August 06, 2007

A nightmare worthy of Kafka

More from Jessica Mitford's 1973 book Kind and Usual Punishment: The Prison Business. In these excerpts, she notes that prison parole authorities based a convict's sentence on various factors--including crimes for which one had never been convicted or even charged:

The man who has pleaded not guilty at his trial, and who continues to assert his innocence of the crime for which he was sentenced -- or even one who refuses to admit guilt for a crime for which he was charged and acquitted -- is liable to be in particularly severe trouble. "You've got your 'cop-out sheet' with you, showing what you've done in the past year: vocational training, church attendance, and the like, but you may never have a chance to bring out any of that. The board member asks: 'How do you feel now about the crime you committed?' You answer: 'I'm sorry it happened. I was drunk at the time. I guess I lost my head. But I have a trade now. I've only one beef against me--failure to tuck my shirt in when ordered to do so by an officer.' The member: 'I like the looks of your file, you're handling yourself pretty well. But what of the 1961 burglary?' You protest you were innocent of that. He says that's not what the police said. You get into a hassle -- and very soon your few minutes of time are up. There are no further questions, the panel tells you, 'We'll let you know.'" [says an ex-convict interviewed by Mitford.]


Later, Mitford tells us,

The indeterminate sentence law gives the Adult Authority [the parole board in California] the power to inflict any punishment it deems fit for these unproved crimes, its decision often based on hearsay in the form of letters from prosecutors or police agencies. Lawyers can cite dozens of cases in which a frustrated D.A., unable to secure a conviction, gets his man in the end anyway. Example: an eighteen-year-old black is sentenced to a five-to-life term for a holdup in which no violence occurred and nobody was hurt. He is eligible for parole at the end of twenty months, and, as a first offender with a blameless prison record, has every reason to expect his sentence to be set accordingly. But there is a letter in his file from the district attorney advising the Adult Authority that he is actually a vicious killer. The district attorney had charged him with a double murder (unconnected with the holdup), and although he was unable to get a conviction after three jury trials, he says he knows the prisoner was guilty and will kill again if freed. Year after year the prisoner comes before the Adult Authority, year after year parole is denied and his sentence, unset, remains at life. He has no opportunity to defend himself--he is not even allowed to see the allegations against him in the D.A.'s latter. At age thirty-three, he is released, having served about eight years more than the average time given a convicted first-degree murderer, and fourteen years more than the average sentence for a robbery first offender.

And so it was in 1973. Now we have mandatory minimums, three strikes you're out, and other enhancements ...

Posted by Ideofact at August 6, 2007 09:12 PM

I am always astonished when I see that someone else has read this astonishing work of Decca's. I was her researcher for her last book. Of all her work - this book was her greatest achivement-and yet hardly anyone knows of it.

Posted by: Karen Leonard at August 8, 2007 04:32 PM

Karen --

I came across a reference to her book on 360 Degrees (it's on the resources page -- it looks like it's some sort of Ajax site, so I can't link directly to the page).

I absolutely agree with your assessment of the book -- reading it has been a pleasure--well, let me rephrase that. Maddening as her subject matter is, it's so compelling that I don't want to put the book down.

Are there any plans for the Mitford Institute to reissue some of her out-of-print books? And did you work on the revised edition of the American Way of Dying?

Posted by: Bill at August 9, 2007 12:37 AM