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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For the voyeur--especially the prissy, law-abiding voyeur such as me--few literary genres satisfy as much as the prison memoir. Some of this interest must undoubtedly be attributed to sweaty Chained Heat-style sex fantasies. But mostly the fascination stems from a kind of arm's-length sadism. What happens to someone stretched to the psychological limit? What happens when you go to hell?

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

As a consequence, I was really looking forward to Sol Wachtler's memoirs. If anyone could describe the sickening plunge from respectability to degradation (and if anyone could learn something from the experience), surely it would be Wachtler, who fell as far and fast as anyone can. In November 1992, he was New York state's chief judge and a rising star in the Republican party, famed for his monstrous ego, his political ambition, and his jousts with Gov. Mario Cuomo. Then he was arrested for stalking his former mistress, Joy Silverman, and charged with extortion, interstate racketeering, and blackmail, among other crimes. Wachtler had written her harassing letters in the guise of a fictional alter ego, and mailed a condom to her young daughter. The judge claimed mental incapacitation: Jilted by Silverman, he'd succumbed to a manic depression that was exacerbated by an addiction to prescription amphetamines. Wachtler pled guilty to sending threats through the mail. In September 1993--less than a year after he'd presided over New York's Court of Appeals--the 63-year-old first-time offender began serving an 11-month term in federal prison. Now he has published the story of his time inside, After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir. It is quite an accomplishment: Wachtler has managed to write an uninteresting book about prison life.

T he best modern prison memoirs--The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast, Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai--are stories about an agony that yields redemption. Each book tells roughly the same tale: A corrupt society imprisons the narrator for a minor offense (marijuana possession in Cleaver's case, juvenile delinquency in Abbott's, capitalist roadism in Cheng's). The narrators defy the prison authorities. The authorities visit every horror upon the narrators--sexual assault, beatings, isolation, psychological torture--at which point the narrators harden. They find a code to live by--Islam for Malcolm, black power for Cleaver, a freaky Nietzscheanism for Abbott. They become awesome, terrifying,. What happens when you go to hell? You become stronger than the devil himself.

After the Madness, however, has little such passion; in that, it is true to its title. It's a memoir that carries almost no emotional punch. Wachtler is neither hero nor villain; he's not even a compelling character. His description of prison life overflows with cliché. The food is inedible, the noise is unbearable, the stench is unimaginable, the "bend and spread 'em" searches are unendurable. He supplies the requisite glut of cockroaches and the necessary quota of vicious guards. Wachtler spends pages and pages excusing his behavior--he was depressed, he was addicted, he never intended to harm anyone, etc.--but even here his tone is oddly flat. (To his credit, Wachtler does not ignore the rich ironies of his situation. After the Madness is sprinkled with his awkward encounters. On one occasion he meets a fellow con whose appeal he denied. On another, Wachtler, wearing his stained, tattered prison uniform, is paid a visit by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.)

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P erhaps the blame for After the Madness belongs to the legal profession. It may be a problem of judicial restraint. Great prison writing is mimetic. It reads like going to prison feels--suffocating and alien and frightening. Consider this passage from In the Belly of the Beast, a farrago of paranoia and violence:

The first prisoner--a middle-aged convict--who tried to fuck me, I drew my knife on. I forced him to his knees, and with my knife at his throat, made him perform fellatio on my flaccid penis in front of three of his partners.

This is the way it is done. If you are a man, you must either kill or turn the tables on anyone who propositions you with threats of force.

Compare this vivid lunacy to a passage from After the Madness:

One would assume that now that my depression, manic behavior, and causal toxicity (caused by the drugs I was taking) have been evaluated and confirmed by the government's own medical experts here at Butner [prison], there would be some understanding by the public--not forgiveness, but some understanding. That will not happen. There will always be those who will refuse to accept the fact that a person can function in what appears to be a normal fashion in his or her job, and still suffer from a mental disorder.

After the Madness reads like going to court feels.

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."

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.