By Steve Bogira

The lawyers and judges in the Palmer House dining room listened intently last May as convicted felon 25338-016, aka Dan Rostenkowski, addressed them. The John Howard Association, a prison-reform group, was holding its annual meeting, and the former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was describing his “Oxford education”–what he’d learned while incarcerated in Oxford, Wisconsin, serving a 17-month sentence for mail fraud.

“We lock up too many people for too long,” Rostenkowski had discovered. The resulting waste of lives was “a loss to the entire community.” The nation’s dependence on prison was fiscally foolish as well.

Rostenkowski, 70, said that he’d lost more than 50 pounds while incarcerated. But he said the physical stress paled compared with how “psychologically painful” being locked up was. Time dragged; he’d been assigned the job of watching the gauges on a boiler. There was a plethora of rules–“some of which didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense”–enforced by people who “sometimes had more interest in showing their strength than in displaying common sense or human sensitivity.” But the worst thing about prison, Rostenkowski learned, was “the separation from the community and the loss of control over your life.”

The long federal sentences for drug crimes, Rostenkowski told the crowd, are especially ill conceived. He described an inmate he’d met, a 20-year-old man with a 17-year sentence for having acted as a drug courier. The man deserved punishment, Rostenkowski said, but locking him up “from the end of adolescence to the beginning of middle age” seemed “excessive.” He pointed out that there was no evidence of progress in the war on drugs, despite all the young people being sentenced to decades in prison for drug crimes.

Today’s criminal justice system, Rostenkowski concluded, puts “too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on justice.” The Palmer House audience was on its feet, and the applause was deafening.

A month before Rostenkowski’s speech, another convicted felon, 06586-424, aka Andre Williams, stood nervously before a judge in a 17th-floor courtroom of the Dirksen Federal Building awaiting sentencing.

Andre, 28 at the time of this sentencing, his brother Tyrone, and 22 others had been caught in a four-year investigation of drug dealing on the 2700 block of West Flournoy. A cocaine spot run by Andrew “Bay-Bay” Patterson had thrived on that block for years, thanks to its proximity to the Eisenhower Expressway and to the generous-size rocks Bay-Bay offered. Andre had worked for Bay-Bay as a shift supervisor, handing out packs of rocks to the “servers” and collecting money from them. Of the 24 men indicted, 19 were convicted, including Andre, Tyrone, and Bay-Bay. (I wrote about the trial in the Reader in June and July of 1997.)

Most of Andre’s codefendants were sentenced before Andre, to terms ranging from 20 years to life. Andre’s brother was one of those sentenced to life, and Andre was in jeopardy of getting life too. Andre had two previous felony convictions: in 1989 he’d been arrested twice for dealing small amounts of cocaine, and he’d pleaded guilty to both charges in exchange for probation. But because he’d been convicted in the Flournoy case of being part of a “continuing criminal enterprise,” and because it was his third drug conviction, he qualified for life under the federal “three strikes, you’re out” law.

But U.S. District Court judge Robert Gettleman, who’d presided over the Flournoy case, made it clear to prosecutors that he didn’t think life terms were appropriate for most of the defendants, including Andre. “I cannot equate this man with Ted Kaczynski,” Gettleman said of Andre at a January 1998 hearing, shortly after the Unabomber had been given a life term. “If there is a way consistent with the law, I would prefer not to send this man to jail for life.” The U.S. attorney’s office subsequently backed off its request for life terms for Andre and several of the others. Federal sentencing guidelines, however, still mandated a term of 40 years for Andre–and there was nothing that Judge Gettleman, the prosecutors, or Andre’s court-appointed lawyer could do about that.

From the time he was arrested in April 1995, through his trial, and up to his sentencing, Andre had been locked up in the Metropolitan Correctional Center downtown–already he’d done twice as much time as Rostenkowski had serving his whole sentence. Andre Williams and Dan Rostenkowski had taken very different paths to prison. Rostenkowski had worked his way up from 32nd Ward committeeman to state representative to state senator to congressman to Ways and Means chair. In this last position, he had dined weekly with presidents, had flown where he wanted on the Ways and Means jet, had spent thousands on country-club bills and restaurant meals. In 1994 he was indicted on charges of converting office funds to personal use and of putting people on the public payroll who did little or no official work. He pleaded guilty to two lesser charges in April 1996, but the sentencing judge said she thought he was guilty of more than he had pleaded to, that he had “shamelessly abused” his position and had brought “a measure of disgrace” on Congress.

Rostenkowski got his political start from his father, Joe, a 32nd Ward boss–he inherited a political organization from his father. Andre had a different legacy. He was born to an alcoholic father and a heroin-addicted mother. He was the youngest in a family of nine children; most of his older brothers and sisters used dope, peddled it, or both. Drug and alcohol abuse were rampant in his west-side neighborhood, as were unemployment, crime, fires, shootings. Most of Andre’s peers dropped out of high school, and Andre, who had a learning disability, joined the crowd. He never thought much about his future–but then he wasn’t sure he had one: while he was growing up a brother had died of diphtheria, a sister had perished in a fire, a nephew had been gunned down. Another niece was shot when she was 6, another nephew when he was 14, but they survived.

In the 17th-floor courtroom this April morning, Judge Gettleman asked Andre if he had anything to say before sentencing. Andre, wearing his orange MCC jumpsuit, took a deep breath and began the brief statement he’d practiced for weeks. He spoke so softly at first that the court reporter asked him to begin again. Andre talked about growing up on the west side, of a mother who was “strung out on drugs,” and of a father who was “nowhere around,” leaving his grandmother to raise him. He was 14 when the grandmother died, and after that, “I had nowhere to turn, so I turned toward the street, started doing what I was doing every day to survive. That’s how I looked at it, as survival. Other people don’t look at it like that. But that’s how I looked at it. I had to eat. You know what I mean? And I just wanted to say that, Your Honor.”

“Mr. Williams has had a difficult life,” his attorney, Ron Clark, then told Gettleman. “He has had some choices and made wrong ones, at least as we, who have been college educated and had somewhat of a better lifestyle than he had–at least I guess we think he could have made other choices. I’m not so sure anymore about whether Mr. Williams or other people that are raised like him have much of a choice.”

It was now Judge Gettleman’s turn. He called the case “a sad story all around.” If he had the discretion, he said, he’d give Andre a shorter sentence than he was going to have to impose. “You seem like a decent man,” the judge said. “You’ve made some terrible mistakes that you are going to be paying for.”

Then the judge imposed the 40-year term. Gettleman tried to put the best face on the situation. He told Andre that if he behaved himself, he could be released after 34 years. “You will not be an old man” when released, the judge said. “You will see freedom again, and you will be about my age when you get out. It’s not such a bad age….You will still have a life ahead of you.” A marshal escorted Andre out of the courtroom.

In June Gettleman sentenced a man who’d robbed five banks at gunpoint to eight and a half years.

In January he gave the former mayor of Posen, who’d stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars of the town’s money, a year and three months.

In November 1997 he gave a philanthropist responsible for a fraud involving $1.2 million five years.

And in October 1997 he sentenced businessman William Stoecker to prison for bilking Illinois banks out of more than $150 million–the biggest fraud in Illinois history. He got seven and a half years.

Gettleman’s sentences are governed by federal guidelines, but he has much more discretion in sentencing white-collar criminals than he does in sentencing drug offenders. The disparity disturbs him.

Drug dealers, Gettleman says, “are part of a vast number of people who participate in an activity that the country has declared criminal, but that is engaged in by millions of people. Drug dealing is not the most antisocial conduct that the courts deal with, by any means. The white-collar criminal has a much greater impact on our economic system than the street-corner dealer. Think about the harm that an inside trader does to society. Or the crooked banker. It destroys our whole market system. The bank robber, the securities defrauder, the guy who’s stealing money from elderly people by deceit, cheats them out of their life savings–to me, somebody like that is more criminal than somebody who’s just selling drugs on the street corner and is filling the demand of all kinds of folks.”

Gettleman isn’t calling for legalization of narcotics. He just wishes the penalties for drug crimes were more in line with those for white-collar offenses. He thinks it’s wrong to single out drug offenders “for this harsh, mandatory punishment”–to mandate the same kind of sentences for them that courts ordinarily give to murderers.

Andre and most of his codefendants, Gettleman says, “really aren’t hardened criminals but are people in unfortunate circumstances. How do you punish the minor drug dealer? Is the only way you can get him out of the drug trade by putting him in jail for 30 years? Or should we be looking for some sort of alternative to that–treatment, education? I don’t know the answer. But sticking him in a cell for 30 years doesn’t work.” He adds, “I don’t think most people understand the severity of the sentences, or the effects the sentences have on the defendants we see.”

“It was a rough sentence, but it’s better than life,” Andre said two weeks after Gettleman gave him his term. Then he paused, reconsidering. “When I get up outta here I’m gonna be 60 years old! I’ll be an old man. My kids’ll be grown. I still say the crime don’t fit the time. They bring us in here and give us all this time like we done murdered somebody.”

Andre was still in the MCC, awaiting assignment to a penitentiary. (The MCC holds detainees only while they’re awaiting trial or sentencing.) Most of Andre’s codefendants had already been shipped out, mainly to prisons in Pekin, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana. His brother had gone to Terre Haute, and that’s where Andre hoped to be sent. But he said he’d be relieved to go to either Pekin or Terre Haute, because they were close enough to Chicago that he might get an occasional visit from relatives and because he’d at least know some of the prisoners.

His brother Tyrone had been transferred the day before. He’d packed his things into two plastic garbage bags–soap, deodorant, toothpaste, lotion, some cans of soup. When it was time for him to leave, he and Andre hugged. Tyrone asked Andre to write his wife and tell her where he was being sent. He instructed his younger brother to keep his head up and to stay out of trouble wherever he went.

Like Rostenkowski, Andre could speak of the psychological pain of incarceration. His father had died while Andre was locked up, then his mother. He hadn’t been allowed to attend either funeral. The separation from the rest of his family had also been searing. His girlfriend had vowed to stay committed to him and had visited regularly at first. Andre knew that wouldn’t last, knew he shouldn’t expect her to stick with him considering the kind of time he was likely to get. Still, it hurt when she stopped visiting, when she no longer wrote, when his phone calls went unanswered. It hurt especially because she was the mother of his two young daughters, meaning he was losing contact with them as well.

Like Rostenkowski, Andre had found prison not physically demanding so much as painfully boring. Often he would sleep until noon, rising in time to watch All My Children and One Life to Live with most of the other inmates in his unit. Later in the afternoon they’d watch Jerry Springer and Inside Edition and Spider-Man. There were endless games of spades and dominoes. Andre had never played dominoes before he was locked up, but he’d gotten “cold” at it from all the practice. Losers had to bring winners a cup of water or do 25 push-ups, and Andre usually did the drinking or the counting. In the evenings he and his fellow inmates played more spades and more dominoes, watched NYPD Blue, Law & Order, Homicide. Taxpayers foot the bill for all this–$19,000 a year per inmate. Even if Andre earns early release, taxpayers will have spent well over $600,000 warehousing him, not allowing for inflation, by the time he’s released.

In his Palmer House speech, Rostenkowski was honest enough to assume some of the blame for the unjust sentences he was now decrying. Before he ran into his own difficulties with the law, he’d never given criminal-justice issues much thought. For him, he said, as for most American citizens, the people in the nation’s penitentiaries were “out of sight, out of mind.” As a member of Congress, “I was swept along by the rhetoric about getting tough on crime,” he told the John Howard crowd. He didn’t know much about criminal-justice issues, and so he deferred “to my colleagues who had stronger opinions, but little more expertise than I did.

“We were doing what politicians do all too readily–respond to public demand to do something about public fears about crime,” Rostenkowski went on. “Few of us had the patience or courage to point out to the public that there was relatively little that changes in federal laws could do to reduce the violent crime in their neighborhood. So we acted, took our low bows, and went on to other topics.”

Rostenkowski isn’t the first former public official to have a change of heart about prison after feeling its sting firsthand. The problem, of course, is that this compassion is always born too late. Rostenkowski can give speeches now, but he can’t pass any laws.

Imagine how penal legislation would change if a tour of prison duty were required before anyone could assume office, if politicians had to serve a “mandatory-minimum” term of a year or two. Maybe a work-release program would be enough, with the pols incarcerated on weekends but allowed to work in the Capitol during the week. Picture Peter Fitzgerald in a jumpsuit.

It’s easy to blame the politicians, but the ultimate responsibility of course belongs with those who elect them. So maybe we all need to do time.

This year is the 26th anniversary of the famous Stanford prison experiment, in which a group of college students had to do just that. In 1973 three California psychologists created a prisonlike environment in a basement hallway of their psychology department, with the aid of college students who played the parts of prisoners and guards. Even though the prisoners and guards were free to engage in any form of interaction they chose, the experimenters noted, their encounters typically were “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanizing.” The mock guards, some of whom had described themselves as pacifists or Vietnam war doves, devised novel and sadistic ways to harass and degrade the prisoners, and none of the less-cruel guards ever complained about or tried to stop the abuses they witnessed. The prisoners became increasingly self-deprecating, in ways that matched the guards’ views of them, and as the experiment progressed, they more frequently expressed intentions to harm others–even as they became ever more docile and increasingly conformed to the guards’ whims.

The experimenters hadn’t been prepared for the intensity of the students’ feelings. The mock prisoners suffered acute psychological trauma and breakdowns; some begged to be released after less than a week of their simulated imprisonment. The planned two-week experiment was aborted after six days because of the effect it was having on the students. The experimenters noted that the antisocial behaviors they observed weren’t the product of a collection of deviant personalities–the participants chosen had all been judged psychologically normal–but had resulted from “an intrinsically pathological situation.”

The Stanford study added to a widespread sentiment at the time that prisons were counterproductive and should be used only as a last resort. Around the same time that the Stanford results were published, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals issued a report concluding that prisons, juvenile reformatories, and jails had achieved a “shocking record of failure” and that they might be creating more crime than they were preventing. Hardly any prisons were built in America in the early 70s, largely because of the lack of public confidence in them; the advisory commission recommended that this functional moratorium on prison construction continue for at least another decade.

But in the years since, the greatest change in prisons is that more are being built. And vastly more people are being put in them, frequently for far longer times.

When Andre was born, in 1970, fewer than 200,000 Americans were incarcerated. Now more than 1.7 million are, and at the current rate of growth, the nation’s jails and prisons will hold 2 million within the year. The war on drugs has accounted for the bulk of this increase. And while imprisonment rates for drug offenses have skyrocketed for whites and blacks alike, it’s risen twice as fast for African-Americans: in the last decade the number of whites imprisoned for drug crimes rose by 306 percent, the number of blacks by 707 percent.

If the war on drugs were actually putting a dent in drug trafficking, maybe it could be justified, Judge Gettleman says. “But from what I’m reading, there are more drugs and more drugs and more drugs. If it’s not having an effect, then I think we say, ‘All right, we’ve tried this–it’s not working. Let’s try something else.’ I mean, that’s just common sense.”

Certainly there’s been little improvement in Andre’s old neighborhood, despite the costly prosecution of the Flournoy group and the hefty sentences doled out. Cars no longer stream from the Ike to Bay-Bay’s spot–but the neighborhood’s hypes have places around the corner to cop. Young mothers, thin as a crack pipe, and middle-aged men in Salvation Army coats still slink down to the vacant lots, where they meet with young men in Starter jackets and trade a sawbuck for a thumbnail-size Baggie containing a white rock. Or brown powder. Mr. Starter Jacket’s chief responsibility is to distinguish the genuine buyer from the undercover officer, but even the most skillful server slips up now and then, winning a trip to the Harrison District lockup. Police made more than 10,000 drug arrests in the district in ’97 and have surpassed that record in ’98.

The billboards hovering over the neighborhood continue to hawk legal habits: “Heineken Beer–Seek the Truth” and “It’s Got to Be Smooth–Seagram’s Extra Dry” and “Don’t fake the Flava–GET SPICEY” and “Newport pleasure! Fire it up!” and LOTTERY–PLAY IT HERE. Abandoned buildings have grown in number, rats continue to patrol the alleys. The neighborhood’s schools still bring up the rear in test scores.

The federal Bureau of Prisons considers many factors in deciding where its prisoners are placed, says Michael Junk, a regional designator for the bureau. “While we would like to get them as close to home as possible, sometimes we just aren’t able to do that.”

Andre’s wish that he be sent to Terre Haute or Pekin went unfulfilled. Early in May he was bused to Midway Airport, then flown to Oklahoma, then bused to his new home, in Florence, Colorado. Who will ever visit me way out here? Andre wondered. And there he sits–and, in one federal prison or another, will keep sitting, through the rest of his 20s, and through his 30s, 40s, and 50s, watching soap operas and polishing his dominoes skills.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chip Williams/J.B. Spector.