept on a steady dosage of methadone over the past few months in prison.) How is Kayla taking the anticipation of a different kind of withdrawal—withdrawal from her baby, whom she’s only just met? Mom redials the counselor and asks him why Kayla can’t yet call.

“She’s in the free world right now, so there are security considerations,” she’s told. The warden has taken the day off and can’t authorize the call, and the guards in the hospital room haven’t allowed Kayla to pick up the phone.

The free world. This was the phrase used in the Cold War era to distinguish the US and friends from their communist foes. This was the phrase Neil Young used, ironically, to describe many Americans’ poverty and despair, in “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” The American president is the “leader of the free world.” I think, In what “world” do America’s incarcerated live (that is, when they’re not giving birth alone except for the company of prison guards)? Who’s responsible for that un-free world; where mothers are torn from ‘their babies every day?

Finally, my mom gets the “one call” from Kayla. She puts her on speaker and calls me in. Kayla’s breathing rapidly, and I can’t tell whether she’s laughing or crying as she gasps, “Oh my God, she is so beautiful. And I love her, I love her, I love her, and. I just want to hold her forever.”

Angelica is wailing full-blast when Kayla holds her face up to the receiver.

In the background, Kayla is sobbing “My little baby, she doesn’t even know what’s coming,” and her voice is heavy with the weight of the prison-bound pregnancy, the lonely labor, the painful birth, the love-at-first-sight, the shackling, the dreaded moment of separation, and the eighty-one days of waiting to come.

An hour after our conversation, Kayla is handcuffed and led away from her baby and back to prison.

When my parents and I visit Angelica in the hospital, long after Kayla’s gone, she’s wide-eyed, squirming in her tiny bassinet. Taped to the wall of her crib is a three-page note filled with my sister’s neat, decorative handwriting: a list of instructions. She likes the top of her mouth tickled with the tip of the pacifier or your finger. It helps her feed. She loves to be held. She loves when you hold her hand. And on, and on. And then: I love you so so much, baby. I promise I’ll be home soon.

Deepening the irony, that “seizing” is more likely to happen if women admit to drug problems, seeking rehabilitation: “Their admissions are used as evidence of their incapacity to be good mothers.”

Indeed, as the weeks tick down to Kayla’s release from prison, the Department of Child and Family Services will pay her a visit. Because she has admitted to a drug addiction, she’ll be told, she might be denied custody of her child, even after release.

On the afternoon of the parenting class conversation, as we’re driving out of the parking lot, Mom provides a word of commentary: “Probably, a better parenting lesson would involve letting her actually spend time with her child.”

And then we head off to the hospital to see Angelica, who’s tucked into her nursery crib, alone.

And then what?


— Posted by Roger W. Smith

   February 2018