WHEN I FIRST went to prison, I decided that I would not become a jailhouse lawyer, a "writ writer." I am a graduate of Yale Law School, but my legal experience was corporate, not criminal. I was sent to federal prison on a wire fraud conviction, involving a mutual fund in Europe.
At Seagcville, I was given the option of clerking in the law library, but I declined. Most inmates were in prison for good reason, and I saw little point in filing a series of futile writs and other proceedings without purpose and with little chance of success.
Most jailhouse lawyers work for a fee, sometimes payable on the outside to a wife or friend or inside in the form of cigarettes or other commissary items. I did not want to do this either.
I did, however, write a memo about my own case to my sentencing judge. In the memo I questioned parole practices and said I believed they violated due process and the basic elements of fair play. I said I believed they were creating enormous resentment in the prison population. I sent a copy of the memo to Peter Flaherty, then deputy attorney general, whom I have known for some years. I told him that I believed the U.S. Parole Commission's practices were fast becoming a national scandal and that they probably were contributing significantly to the high rate of repeat offenders.
My memo found its way (not at my request) to the desk of the Parole Commission chairman, Cecil C. McCall. His response to Flsherty's office was that I was some sort of disgruntled inmate with an axe to grind, and that the commission's practices were fair and did not violate due process.
By this time I had been exposed to enough case histories to know that I was correct and that the parole chairman was wrong. I spent the next year and a half working on parole problems on behalf of inmates. Although I did not keep count, one of the younger men who helped tells me that I handled more than 400 cases and took back something close to 200 years from the authorities in favor of the prisoners.
It is a sad commentary on the system that somebody like me, with no background in criminal law, could compile such a record in a year and a half. It doesn't mean that I was personally effective. It means that the system metes out so much flagrant injustice every day that one man working hard at it can change the result in case after case.
Sometimes people have asked me what an Ivy League type with my background (Phi Beta Kappa, Princeton, class of '41) was doing in a federal slammer. I have usually been prone to give them the flip response of the hooker. "Just lucky, I guess."
Perhaps I was lucky. It was rewarding to get so deeply interested and involved. This work was as satisfying as any I have ever done. There was the obvious satisfaction of curtailing the pain of unjust incarceration. It is moving to have an enormous, street-hardened con wring your hand, with tears rolling down his cheeks, thanking you for getting him out. Perhaps more important, I believe we did a little something to counteract the deep bitterness and resentment against society that the Parole Commission's practices instill.