Judith Armatta

Judith Armatta is a lawyer, journalist and human rights activist

SLEEPING THE SLEEP OF THE JUST

FROM A WORK IN PROGRESS

[Following revocation of probation for smoking pot and missing a meeting, the judge reminds my grandnephew (who I call Daniel here) that he told him he had to be perfect, something not possible for a 20 year old with mental health issues). After the judge ordered my nephew to prison, his grandmother spoke up, “The system didn’t have to be perfect.” The judge warned her not to talk. When she asked if she could hug her grandson who was in tears before they took him away, the judge told her to shut up or he’d send her to jail!” And so dies faith in justice and the rule of law not only for the convicted, but for family as well.]

Did the judge really think prison would make him better? His attorney had implied as much when she was unable to find a treatment program in the community and naively suggested a stay in prison would provide one. Or was the judge merely punishing Daniel for not being perfect? Sending this young man to the dangers and harsh conditions of prison to live in a milieu of hardened offenders would not make him a better person. He would be lucky just to survive.

*    *     *

Three a.m. Flipping like a hooked fish on a river bank, over and over, from my right side to my left, and onto my back, beginning the sequence again and again. My restless brain refuses to imagine lying on soft meadow grass, watching clouds move among a cathedral of fir branches, listening to the chirps and trills of birdsong. My attempt at meditation rouses images of a small, tight space with glaring light, gray cement walls, a door that can keep out hurricanes and keep a young man in, steel bars, the headache-inducing sound of metal slamming metal, a cacophony of unquiet voices, a hard bed with a meager blanket, a metal toilet with no seat, tough, tattooed prisoners with muscles bulging.

Daniel is in segregation, locked in an 8 by 10 foot cell 23 hours of every 24. He cannot make or receive phone calls. We are dependent on the prison staff to know if he is alright. For a while they answered my phone calls, said they checked on him, reassured me. No longer. I call and leave messages, asking about his meds, his health, his state of mind. I tell them he sent a letter. He is afraid of what will happen when he is released into the general population. He is a sex offender. His victim was a “child.” Nevermind that the sex was consensual and she lied about her age. He is called a “chimo” and a “rapo.” They will beat him up, he writes. Sex offenders get raped in prison.

            I want to have a conversation with the judge who so casually revoked Daniel’s probation, as if he were signing a permission slip to leave school early. The judge (a former prosecutor), a current prosecutor, and the probation officer were of one mind. This kid was uppity and needed to be taught a lesson.

            I want to wake this judge and ask how he can treat people that way. I want him to feel the pain he has caused, not just to my grandnephew but to his grandmother, his mother, his father, his grandfather, his aunts, his sisters, his girlfriend, his son. I now understand “gut wrenching.” I want this judge to see into the future like I do every night. A young man whose life is ruined. He has no prospects. It will be a miracle if he finds even the lowest paid, unskilled job when he gets out. He will not be able to support his son. Will he even find a place to live? Since felons are denied public benefits, he will have to beg or eat in soup kitchens. And how will he get the medication and the treatment he needs? He will not. The prison door will revolve as the judge revokes his parole again and again.

            The judge is elected by the people. Is that what makes him tough on crime? To them, my grandnephew is a criminal, a felon of the worst kind: a sex offender, “one of the most despised groups of people in American society—along with terrorists and perpetrators of genocide.”[i] . . . .

            It’s now nearly 5 a.m. Abby will wake soon. Maybe then I will sleep. I wonder what Daniel is doing now. It’s the middle of the night in Oregon. I hope he is not having a restless night. It can signal a manic episode and then he’ll end up in the hole again. And the judge? Sleeping peacefully? No second thoughts about the young man he so cavalierly sent to prison for a year? Sleeping the sleep of the just.

 

 

[i]Lisa Anne & Laura J. Zilney, Reconsidering Sex Crimes and Offenders: Prosecution or Persecution? Santa Barbara, Denver,  Oxford: Praeger (2009) p.xiii.

 

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