Judicial Restraint

Reading between the lines.
April 16 1997 3:30 AM

Judicial Restraint

Sol Wachtler's worthy sentiments on prison.

After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir

By Sol Wachtler

Random House; 369 pages; $24

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At the level of policy, Wachtler has written a fine book, a worthy dissertation on the American penal system. He is much more heartfelt about prison reform than about Wachtler reform. He spends a month in the hole, then chastises his fellow judges for not considering solitary confinement a "cruel and unusual" punishment. He befriends a cocaine user doing hard time, then sermonizes about the idiocies of mandatory minimum sentences. His blockmate confesses to robbery: Wachtler takes the occasion to celebrate the Miranda warning. His tales work by accretion: After 353 pages and 11 months in prison, Wachtler has made a persuasive case for penal reform: to free nonviolent criminals, scrap drug laws, fund prison education and training programs, and more. The old joke is true: "What do you call a Republican who's been to jail? A Democrat."

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After I finished this worthy and dull book, a distressing thought came to me: Its banality might be the fault neither of the judge nor of the legal profession. Maybe Wachtler writes clichés because prison has become cliché. A generation ago, even 15 years ago, jail was as alien as Mars. A month in the hole, a cockroach infestation, the stench of mystery meat--these were topics that would revolt broad-minded readers. Who knew that fellow citizens--even the scummy ones--endured such horrors?

The bleakest lesson of After the Madness is perhaps that prison has lost its capacity to shock. More than a million Americans are in jail today--five times as many as in 1970. In some communities (though not the rich Long Island ones where judges live), a prison term has become almost a rite of passage, something that young men do. We are inundated with prison pop culture--with directors, documentarians, TV producers, and writers who have gone up the river and returned with tales of rapes and "cavity searches" and "shanks" and "pigs." A generation ago, Abbott's book was hailed as a landmark, a visionary exposé. Today, such a book--not that Wachtler has written one--would be greeted with a shrug.

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