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A Bunch of Scumbags

By Adrian Lomax

Awhile back a friend wrote in her letter to me that, as she was writing, her son walked into the room and asked what she was doing. Upon hearing her answer, the son said, "Those guys in prison are a bunch of scumbags."

That's certainly not an uncommon belief, and the Department of Corrections does what it can to promote such thinking. Anyone who suggests to correctional administrators that perhaps prisoners should be afforded humane treatment will hear a lot about how prisoners are unscrupulous and hypocritical. A favorite rhetorical tactic of prison official is to say that prisoners are hypocrites because they're concerned about their own rights while they ignored the rights of their victims.

Prisoners vary quite a bit from one to the next, so it's difficult to generalize. In my observation, some prisoners are unscrupulous and hypocritical, others less so. Prisoners certainly have seriously flawed members among their ranks, so I can't refute prison officials' claims that prisoners are unscrupulous and hypocritical, or, in the words of my friend's son, scumbags. But are prisoners really so different in that respect than the rest of society? More specifically, are prisoners so different from those who sit in judgment over them?

James Cassidy, a lawyer and former Dane County assistant District Attorney, was recently sentenced to five years in prison. He stole $145,000 from the estates of his clients.

Former Dane County Circuit Judge William Byrne was quoted in the Capital Times as saying that he thought Cassidy should not be sent to prison. Byrne argued that losing his license to practice law was enough of a punishment for Cassidy.

I'd love to search through Dane County court records to determine how many people Byrne sentenced to prison, while he was a judge, for stealing property worth less than one percent of Cassidy's heist. I'm sure its a large number. Yet, because Cassidy is a wealthy white man and a professional colleague, Byrne wants to see him escape precisely the kind of justice Byrne made a career dispensing. Prisoners may be hypocrites, as the DOC says, but you'll look long and hard in Wisconsin's prisons before finding as profound a hypocrite as William Byrne.

Cassidy himself asked the judge to grant him probation. I'd like to find all the cases in which Cassidy, when he was an assistant District Attorney, demanded a prison term for someone who stole far less than he.

Worse yet, Cassidy had the chutzpah to argue that he should be spared imprisonment because of his poor health. That plea is hardly unknown to criminal defendants. I wonder how many times, as a DA, Cassidy argued that someone's ill health should not allow them to escape punishment. "This defendant committed a serious crime and harmed his victims," Cassidy is sure to have argued in those cases. Yet now he's willing to shamelessly invoke that same plea for his own benefit. Talk about unscrupulous!

And what of Rock County Judge Richard Long, who sentenced Cassidy? He's doubtless sentenced numerous poor and non-white defendants to longer prison terms for stealing far less. And he's sworn to uphold justice.

Waupun inmate Calvin Sorenson was sentenced to nine years for three counts of shoplifting. He stole a carton of cigarettes, a pair of blue jeans and a travel iron. Joe Perkins, another Waupun prisoner, received 15 years for breaking into parking meters. Neither of those two were sentenced by Long, but their cases are hardly unrepresentative.

Who harmed their victims more - Cassidy or Sorenson? Yet Sorenson received the harsher sentence. Cassidy stole a hundred times more money than Perkins, yet he'll leave prison much sooner. Prisons are filled with minorities and the poor because the crimes of middle - and upper - class whites are weighed on a completely different scale.

This profound injustice serves specific interests, which is a subject for another column, but it's made possible only by the appalling hypocrisy of people like William Byrne, James Cassidy and Richard Long. Their unscrupulousness is made worse yet by the fact that they occupy positions of power and affect the lives of so many others.

Prisoners are, as the DOC says, unscrupulous and hypocritical. After all, James Cassidy is now a prisoner. But, as I've learned so well over the years, prisoners are not so very different at all from those on the outside. They're poorer, of course, and blacker, and younger; all of which is to say more powerless. But when you strip away the differences in race and class prisoners look an awful lot like everyone else.

A year ago a tornado ripped through the Oregon prison farm, just south of Madison. In the aftermath, an illegal hazardous waste dump was found on prison grounds. Department of Natural Resources staff found pesticides, paint, tires, fuel oil tanks, scrap metal and other refuse at the site.

How did the DOC explain the dump's existence? Correctional officials fell back on the most beloved of all their rhetorical strategies. They blamed it on prisoners.

David Whitcomb, the DOC's chief legal counsel, told reporters that prison officials had no knowledge of the illegal dump. He said inmate workers must have been responsible.

That explanation is downright laughable. Items as large as barrels and fuel oil tanks don't turn up missing without prison staff noticing. When I worked in the Waupun library, prison staffers meticulously counted the ink pens issued to inmate workers. Furthermore, prisoners have no incentive to illegally dump toxic materials that belong to the state. It's not prisoners who are responsible to pay for proper disposal of toxic waste.

DOC officials are not only liars, they're brazen, absurd liars. As Bill Lueders wrote in Isthmus last March, prison administrators "lie with such regularity that [one] is reminded of the Jon Lovitz character on `Saturday Night Live.'"

I've been held in solitary confinement since November 1992. DOC officials sentenced me to a total of three years in solitary based on their objections to my writing in this newspaper. The prison disciplinary offense they've found me guilty of on each occasion: lying. Talk about hypocrisy.

Reprinted from The Madison Edge

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