Conrad Black, that is. Back in federal prison, but one can hope not for too long.
His is a great story, and hits so close to home for me in so many ways. There’s a book out, of course, A Matter of Principle, reviewed here by Jonathan Kay:
The effect can be measured in numbers. Exhausting and painful as the courtroom and prison cell have been for Mr. Black as a litigant and husband, they’ve proven fountains of youth for Conrad Black, the man of letters. On a typical writing day, he produces as many as 3,000 words, a pace that allowed him to produce the 1,200-page Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full in the space of six months while awaiting trial — and then the 600-page A Matter of Principle while housed in Cubicle 30, Unit B-1 at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in central Florida. Free men should be so productive.
I have often said, probably right here on this blog somewhere, based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence from years of practicing law – because of course no statistics on such unthinkable things are kept – that about 20% of people who are convicted of crimes and sent to prison are not really guilty of anything that merited such an outcome. How interesting that Lord Black comes to exactly the same conclusion:
By Mr. Black’s estimation, up to 20% of prisoners in American jails have done absolutely nothing illegal to merit their sentences. A decade ago, these forfeit lives meant nothing to him. But in prison, they became his meal companions and students; and their tall tales, street wisdom and outsider posturings have shaped his worldview and attracted his sympathy.
Kay interviews him and Black is candid about the political realities of the US prison nation:
“The basic problem is that prisoners have no political constituency in the United States,” he told me during our interview. “There has always been a respected penal-reform movement in advanced societies — the John Howard Society, and so on. But in the U.S., [politicians] got on this bandwagon about guaranteed mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes-and-you’re-out. They bought into this phony drug war. It’s cost over a trillion dollars, and [all the while] the price of drugs has gone down and the quality and availability has increased. They’ve imprisoned over a million people but achieved nothing — except for those who directly profit from it.”
Even British Lords can feel the financial debilitation of fighting the government:
Thanks to the massive retainers demanded by lawyers, the couple [Black and his wife – ed.] flirted with insolvency at several junctures, and sometimes relied on emergency loans from friends. At one point, there was just $20 in their Palm Beach bank account, and even the local news-agent started demanding cash up-front for newspaper subscriptions. Amid the hardship, Amiel [Black’s wife – ed.] was unceremoniously turfed from columnist jobs in Canada and the U.K., her brand evidently suffering by conjugal association. “It was shabby, and would have been humiliating, if I were not now almost beyond humiliation,” Mr. Black reports.
Ah yes, the friends who are not really friends, the sense of abandonment and being blackballed (no pun intended). I can relate.
Then there is the enduring religious mystery of innocent, or at least undeserved suffering:
During our interview, I asked Mr. Black about his Catholic faith, and how it had helped him deal with his reversal in fortune. “I accepted [the Pope’s] view that life is a cruciform, and we all suffer personally or through natural disasters, though we don’t know why,” he told me. “And only those people who have some faith imagine that there is a reason at all. It is a stern message, but it need not be a grim one — because it shows that there is some intrinsically worthwhile aspect to coping with suffering. At a certain point, there is no practical alternative. You either resist it and fight on or you roll over and give up.”
And how could there not be a revelation about the criminal justice system in the United States:
Whatever one thinks about Conrad Black’s guilt or innocence, there is no doubt that he has proven his claim that America’s legal deck is stacked in prosecutors’ favour: Even before his conviction, he had to endure a genuinely Kafkaesque ordeal of assets being frozen and seized by the FBI, email and phone lines hacked, backroom deals with sleazy witnesses (David Radler, please call your office), and outrageous leveraging of blunderbuss statutes to generate dozens of charges on the basis of tangential procedural indiscretions. The very institution meant to protect innocent people from this machinery of state — the private legal sector — is an old-boys’ club whose members often seem just as concerned with seven-figure paydays as with keeping clients out of jail. The fact that Mr. Black happens to be a famous person makes the claims more credible because, as the author writes, if all this could happen to Conrad Black, it “could happen to anyone, and often does.”
Will a book make a difference? Depends on who reads it, I guess:
The human drama on display in A Matter of Principle will appeal to all sorts of readers. But conservatives, in particular, have a duty to read it. For it shows that many of the presumptions we make about public policy are shaped by the fact that policy-makers and pundits themselves usually haven’t the slightest personal contact with the criminal-justice system, nor with the human wreckage who fall into it. Indeed, Conrad Black may be the only high-profile Canadian op-ed columnist who has spent even so much as a single night in prison. Yet these are the same writers who often blithely support “tough on crime” policies.
I’d like to buy his book but I can’t afford luxuries like books at present. It might be good to have a few quotes handy at my refugee hearing on September 29th, though. Maybe they can ignore me, but how can they ignore Lord Black?