Pubdate: Sat, 31 Jul 2010
Source: National Post (Canada)
Section: Full Comment
Copyright: 2010 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Conrad Black


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 emails 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

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 three. I'll see you

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 wellwisher
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
openended 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
streetlevel 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 12
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 
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