No mercy: What Alston can expect

I have some things in common with Andrew Alston, the UVA junior charged with the November 8, 2003, murder of volunteer firefighter Walter Sisk. Like Alston, I once was a UVA student. And, like Alston, I too was charged with murder.

In 1990, I was convicted of the 1985 double murder of Derek and Nancy Haysom, the parents of my then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Haysom, in Bedford County. So I know precisely what Alston is going through as he prepares for his trial, and I know precisely where he will almost certainly end up: right here with me, in the "big house," where I have spent nearly 18 years. Given my experience, perhaps I can offer some useful reflections on Alston's future.

To begin with, let me crawl out on a limb and make a risky prediction: Alston will be found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to the maximum term of imprisonment, 40 years. Hardly any other outcome is conceivable in a high-profile trial of upper-middle-class Caucasians like Alston and me. Why? Because our cases provide unique opportunities for demonstrating that all defendants are equal before the stern bar of the law.

The ugly truth is, of course, that "equal justice for all" is not exactly a hallmark of the U.S. criminal justice system. According to the 2000 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, this country imprisons Caucasian-American males at a rate of 900 per 100,000, but African-American males at a rate of 6,838 per 100,000. South Africa, by contrast, kept only 851 of 100,000 of its black men behind bars in the last year of apartheid. According to a 1998 book, Crime and Punishment in America, in Washington, D.C.– the capital of the "land of the free"– half of all young African-American males are in prison, on probation, or on parole.

These figures will undoubtedly come as a great surprise to readers of this newspaper, even though they are available on-line to anyone interested. My point is that no one is interested. No one wants to look too deeply into the reasons why America's vaunted legal system locks up one particular race at such obscenely disproportionate rates. Like the elephant in the corner of the room or the crazy aunt in the attic, this national disgrace must not be mentioned in polite company; we must all look the other way and pretend not to notice.

Against this background, it becomes politically impossible for courts to treat the occasional well-off Caucasian defendant with anything but the utmost judicial harshness. At trial, Alston may demonstrate some mitigating evidence, but the judge will not be able to show him the slightest mercy. If he did, someone would ask why the great mass of African-American defendants were not afforded similar clemency. And then everyone would be forced to take note of the elephant in the corner, the crazy aunt in the attic.

So expect the months leading up to Alston's trial to be punctuated by a series of press leaks by police and prosecution, all designed to make the accused look like the worst monster to walk the halls of UVA since– well, since me.

No one can be allowed to think that Alston might simply be a troubled young man who made a tragic mistake. Any possible compassion for him must be squelched. Then the court can crush Alston with a 40-year sentence, just like all those poor African-American defendants whom we are not permitted to see as individual human beings either.

That kind of justice has a price, of course– not just for the convicted criminals sent to the penitentiary, but also for a society that has persuaded itself that mercilessness is synonymous with justice.

And what will Alston's life be like if, as I predict, he receives the maximum term? For starters, he can expect to lose weight behind bars. During the week in which I'm writing this article, inmates at my current facility received two means per day for four days in a row, as a cost-saving measure. Budgetary cutbacks have also reduced correctional education to little more than remedial reading classes, so Alston will soon be bored out of his skull. Except at night, when he will probably be raped by his cellmate.

According to former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley's testimony before the U.S. Congress in July 2002, "anywhere from 250,000 to 600,000" of America's 2.1 million prisoners are forced to have sex against their will each year. The result is an HIV infection rate of 8.5 percent in New York's correctional system, which– unlike Virginia's – tests its convict population systematically. By comparison, the estimated infection rate for the civilian U.S. population is 0.3 percent.

"Soft," young, middle-class Caucasians like Alston are by far the most sought-after prey of prison rapists, as I can attest. In 1991, shortly after my arrival at an adult correctional facility, I was sexually assaulted and only barely escaped actual penetration. The ensuring years, until I reached my mid-30s, were filled with daily sexual harassment and propositioning– which is why I became a weightlifting and fitness fanatic. An alternative method for preserving his virginity that Alston may wish to try is conversion to Islam; the Muslim Brothers take care of their own. But he had better not ever let them suspect that he is faking it.

This, then, is how Alston will spend the next 38 years, for Virginia's "truth in sentencing" statute requires prisoners convicted of certain violent crimes to serve roughly 95 percent of their sentences. There is no parole, no time off for good behavior beyond the five percent, no chance of early release. When Alston leaves the Department of Corrections, he will be 59 years old.

During my own nearly 18 years behind bars, I have known a great number of inmates who have served more than 25 years, and a considerable handful who have spent over 30. While I admire some for preserving much of their sanity and humanity for so incredibly long, the truth is that all these long-term prisoners are psychologically damaged. In fact, the majority are completely broken by despair, or embittered to the point of spiritual death, or officially diagnosed as mentally ill.

But even those few friends of mine who have not lost the battle of the mind and heart, who can still think rationally and feel humanly, are

well, a little touched in the head. Not dangerous, mind you, but

odd. Peculiar. That's what 20 or 30 years of prison do to a man.

When Alston is released in 2041, the state will give him $25 and a bus ticket back to Charlottesville– and literally nothing else. He will not receive any assistance in locating a job or an apartment. And unless a kind-hearted staff member helps him far beyond the call of duty, he will not even be issued a picture ID.

Because Alston's parents will have died many years earlier, he will have no contacts in the community to which he returns, no familiar face, or safe haven. For him, as for so many ex-prisoners, freedom will actually be a very frightening prospect– which helps explain the national recidivism rate of 67.5 percent. Three years ago, I knew an inmate who was so scared of leaving that he had to be physically forced off prison grounds when his time was up.

Whether all of this constitutes justice, a fair price for Andrew Alston to pay for allegedly taking the life of Walter Sisk, I leave to you. I also leave you, as an afterthought, the not-inconsiderable expense of imposing this kind of justice: roughly $19,000 per inmate per year, even with only two meals per day. Because Virginia locks up so many Andrew Alstons for so very long– in fact, this state has nearly twice as many prison inmates as the entire nation of Canada– Virginia taxpayers face an annual Department of Corrections bill of $831 million.

Meanwhile, this state's K-12 education budget faces a $1 billion shortfall, and public colleges urgently need an additional $400 million– not for new programs, but simply to maintain current standards. "Every time you open a prison, you close a school," Victor Hugo noted long ago. Justice has a price– not only for Andrew Alston, but also for his former fellow students at UVA.

Strangely enough, there is an alternative to destroying Alston's life with a 40-year sentence and a huge bill to taxpayers– an alternative that has been proven to work. A look overseas shows us that all other industrialized countries, without exception, imprison their criminals at rates l/6 to l/15 as high as the U.S. Yet those nations all report almost exactly the same crime victimization rate as America.

That victimization rate, 21-24 percent, appears to be an inevitable and unalterable concomitant of advanced economic development, from Japan to Canada, from the U.S. to Belgium, from Australia to Italy. Whether one locks up as many people as America or as few as Finland (50 per 100,000) apparently makes no difference at all in terms of public safety.

Of course, Finns are denied the pleasure of seeing fellow citizens receive a nice, stiff, 40-year prison sentence; in fact, only a tiny percentage of Finnish inmates serve even 20 years behind bars. On the other hand, all citizens of Finland are entitled to free public healthcare and a free university education, both at a higher level of quality than that available to the great majority of U.S. citizens. That, too, is a kind of justice– an alternative to American-style justice.

Perhaps one day, a long time from now, the US will change its concept of justice and join the rest of the civilized world. Maybe. One thing is certain, however: If that day ever comes, I will see it from the inside of a prison cell. And Andrew Alston may well be my cellmate.

Jens Soering is a German citizen and former UVA honors student serving two life sentences for double murder. His first book, The Way of the Prisoner: Breaking the Chains of Self through Centering Prayer and Centering Practice, was published in November.