I'll probably post a number of comments on my jail experience, but in this installment I just wanted to open the topic with some philosophical considerations.
Every Tuesday, Sgt. Severson of the Pennington County Sheriff's Dept., commander (as far as I can tell) of the Work Release Unit, conducts an orientation for those about to enter custody of the State under conditions allowing them to be employed outside jail.
I underwent orientation on August 18, 2009, the morning of the day I surrendered to custody at the Work Release Facility on North St., just across the street from the Civic Center in Rapid City, So. Dak. (Most of you will know it's Rapid City, but I often find myself frustrated when I'm trying to place an event I read about, but can't. And that Alaskan who tunes in here periodically might need to know.) I spent 44 nights in a room with six bunk-beds, twelve mattresses; my average number of roommates was eight. The room was full when I left, Thursday, October 1, at 8 am. I was being punished for possession of 3.67 oz. of cannabis sativa.
I remember three things from the orientation. It took two-and-a-half hours. We were not allowed to bring books into jail (apparently Tom Clancy is often soaked in LSD and smuggled into jails). And this; Sgt. Severson said, "Anyone can end up in jail. Anyone."
Severson is a woman. That has to have been a challenge in the Pennington County Sheriff's Dept. I have no adverse observations about her competence to perform the responsibilities of her position. I mention the fact that she's a woman because you would have noticed it, too, if you'd been there.
"Anyone," she said, "can end up in jail." Those of us who've been there understand that. I also think many who haven't been there understand it, too, but are afraid to take a position on it. That is to say, I think there's a widespread uneasiness about the consequences of incarcerating people on a wholesale scale for trivial bullshit "offenses."
Jail is a soul-crushing instrument. When it is used to stifle dissent, it is especially so. "Anyone can end up in jail," she said. Well, what about the ones who could, and don't? Is the difference just a toss of the dice? In large measure, I believe it is. I think a lot of people who have never seen a courtroom (anywhere but on TV, anyway) also believe that.
In 2002, an SDSMT student arranged a debate-type forum on the issue of a proposed constitutional amendment I had helped put on the ballot. Had the amendment passed, it would have allowed accused people to argue the merits of the law under they were being prosecuted, and to argue the appropriateness of the criminal penalty, the sentence, that could be applied if they were found guilty. I faced Penn. Co. State's Attorney Glenn Brenner in the debate.
During the course of the give and take, Brenner said he'd have to read the statutes on witchcraft before he'd say that he would have voted to acquit the Salem witchcraft defendants, and he said that he would have voted to convict those accused of alcohol trafficking during Prohibition. He did, however, say that he would have flouted the law in order to avoid returning a runaway slave, which was required under federal law under the Dred Scott decision. Nice to know he'd draw the line somewhere.
In my wrap-up, I mentioned that most of us feel like we're criminals just waiting to be apprehended, because there are far too many laws for us to even be aware of which ones we're breaking. Brenner took issue with that and asked for a show of hands in the audience of about 150, "How many of you feel like you're criminals just waiting to be arrested?" About 125 of the about 150 raised their hands. The student who arranged the debate was a campus organizer for the Republican Party of South Dakota. I knew almost no one who was there.
Anyone can end up in jail. Anyone.