While we, who wait quietly to be called for our few moments in the well, attribute vast power to the guy in the robe on the big bench of a federal courtroom, federal judges may not see their authority quite the same. This point was driven home in spades by a post by Judge Richard Kopf at Hercules and the Umpire.
About to have (a presumptively lengthy) sentence imposed, the defendant disrupted the routine with an apology for not being at his best.
When the defendant spoke, the first thing he said was “I don’t feel so well” or words like that. He was sweating profusely, he seemed shaky, and he appeared to be nauseous..
He said he had not been given his medications at Douglas County Corrections. The US Marshals had delivered the fellow’s medication to Douglas County when they transported the guy from the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center (D&E) at the state prison the day before. The fellow apparently had herniated discs that required surgery, and he was evidently anxious and depressed.
The fellow kept apologizing to me about being sick. He wanted to be sentenced. He wanted to get to a Federal Medical Center for a thorough work-up. He had no apparent motive to delay sentencing.
The emotional toll endured by a defendant, about to find out just how horrible the rest of his life is going to turn out, at sentence is devastating. This isn’t to suggest they didn’t do anything to earn a stay at Club Fed, but not knowing whether it’s only the next few years or the next few decades is brutal.
Some prefer to hide from it, and want to put off the inevitable as long as possible. Others have steeled themselves for the news, and want it done and over. Most can’t bear the pressure of not knowing whether they have a future, and even though the outcome will range from awful to horrible, they need closure. They need it to end.
When I asked the US Marshals what had happened, they advised that Douglas County Corrections (where we “store” prisoners in Omaha) won’t administer medications prescribed at other correctional institutions like D&E (where we also “store” prisoners) until Douglas County Corrections is independently satisfied that the prisoner needs the medications. Until then, the prisoner does not get the medication. In this case, there was no weaning him off the medications–Douglas County Corrections simply refused to give him the stuff at all. I suppose they would have gotten around to the medication issue at some point.
For anyone who reads the above-quoted paragraph and thinks that’s ridiculous, you haven’t spent enough time around official people. At every level of a bureaucracy, policies are crafted that make perfect sense if one presumes that particular bureaucracy exists independent of all others and at the center of its universe. It’s only ridiculous from the outside, where a longer view of the picture makes it irrefutably clear that the policy is absurd in context.
To the outsider, one would think that correctional facilities would both show a little respect for the determinations by other correctional facilities, plus recognize the harm caused to someone by the immediate cessation of pain meds. To the insider, however, the need to independently assess the need for serious meds is paramount.
After all, each facility is responsible for itself, and rubber stamping a determination by another facility could spawn mischief. No correctional facility wants to take a chance at being open to attack for a mistake. And if that policy causes some “discomfort” to a suffering inmate, well, then he should have thought about that before committing a crime. It’s a facile explanation, covering all manner of bureaucracy.
I suggested that this seemed silly since the Nebraska Department of Corrections, the entity that operates D&E, is far more sophisticated than a county jail and Douglas County Corrections could probably trust the State of Nebraska that the drugs were necessary. The US Marshals, who are, in my experience, both humane and professional, replied that it was not their policy that had deprived this man of his medications. Indeed, they had done absolutely everything they could to see that he got his prescribed drugs including hand delivering them to Douglas County Corrections.
It seemed silly indeed, but not nearly as silly as an Article III judge, with a defendant sick and in pain before him because of the bureaucratic policies that preclude anyone along the spectrum of being responsible for causing deliberate harm to a human being in their care, doing nothing more than “suggesting” it seemed silly.
No, it was not silly. It was abusive. The denial of medication was an intentional harm done a prisoner in the facility’s care, and it played out in a federal courtroom before someone with the power to put a person in prison for the rest of his life. And the best that could be done was to “tsk” at its silliness.
I don’t like sentencing people to prison when they are sick. That is particularly so when their sickness results from the casual cruelty of correctional bureaucrats.
This isn’t to point out a failing of a particular judge. In fairness, this scenario has played out to some greater or lesser extent in every federal sentencing I’ve had the misfortune to attend. I have never understood the relationship between Article III judges and the Bureau of Prisons, the latter being inexplicably untouchable to the former. When it comes to prisoners, judges might suggest, but they never order. No matter what.
The defendant before Judge Kopf suffered the “casual cruelty of correctional bureaucrats,” and yet there was no order to provide the defendant with his medication forthwith. There was no order demanding the immediate production of the warden of the facility that inflicted this casual cruelty to explain how he could inflict pain on a human being because policy trumped medical necessity.
So, I continued sentencing. No big deal.
No one was saved. Nothing changed. And the defendant not only suffered from the denial of his medication, but would be tormented by not knowing what his future would be. Next case.