A Man with a Flashlight

Japan flirts with trial by jury
July 21, 2007, 1:10 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, The East

Beginning in 2009, trials in Japan will be decided by a jury – or one manner of jury anyway, consisting of three judges and six citizens. Some aren’t buying it:

Critics say the judges will lead the deliberations, deciding what issues to debate; the jurors will depend on the judges to hand out sentences because of their lack of knowledge of the penal code. What is more, the new system will not address more basic problems in the Japanese criminal justice system: the authorities’ overreliance on confessions, sometimes forced; the absence of discovery, which allows the prosecution to withhold information; and a general presumption of guilt that leads to a 99.8 percent conviction rate in criminal cases.

I was startled to learn that Japan hadn’t had a jury system before. But it figures. Even in the flower of East Asian democracy, the power of the state is somewhat steroidal by comparison with the ways of the West. Yes, we are all practicing “democracy.” But that’s a pretty broad concept. The genius of government in Europe and her children is not simply popular suffrage – it is the constant, laborious hacking which keeps the rude weed of state power in check. The nature of all government is to grow and hoard power. Really the heart of the American achievement is not governance, it is the successful check placed on governance by keeping power institutionally – not by mob or public passion, but by the patient, daily decisions which restate the individual’s rights – in the hands of each American.

That, of course, is an America that many in her government understand dimly at best. And the Cheneys of this world, not at all.

But returning to the Japanese move towards juries – many Japanese don’t really see the benefit of them at all. That’s what policeman and courts are for, aren’t they? To tell us who must be punished and how?

Terrorists on trial
July 19, 2007, 10:38 am
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, The War on Terror

At Guantanamo, it’s all about maintaing the facade of legality.

The only thing that made al Sharbi exceptional was that he was one of only a few Guantánamo detainees who’d actually been charged with a crime, albeit a novel one in the annals of international-warfare law: conspiracy to commit, among other things, murder by an unprivileged belligerent—which basically means he thought about killing American soldiers he believed he was at war with. (He was never accused of killing, or even trying to kill, anyone.) He would be prosecuted by the men at the table on the other side of the room, an Air Force captain and a Navy Reserve lieutenant, who would be allowed to present their case using evidence the military considered so sensitive that al Sharbi would not be allowed to see it, let alone contest it. The judge, who was known in the proceedings as the presiding officer, was a navy captain. The jurors would also be military officers.

Hm, so that’s what an unlawful enemy combatant is. It’s hard to sum up this system better than the accused did himself, when asked if he wanted a different military lawyer – “To me it’s the same circus, different clown.”

Don’t blame him for being right about that. President Bush is the sole author of this comic strip. If justice in America is still more than a game, then someday he will be the one in the dock. That’s not a question of politics, it’s a question of which is paramount – the law, or the king. For us in the west, there can be no going back: the law must prevail.

Yes, don’t worry… we fired him
July 11, 2007, 1:12 am
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, The East

Zheng Xiaoyu, the late head of China’s Food and Drug Administration, executed yesterday “for taking bribes to approve medicines,” i.e. in order to demonstrate China’s serious response to recent food safety errors which killed a large number of pets in the U.S. Standard execution practice is for a court policeman to shoot the prisoner in the back of the head. The former practice of charging the executed prisoner’s family for the bullet has been discontinued. (Go ahead, read that sentence twice.)

In spite of its ambitious, hardworking, wonderfully resourceful people, and in spite of the many leaders working for reform within government (The Tiananmen Papers can’t be recommended highly enough), the Chinese administration is firmly in the hands of a cabal of vampires steeped so deeply in blood that they have to apply white powder to their skin before appearing in public (ok, not really, they didn’t touch the blood themselves… so far as we know).

If you support the death penalty you won’t mind seeing how it looks in China. (Not to be clicked lightly.) More at the Asia Death Penalty blog here. What a disgrace.

That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to write something about the wonderful, wonderful Ma Jian.

Drugs and Prostitution: Colbert King on the D.C. Madam
May 5, 2007, 6:26 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Drug Prohibition, Politics

How could you tell if drug prohibition were a terrible policy? This Washington, D.C. “victory” would be one bad sign:

For example, there’s the case of the 27-year-old quadriplegic who used a chin-operated wheelchair and who, in 2004, as a first-time offender, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for marijuana possession. He died on the fifth day of his incarceration because of a lack of appropriate medical treatment.

Colbert King assembles the evidence, but I’m not sure how I feel about where he goes with it.

King goes on to describe how Washington, D.C. prosecutes johns paying prostitutes for sex. The point of all this? King wants the “government officials and military officers” who may have bought sex from prostitutes employed by “D.C. Madam” Jeane Palfrey’s escort service to be prosecuted with equal vigor.

I don’t know where to stand on this. I don’t think government should be using our tax dollars to prosecute victimless crimes or protect people from themselves. Then again, if government is going to do this, I guess it should go after the rich and powerful as well as the poor and voiceless.

I don’t really share King’s disdain for men who sleep with prostitutes. He quotes “one expert” who says that men who buy sex acts “don’t respect women, nor do they want to respect women.” This may be true, or it may not, and I’m sure King’s “expert” has no idea either way. Was a survey of johns performed? Were they asked if they respected women? And if they wanted to respect women? No – and had it been, even that would be pretty unreliable. If there’s any common trait that prostitutes’ customers share, it’s probably that they are having trouble getting laid.

Isn’t it crazy to ban a commercial transaction which meets a demand that can’t be eradicated? When the offenders are harming no-one and are otherwise law-abiding? And when it means making criminals out of young women, making them even more vulnerable and hard to help?

Susan Aldous interview part 1

Our conversation with the the recently-published prison rights activist begins! Uncut, uncensored, unplugged. Here goes.

Hi Susan,

No problem, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the blog, I consider it quite an honor. Here are the first questions I have for you, just respond however they strike you:

Thanks Jonathan, kind words for sure. Yes, I’ll just sort of free fall here and see what comes out.

The book tells your life story. Reading it, I was struck by how far- fetched and unpredictable your journey has been. Can you say something about what guided you to Thailand, and to the work you do now?

Surely my life sounds bizarre and totally unpredictable and especially if you know me personally, you’d realize just how incredible that is. I like to do the daring, crazy and adventurous, but I am a deeply pragmatic person who also appreciates a bit of stability so these two sides sort of play themselves off against each other and then final mix comes out to be some significant care giving.
My work, I believe it to be nothing short of a calling and my passion, the thing that I was born to do. I knew from a very early age that I needed to make a difference and searched for it in all the wrong places until at 16 the challenge came to “give my life away instead of throwing it away” and a volunteer calling ensued. My work has taken me to 18 countries over the past 30 years, most of which have been in Thailand.
I’d been in SEA for almost 5 years, I’d visited Thailand a few times, and I was working on shipments of donated goods for refugees along the Thai Cambodian border so I had links. For some time I fought with myself over moving to Thailand, I knew I was supposed to, but worked to drown out those thoughts when they pestered me. I think I was afraid as I sensed that such a move was going to change my life drastically. Eventually, those inner whispers were becoming relentless and deafening, additionally, circumstances provided an opportunity to visit and I could no longer fight what was happening or was supposed to happen—so I went with the flow.
I believe in destiny, I believe in choice and when they work in unison, well miracles burst forth. Little did I know what lay ahead and what an adventure it has been so far!

I’ve been trying to think of a way to sum up the charity work you’ve done, and it hasn’t been easy. You have worked in hospitals with paralyzed and dying patients; in prisons with murderers, rapists, and drug traffickers; in hospitals for pregnant women with HIV; and much else. What ties it all together?

The heart strings of love tie it all together, the desire to make a difference and crazy Don Quixote like spirit. I go through any open door that I feel right about, I go for short periods, long periods or one offs…I just go, I do and I follow the leadings that come to me. Some projects I work on for years, others are as simple as a few hours spent with a single person. But the common thread is compassion and caring being bought to a needy world and a desire to be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

I’m struck by the fact that you haven’t done much political agitation or lobbied to change government policies in Thailand. Is this a fair statement? What made you choose this focus on addressing problems “one life at a time,” instead of at the level of government policies?

If we can change one life, then we change a very significant part of the world and naturally that starts with ourselves. If I can inspire one person, he or she may be a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa in the making, or perhaps a politician who can change laws and a country’s outlook on life and the wellbeing of its citizens. I work by sample, I let that speak and I do believe that through my consistent actions I have made significant changes and affected officials to do more to care for their own. At least some feedback tells me this.
The media has been great and due to good coverage there has been changes wrought and folk spurred into action as well. Additionally, there have been times in which I have put pressure on individuals or organizations and in a small degree, some governments and government bodies. However, it’s the one on one I often work with and that’s where I feel I can have the greatest impact.

Prison life is hard anywhere, but in Thailand it’s particularly gruelling. For those who haven’t read your book yet, tell us a little about the experience of prisoners there, both Thai and foreign.

Ha, Jonathan…now that’d take a book, it did and in fact, I could not even begin to cover all the experiences and heartbreak that one meets when hearing of inmates stories. Suffice it to say though, life in a Thai jail is basically hopeless. You can endure difficult situations, deprivation, cruelty, indifference, rejection, injustice and the likes if you know there is an end in sight. But when you have to think of enduring such things for 50 years or the rest of your life…well, where do you go in your head to cope? Where is the place of escape in your mind?
It’s a walking death at times, a constant struggle full of despair with no way out, up, over or around it. Many folk fluctuate between wondering through their sentences like lost souls to flamboyantly contriving unrealistic plans and expectations of how they will bring about their own releases, both poles being futile. It’s heartbreaking, and juxtaposed against such a dark background, there is nothing as joyful as watching a man walk through those gates to freedom.
There are so many nonsensical variables to deal with as well. For example, murderers and rapists will often get out before drug cases. Some countries have exchange treaties so that their inmates can go home and serve some time in their own countries. This could translate anywhere between 4-8 plus years in Bangkwang and then home for however long the home country deems it fit that you serve. And again this home sentence varies so dramatically. If you are from the UK, you serve 2/3rds of your sentence in a maximum security horrible prison back in freezing England. If you went home on a life sentence, you’d serve less than someone who went home with 50 years. Life is natural life in Thailand and it’s about 20 in the UK. So you pray for a life sentence versus a numbered sentence if you are going to use the exchange system. It’s inconsistently crazy. The American returnees may serve bout 3 months in a detention center and then you are out on parole. Very few re-offend either. Australia is yet another deal as are the European nations. Then there is poor Nigeria, some inmates get out right away and others because they are sent to state prison serve incredible amount of years after their return in prisons worse than Bangkwang. And all, for the most part, small amounts of drugs which would not have warranted long sentences or even any sentence in their own countries.
Even if life looks like a complete free for all, anything goes, fair, you’d have to be crazy to do/courier/sell/get near drugs in Thailand.

Thailand seems to contain all the contradictions surrounding drugs in modern society. On the one hand, it’s famous among young people for wild full-moon parties which feature the consumption of every drug known to man, if the tales are true. On the other hand, Thailand’s laws on drug use are extremely strict. Drug traffickers can be sentenced to death, and in a nation-wide drug crackdown in 2003, police shot dead over a thousand suspects, in what many view as executions without trial. You write about experimenting with drugs as a teenager, and you were married for a time to Garth Hattan, a man you met while he was serving a heroin-trafficking sentence in Bangkok’s Bang Kwang prison. What is your view on the international war on drugs?

Don’t even get me started Jonathan…
I do not use drugs anymore, I am higher now than I have ever been and it’s totally natural so I am not speaking from a need to party view point. I do not like what a negative use of drugs can do to people, their lives, their families and societies resources; I do drink a bit, but also hate what alcohol can do to folk and again the world in which we live. However, it’s all in the user and the reasons behind their use of whatever substance that determines whether it be a good or a bad thing.
I feel some of the big drug companies and their dealer doctors are the worst blood sucking criminals on the face of the earth, and arms dealers aren’t my favorite folk either by the way, ha! Medicine also has a good place in our society, but when it’s brought down to the level of billions of dollars in profit as being the goal, then it’s wrong and especially when it’s prescribed by your friendly GP to finance his trip to Barbados, forget it…and forget the guy who selfishly wants to get a bit of cash as well off the backs of junkies—both are selfishly plundering the lives of those they have no right to.
Amazing when governments or big companies deal drugs or guns, it’s ok, aye? Hmm, not right and neither is the war on drugs…it’s a bunch of rubbish and a joke. Some folk may really be sincere in trying to suppress the production and sales of illegal substances, but it’s a lost war, a waste of time as there is much corruption in the whole money making façade that if they, the smaller law enforcement individuals or a few naive politicians, really do a sincere job they are at risk of ‘disappearing’ or being sacked. I could go on forever citing why I feel many substances should be legalized and why the war on drugs is a lie, but we don’t have time for that today…in short, it’s not working anyway and it’s highly hypocritical and many lives are also destroyed in the process.
If only we could all learn to really care for each other and take responsibility for our actions then the need for a war on drugs would be a moot point. Greed, self destruction and profiting by another’s demise are ugly in all and any field. Be they legal or illegal!
I guess you can see that I am never going to run for Mayor, ha!

Thanks again for your interest in this. When you’re through with these, I’ll send the next batch through.


Cheers, take care,

There is some back-and-forth still to come in parts 2 and 3, so please do send in any questions you’d like me to squeeze in. And thanks very much to Susan for spending this time with us.

Susan Aldous’ new book is The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, published last month by Maverick House. Maverick House also published the memoir of Chavoret Jaruboon, Thailand’s last prison executioner, The Last Executioner.

Garth Hattan – Susan Aldous responds
April 6, 2007, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Undiscovered writers

In response to my post on the writer Garth Hattan, an unexpected pleasure – a response from Susan Aldous, the volunteer who befriended Garth in prison and married him. And divorced, it turns out. Life is messy, no?

Yes, you are right, Garth is an incredibly talented man who can write up a storm about the storm and the peace that can be found within it.
To update you: Garth was released from the LA dentention center after three months from the day he returned to the USA, we got married, lived the fairytale and then divorced when he went back to old ways and unfortunately reoffended. Prison awaits and perhaps more chapters and let’s hope that in so doing, he will find eventual freedom from his past and the things that haunt him.
In the meanwhile, I am releasing my own book this month, The Angel of Bangkwang Prison, published by Maverick House.

It’s a sad surprise – I wouldn’t have thought Hattan would be tempt fate again after being taught such a hard lesson. I stand by my judgement on his writing, which is well worth reading.

Susan’s organization One Life at a Time is here. Her book is here.

Florida restores some felons’ voting rights
April 6, 2007, 10:54 am
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Politics

Here. A step in the right direction, but, I think, incomplete – most murderers and sex offenders will still have no vote.
I have no wish to defend the crimes they committed, but this is bad for the felons and bad for society. There are two reasons. One, the prison sentence a criminal serves is intended to pay off his debt to society. That is the basis for deciding how long it should be. When the penalty is finished, the state should not continue to discriminate.
Secondly, denying the vote creates a class of sub-citizens, and this is unbecoming of a democracy. Whatever they have done, these people live among us. Denying them the vote suggests that a criminal, even if he chooses to leave crime behind, can never re-enter society.

In case you think this issue is of little consequence, according to this 2004 piece in the Washington Post if felons had had voting rights, Bush would have lost Florida in 2000.

Now that would make a great episode of Quantum Leap.

How much is enough?
April 5, 2007, 10:24 am
Filed under: Crime and Punishment

How do you compensate a man wrongfully convicted of murder? How much is eleven years worth?

David Allen Jones, 44, was released in March 2004, after spending 11 years in prison. Jones received $720,000 in compensation for his false conviction and long prison sentence.

Undiscovered Writer of the Week: Garth Todd Hattan
March 28, 2007, 1:13 pm
Filed under: Crime and Punishment, Undiscovered writers

garth hattanGarth Hattan hasn’t published a novel, and as far as I know, he hasn’t even published a short story. All of his work to date, to the best of my knowledge, was written in 2001 and 2002 for Farang Magazine, an online and print journal targeted at English-speaking expats in Thailand, which has since been renamed Untamed Travel.

Hattan’s pieces were more or less journal entries, so technically he could be called a blogger. However, it was an unusual blog, because he didn’t have internet access, or even a computer. That’s because Hattan, a surfer and musician from California, composed his columns using pen and paper inside Bangkwang maximum security prison, on the outskirts of Bangkok, where he was serving a life sentence for trafficking heroin.

You may be thinking that I chose a heroin-smuggling con to be the Undiscovered Writer of the Week not because I dig his writing, but because I want you to dig how street-smart and hip I am myself. Is this Undiscovered Writer of the Week or Hard-as-Nails Cunts?you may be wondering. In fact, there’s nothing tough about Hattan’s writing, and though you might call him hip, it isn’t the empty pose of the cool kid whose wardrobe is in lock-step with the fashion elite. He is hip in the older sense of the word – wise, and with a powerful awareness of what matters and what is bullshit.

It could be that was a side effect of going to prison. Whatever the case, Hattan’s writing resonates with a quality that can’t be faked. Far from calling for pity, he details the myriad frustrations and scant pleasures of Thai prison life with zen-like calm. Reading his essays doesn’t leave you feeling sorry for him – well, yes, it does, but more powerfully, it leaves you wishing some of his appreciation for life’s small mercies would rub off on you. And that demonstrates a strong mind indeed.

If you’ve ever tried snapping a picture with your digital camera, you may have been amazed to watch how, when you point the camera into a shadowy corner, instead of turning to black in the insufficient light, the camera screen brightens and shows you a new level of detail. Hattan’s writing has the same quality – in dark circumstances, locked inside what is certainly a hell on earth, he doesn’t fade to black. Instead he takes a careful look around, and describes what he sees. The price of fried rice or a massage, etiquette of the morning shower ritual, the ins and outs of getting high behind bars, and the pros and cons of recieving visitors are all presented in a calm, often funny tone. Hattan doesn’t speechify or rail against anything much, which for a man in his position is in itself quite an achievement. But even more of an achievement is the emotion his writing conveys, which I can only describe as gratitude – a whole-hearted appreciation of the few good things that can still be savored from inside the belly of the beast.

I am glad to report that Hattan’s story has a comparatively happy ending – in 2002 he returned to the United States under a treaty agreement with the Thai government. Whether he continued serving his sentence isn’t clear from news reports, but it seems possible that he was freed. I certainly hope he was. While in prison he got engaged to Susan Aldous, an Australian woman who works for better conditions for prisoners in Thailand, and I have seen at least one website which refers to her as Susan Aldous-Hattan, suggesting they have married. [Update: The ending is not as happy as I had hoped; see Susan’s reply to this post and my new post here.] My hope is that we will see a full-length autobiography, if not more, from Hattan in the next few years. It remains to be seen whether he will keep up his writing, or if it was just one method by which he passed time while behind bars. Given the unique qualities of the writing he’s done so far, I certainly hope not.

Click through to Hattan’s articles in Untamed Travel here. A good place to start is Human Monkey in the Cage, but you can read his whole body of work in a pleasant afternoon. (Note that the 2005 article “Afghan Loony Bin” wasn’t written by Hattan at all and has little to do with his work.)