by Jay A. McCalla
Crime and its punishment are topics as old as humanity, substantially addressed in the Bible and deftly explored by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famous 1866 novel of the same name. Moses commanded an “eye for an eye,” which some see as an authorization of retaliatory justice.
In fact, Moses was trying to calm things down. Prior to his command, retribution was often lavishly violent, extending far beyond the initial offense. An “eye for an eye” — which may be the first recorded reform in a criminal justice system — was intended to set stern limits on how an aggrieved party can respond.
As America formed, and cowboys roamed the plains, stealing a horse was punished with hanging. There was none of the nuance that attends to an actual murder trial where a variety of factors could mitigate sentencing. Stealing a horse was binary — either you did or you didn’t.
Through our centuries, we have grudgingly listened to sociologists and psychologists who persuasively attest to the roles addiction, poverty, mental illness and poor schooling play in the creation of criminal behavior. Slowly, sentencing began to reflect the things we were learning. Ankle bracelets, home confinement, drug and alcohol counseling, community service and more have incrementally found their way into our system of justice.
Some politicians and social activists are promoting a reform of our bail system so our fellow citizens aren’t jailed simply because they are poor. At the same time, a significant segment of our country is hostile to the notion of police reform. The emotional churn around crime and punishment is eternal.
It is the disposition of former District Attorney R. Seth Williams, a convicted criminal, that makes me think of Dostoyevsky in addition to justice and mercy. From June until Oct. 24 — by now, you know his sentence — Williams will have sat in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, for more than 120 consecutive days.
Solitary confinement is the most harsh and extreme punishment available in our prison system and is meted out to the most disruptive or violent prisoners who cannot be managed any other way. From what I know, Williams did not meet that description.
Solitary confinement could not have been for the safety of this former prosecutor because Philly DA’s don’t send anybody to federal prison. From the moment he pleaded “guilty” he was thrown into “solitary”.
This is no small matter because Amnesty International regards solitary confinement as “callous, dehumanizing and degrading.” Further, it asserts, it’s a violation of international law.
“One cannot overestimate the devastating impact of long periods of isolation on the physical and mental wellbeing of an inmate,” according to an excerpt from AI’s 2014 report on our federal penal system.
It’s striking that a judicial system that boasts sentencing guidelines could permit such damnable caprice. It’s apparent that a federal judge has breathtaking and unchecked discretion over a convict prior to sentencing.
Using only the recent convictions of elected officials, we see convicted Congressman Chaka Fattah and convicted State Senator Vince Fumo were allowed months of freedom to settle personal affairs before reporting to federal prison. Convicted Councilperson Rick Mariano and Williams were immediately taken into custody.
Williams had willingly pleaded guilty to a crime that warranted five years in prison. His fate was sealed. But, he was leaving behind three daughters — two of high school age — and an aged and infirm mother. Jailing Williams immediately may have satisfied some sense of outrage in the judge, but it was needlessly cruel to those who depended on him.
The solitary confinement — “callous, dehumanizing and degrading” — remains inexplicable.
Seth Williams was a crooked official who betrayed his mother in the most despicable way, but that doesn’t mean we can treat him — or any convict — despicably.
The American Friends Service Committee reports that America has more than 80,000 men, women and children in federal solitary confinement. This figure doesn’t reflect those confined in state, city or county prisons. They further cite that solitary confinement is defined as “torture” under the UN Convention Against Torture. Accordingly, Seth Williams has sat at 8th and Arch streets for months undergoing torture.
In so many important ways, our criminal justice system has been revealed as being far from our ideals and expectations, but there’s little agreement on reform. Perhaps, we need another Mosaic Law to move us forward.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.