Conrad Black: My Prison Education

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

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In my 28 months as a guest of the U.S. government, I often wondered how my time in that role would end. I never expected that I would have to serve the whole term, though I was, and am, psychologically prepared to do so, now that I have learned more of the fallibility of American justice, which does convict many people, who, like me, would never dream of committing a crime in a thousand years.

Most evenings as a captive, I telephoned my wife, Barbara, at between 11 and 11.30 p.m., just before the telephones were shut down for the day. I did so on Monday, July 19. Her opening gambit was “What have you heard?” and I dimly replied “Nothing special.”

“You haven’t heard?”

Thus did I learn, as the e-mails had been down in the entire compound for five days, that my appeal bond application had been granted. Half an hour later, when I was in bed using my night light to do a crossword puzzle, two fellow residents approached, a few minutes apart, to say that they had heard of it on the BBC World Service.

Tuesday was a day of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, as bond was discussed and arranged, and terms debated, and the local personnel of the Bureau of Prisons strove to keep up with the paperwork as my status inched, line by line, on their computer screens, toward the gate.

As a matter of principle, I refused to pack up anything until I was assured of actually leaving. To pack up belongings and then have to unpack them would have been insufferably demeaning. I made only very cautious replies to inquiries about leaving “Soon, I hope.”

The court appearance to fix terms was in Chicago on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, where I was represented, with his customary agility, by my outstanding counsel, Miguel Estrada.

By prearrangement, I called my wife at shortly after 11 a.m. Again, she began “What have you heard?” “Nothing,” was my dynamic response, which surprised her, as there were already extended television accounts of the Chicago proceedings. “You leave today. Bail of two million dollars has been posted (by my dear and generous friend Roger Hertog), A car is coming to collect you at about 3. I’ll see you tonight.”

Barbara was in Toronto and it was our 18th wedding anniversary. She couldn’t make her reservation on Air Canada because she could see on television the driver she had arranged to pick me up marooned outside the gates of the prison complex. He had no authorization to prove he was ordered for me and not simply a ruse of the press. Faxes flew back and forth delaying her departure.

Finally, the only way to get to Palm Beach that night, just before midnight, which she was able to do, was to charter from a well-wisher at a knock-down rate, (basically the cost of aviation fuel), a very tired and sluggish medevac plane without a washroom.

In the Coleman Low Security compound, there are 1,800 residents and it is a little universe terminally addicted to gossip about the custodial system and especially the goings-on of the group confined there. By this time there were large numbers of journalists and photographers clustered at the gate of the Coleman complex and ongoing television coverage watched with some bemusement by my fellow residents in the television rooms of the residential units.

A steady stream of well-wishers from all factions of the compound came to say goodbye, as I put my books and papers and a few clothes items into cardboard boxes. (The only article of clothing that I took that was not among the few things I had bought myself was the nondescript brown shirt bequeathed to me when he left by the don of one of the famous New York gang families).

The Mafiosi, the Colombian drug dealers, (including a senator with whom I had a special greeting as a fellow member of a parliamentary upper house), the American drug dealers, high and low, black, white, and Hispanic; the alleged swindlers, hackers, pornographers, credit card fraudsters, bank robbers, and even an accomplished airplane thief; the rehabilitated and unregenerate, the innocent and the guilty, and in almost all cases the grossly over-sentenced, streamed in steadily for hours, to make their farewells.

Most goodbyes were brief and jovial, some were emotional, and a few were quite heart-rending. Many of the 150 students that my very able fellow tutors and I had helped to graduate from high school, came by, some of them now enrolled in university by cyber-correspondence.

Veterans of even 20 years in the federal prison system could not recall anyone being bailed in mid-sentence like this, and particularly not on the heels of unanimous Supreme and Circuit Appeals Court decisions.

I was overwhelmingly enthused to leave, especially in these circumstances, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s rewriting of the open-ended statute that had been used against me, a catchment, as the chief justice of the U.S. said at our hearing, for anyone a prosecutor takes against.

It had been an interesting experience, from which I developed a much greater practical knowledge than I had ever had before of those who had drawn a short straw from the system; of the realities of street level American race relations; of the pathology of incorrigible criminals; and of the wasted opportunities for the reintegration of many of these people into society. I saw at close range the failure of the U.S. War on Drugs, with absurd sentences, (including 20 years for marijuana offences, although 42% of Americans have used marijuana and it is the greatest cash crop in California.) A trillion dollars have been spent, a million easily replaceable small fry are in prison, and the targeted substances are more available and of better quality than ever, while producing countries such as Colombia and Mexico are in a state of civil war.

I had seen at close range the injustice of sentences one hundred times more severe for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine, a straight act of discrimination against African-Americans, that even the first black president and attorney general have only ameliorated with tepid support for a measure, still being debated, to reduce the disparity of sentence from 100 to one to 18 to one.

And I had heard the vehement allegations of many fellow residents of the fraudulence of the public defender system, where court-appointed lawyers, it is universally and plausibly alleged, are more often than not stooges of the prosecutors. They are paid for the number of clients they represent rather than for their level of success, and they do usually plead their clients to prison. They provide a thin veneer for the fable of the poor citizen’s day in court to receive impartial justice through due process.

And I had the opportunity to see why the United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people as other prosperous democracies, (Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom), how the prison industry grew, and successfully sought more prisoners, longer sentences, and maximal possibilities of probation violations and a swift return to custody.

Before I got into the maw of the U.S. legal system, I did not realize the country has 47 million people with a criminal record, (most for relatively trivial offenses,) or that prosecutors won more than 90% of their cases. There, at Coleman, I had seen the courage of self-help, the pathos of broken men, the drawn faces of the hopeless, the glazed expression of the heavily medicated, (90% of Americans judged to require confinement for psychiatric reasons are in the prison system), and the nonchalance of those who find prison a comfortable welfare system compared to the skid row that was their former milieu. America’s 2.4 million prisoners, and millions more awaiting trial or on supervised release, are an ostracized, voiceless legion of the walking dead; they are no one’s constituency.

Of course, I was glad, jubilant, to leave, (though a return is not an impossible result of the pending rehearing), but also grateful for many of the relationships I had formed; enlightened by my observation of American justice on the other side of the wall; and happy to have got on well in an environment very foreign to any I had known before.

My departure was processed quite cordially and the personnel even conducted us to a back exit, through a padlocked gate, far from the media, and shook hands and waved as I slipped the bondage of the U.S. government. It had been 28 months and 18 days since I arrived. The send-off was more congenial than the reception and the ride back to Palm Beach was on the same roads over the same flat, scrubby landscape of strip malls and bungalows as the approach. It seemed more verdant and welcoming on the way back. The drive was contemplative and uneventful.

I was delighted to be back in my home, which the prosecutors had tried to seize for years. For the first time since I was last there, I enjoyed pristine quiet, free of loudspeakers, screamed argument, and the snoring of a hundred men. I had a glass of wine, and waited for Barbara, to celebrate the happiest of all wedding anniversaries.

Conrad Black, a founding director of The New York Sun, is the author most recently of Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. This piece first appeared in the National Post and is reprinted with permission.

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