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February 10, 2003


Fish are the last to discover water

By Scott Harrison




February 31st

Iíve had a lot of time to think about it. It has been over sixteen months now. Iíve gone to 45 two-hour menís counseling sessions. For my own hearings and progress reports, Iíve gone to two courts a total of about 25 times. Iíve also gone to these same courts just to observe another 10 or 15 times. Iíve submitted papers. Iíve written letters. Iíve read books. Iíve talked and talked. I complain to friends until they vanish or tune out. But nothing seems to change. Somehow Iíve gotten into this legal trap, this legal maze, and I canít get out. No matter what I do, I canít prove to the courts that I am innocent. To say I am deeply discouraged puts it lightly.

I do know this: I do know that the Hall of Justice, the criminal court that is attached to the big City and County Jail... whatever it purports to be, I know what it is. It is a hall of violence. Institutional violence. It pins men down and calmly, coolly, professionally, uses attorneys to take societyís revenge. The physical punishment of another age has become psychological torment and cruelty. Aside from fines and mandated programs, it cuts out chunks of peopleís time. No scars to the body but torture for the mind. The system has gotten good at this. Its agents follow the thick blue book. The penal code. The book instructs them how exactly to bludgeon violatorsí lives.

I think it is within us. The need for justice, the need to answer hurts, insults, and thefts. The need to address fears (which newspapers and television are busy pouring fuel on). The need for revenge. The need to feel secure at any price. These needs are inside each person. So rather than everyone taking justice into their own hands, they try to sweep it all up and put it into this building, the Hall of Justice. In these halls and in these courtrooms, peopleís lives are torn apart. Families blown up. Dreams and spirits crushed.  Jobs, homes, property, and money lost. Money flows. Maybe I just have a twisted way of looking at it, but when I see a judge giving a man one year in jail it is the same as watching an ear being cut off. Five years? A foot surgically removed. Bloody. Thirty years... they're chopping off a manís two legs with castration added. Quietly. Politely. Legally. Legal violence.

I am deeply discouraged. I wish I had never been thrown into this. But because I have been, I think, ďOK buster, Iím going to keep going back until I learn all about you! You are as blind as you are out of control! You are not human: you are a machine. The state legislature spins the dials. Those lawmakers have not spent one day in jail in all of their lives. They have no idea of the reality of what they are doing.Ē

I keep telling the lawyers, judges, counselors, and probation officer that Iím innocent. But why the hell would they listen to me! They donít. All the guilty claim they are innocent. But Iím really innocent. Iím the victim! My wife said I pushed her into a window, but I didnít. They told me itís domestic violence. They branded me. She was the violent one, not me. She accused me. Falsely. They donít listen. She is a woman. I am a man. Case closed. She has a black belt in martial arts. That really never came up. They are getting tired of me. They do this work of theirs and they have learned to not listen. They say, ďIf you werenít ready for the consequences, then you shouldnít have done the crime.Ē  But I didnít do the crime. I didnít do the crime. I suppose Iíll have to have that chiseled on my grave. Anyway, why do they act like this? If the goal is peaceful harmony, then why do they abuse wrongdoers so violently? They have done ten times to me what they say I did to my wife. I loved my wife. They certainly donít love me. They keep showing me that. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I get your message.

Courts have many advantages over people like me. For one, the process takes so long that they can simply wait until stones melt into sand. Until people die, give up, or go away. Until people are unable to pay legal fees. Charles Dickens expresses this alien world of courts and lawyers very well in his novel Bleak House. They can calmly wait until February 31st comes around before acting.

My case, for example. The incident occurred sixteen months ago and it just goes on and on. Hurry up and slow down! Paper on top of paper. It never gets anywhere. Iím still trying to get my case to the trial I should have had in the first place. I am just human. They are a self-perpetuating machine. Iím just a spark on their Bar-B-Q. They can go on and on, decade after decade, with their roast.

I know it could be worse. It could be so much worse.  I keep telling myself that. Innocent men have been executed. Dark skin is a red flag. I guess I shouldnít complain. It could be something else. Just a week ago I was talking to my old girlfriend Rosalind. She had sent Khadija and me a nice wedding present. Last week she told me they found cancer. She had an operation, but the doctors believe the cancer has spread. She must go through a brutal regimen of chemotherapy and radiation. Then last night I read an email from her. The night before, she had been in the hospital. For her chemotherapy they needed to put a tube in her chest. She said it goes directly to her heart. Sleeping with that in her chest was painful. She said she starts chemotherapy next week. On the phone, she sounded so normal. She sounded healthy and her spirits were good. She said that if this must be, if the cancer should prove fatal, she has enjoyed her life and is ready to go. I donít believe her. I think she tells people that to calm down those who love her and are alarmed. I think she wants to comfort us.

I believe the hours and days of peopleís lives are precious. I donít know the best word. Sacred, maybe. People charged with a crime have all these precious moments.  They have only so much time to enjoy and experience the world they have, a world as ephemeral as it is fragile. I saw a man in court one day. He looked like heíd spent the last twenty years at hard jobs. He couldnít work because the tools were at his girlfriendís. He said she wouldnít give them back. He was arrested for violating a court stay away order by trying to get the tools. The judge gave him 30 days but could have given him more. He told the judge, ďThank you. God bless you.Ē The man still didnít have his tools.

On one side of justice are the victims and the pain and loss they have endured. We should never forget about them (I am one of them). But revenge of any kind is not the answer. That only makes more victims. People have no right to hurt other people. They have no right to make a business out of hurting other people even if they write it down, giving themselves permission in triplicate. Repair people, empower people, rehabilitate people (really rehabilitate them), restrain people if they are dangerous, but never demolish their lives. Never. The system does not have that right; just as it does not have the right to own slaves or allow others to own slaves. Even if it says they can because it has published books that say it's ok. What can they be thinking! Forgiveness, compassion, and mercy are the fabric of a just and a humane society.

Say a man has a serious problem with his temper and hurts someone badly in a fight. Or a man on heroin breaks into a car to steal a coat with a wallet. Or two gangs clash over the death of a seventeen-year-old member shot down in the street three months before and two more gang members end up dead. If people are so violent and out of control, they will hurt and kill innocent people. Then, I know, society canít just ignore their actions. Society has to get involved. Just as when a person is ill and has a contagious disease. But when things go terribly wrong, why cut these people up and dismember them rather than helping them?  Help them. Make them whole. Why has society taken this road of violence? It locks people up for years in these houses of pain. These places of unrelenting psychological battering. It treats people like trash that needs to be cleaned up. It approaches crime the way exterminators fight termites, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and rodents. People are not rodents. I often wonder if television gave us this violent cynicism. What happens on television? Destroy the bad guys, cut to a commercial. Knee jerk. Flood the screen with violence to sell more potato chips and breakfast cereal. Iím certain sensationalist newspapers add to the frenzy. The courts have no concept of the pain and harm they inflict. It is cruel and unusual.

Violence begets violence; any psychologist can tell you that. Kick and torment and mistreat a dog, and it will develop a sick and dangerous personality. Maybe the courts' intention is to break the will of people the way trainers break the will of horses. What right do they have?

We all know: prevention is the best cure. Build healthcare centers, not extra emergency rooms. Create jobs instead of prisons. Pay teachers better then prison guards. Reduce guns and the media that glorify them. If people are habitual criminals, then guarantee a job. Donít just throw them armless into the water and punish them when they donít swim. Donít whack off another leg when they return to drugs. People need work. A decent, respectable job they can have some pride in. A home to live in. For drug addiction, why donít they develop strong medications that make the vulnerable sick when they relapse? Cure addiction; solve future crimes before they happen. Marijuana? Marijuana is a red herring of our time.  It is the dark genius of this system that it can operate even without crime. With no victim and no criminal, the machine still hums away at full speed, accelerating by the use of many such imaginary crimes. It seems to me it is a speeding truck with no driver.

The way to reduce crime is to fight the endemic racism that has hardened into the system (often concealed by monetary instruments like high bail and expensive lawyers). If people are mentally suffering because they were damaged by childhood violence and are susceptible to easy rages and uncontrolled violence as adults, then treat them. What good does it do them to lock them up in a correctional zoo that is famous for mental violence? Thatís sweeping the problem out of the house and into the street. Problem? What problem? All swept away! All silenced.

The system itself creates more bitter, more hardened, more violent criminals. Jails and prisons condition people to come out hurt, injured, and angry. I canít understand why nobody in the system seems to understand this. Werenít violent gangs born in the prison system? (Another one of those ďDidnít we train bin Laden?Ē dilemmas.) The system increases the thing it is paid to prevent. And I guess it's good for some people to perpetuate the secure jobs and create the new jobs that the expanding criminal justice system makes "necessary," but where does that leave us? It leaves us robbed of billions of dollars we need for daycare centers, job training, and schools, and it leaves us prey to the monsters that the prisons create. The revenge of the walking dead.

OK, I feel better. I just had to stand here and vent. Iíve been studying this for sixteen months. I don't know the answers. As I said to someone, ďIíve had a ringside seat to the underbelly of the criminal justice system.Ē I guess I had to let out a long, loud howl. Iím not an expert. Itís been so frustrating. But these are my genuine impressions. And I do know this: they presumed things about my case that they were wrong about. They came in and did a whole hell of a lot of damage based on what they decided. I tried to show them how mistakes were made. They were not interested. They told me many times that I am a liar. Who do these people think they are? Iím not even African American. If I had been, they would have had a real picnic!

Those who would protect the happiness, the safety, and the wellbeing of members of our society seem to be guilty of the most astonishing hypocrisy.

They are just so sure I am a lying, cruel bastard. It would be funny if it werenít real. In sixteen months I have been forbidden to talk to my wife even once because they believe I broke the window that she broke. Iíve spent thousands of dollars for mandated domestic violence counseling, for probation, for legal assistance. Why? Because Iím branded. Because Iím a man.

They are so sure I am guilty.

They are so wrong.

Maybe I miss the point. Maybe like cancer the illness is almost invisible at first, and they need to pour incredible amounts of poison into me to help me get better. Maybe they need to nearly kill me to cure me. Maybe they need to make me really suffer so I can someday feel good, whole, and wonderful again.

Iíve been waiting for that day a long time now.