Monday August 23, 2010

by dan

I agree with pretty much everything that Houston attorney Kevin Pennell writes in his editorial in the Houston Chronicle about former federal judge Sam Kent, but it still bothers me. (Previous post on Kent here.) He’s right, of course – Kent isn’t being taught skills that will prepare him for life outside of the jail; he’s not being treated for his rampant alcoholism; being confined solitarily will not help him transition to the outside world a rehabilitated man.

But, you know, so what? Of course he should be taught those things, but Pennell’s editorial misses two big boats – one is that it focuses strictly on Kent. It approaches what Kent alleges as though he’s the first person to ever have his jail time focus exclusively on punishment, rather than allowing for rehabilitation.

There’s something fishy going on. Kent’s currently in a maximum security state prison. He pleaded guilty to, and is being incarcerated for, a nonviolent federal offense. He should be in a federal minimum security facility. The only explanation that has ever been offered is that, because he is a federal judge, he would be endangered by being placed in a federal prison because the other prisoners would want to harm him.

Nothing fishy about it, really – he’s being treated poorly because he can be treated poorly. It’s not a deep-seated conspiracy to undo Judge Kent because someone has an intense loathing for the guy, and the system is working together to see him suffer. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be that. It can just be that he pissed off the wrong person, no one who can do anything about it cares, and the system’s not set up to see this redressed. “Something fishy”? Please. Tell it to the woman who died in Travis County Correctional Complex last month of an asthma attack because no one took her health seriously. This is the system that we’ve built.

And that’s the other big boat that Pennell’s editorial misses – that all of this is downright mundane. Prisoners being treated poorly, in ways that leave them less prepared for the outside world than when they were incarcerated? Ask around, and you’ll find countless people who’ll tell you that’s a feature of our criminal justice system, not a bug.

It doesn’t become right just because it’s happening to a judge who never thought twice about sentencing people to this particular level of hell when he sat on the bench, but the only way that it can do anyone besides this one guy a lick of good is if we stop thinking about it in terms of the poor Judge Kent who’s been so egregiously mistreated and start thinking about what it means, if a guy with Judge Kent’s background can suffer like this, for people who haven’t got his connections or resources.

We know about Kent’s complaints because his attorney filed a motion to have his sentence vacated, and because “Former Federal Judge Alleges Abuse In Prison” is sufficiently man-bites-dog to make it a national story. But holding sympathy for Kent and simultaneously ignoring everyone whose attorney stopped being in a position to file motions on their behalf after their conviction, and whose abuse is insufficiently shocking because they were poor or convicted of something that makes people think that they deserve it or just not someone who the people who read and write these stories relate to.

It’s hard to blame Pennell for focusing specifically and personally on Kent – he clerked for the man when he was a judge, and his wife even testified in his trial, apparently. So it’s natural that he’s a little more closely connected to this case than that of any of the other prisoners who’ve been abused and mistreated while incarcerated. But by all appearances, he’s also a bright guy – so it’s hard to imagine that he’s really incapable of connecting those dots.

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