Photo by Samrod Shenassa
My client is serving a life sentence in federal prison for drug offenses. He has been incarcerated since 1995. His post-conviction appeals and habeas petitions to reduce his sentence have so far failed. But like most prisoners, he has not given up fighting for his freedom. Federal life sentences, unlike California's, have no parole.
My work on his case started in January. Before I agreed to take on the case, one of his conditions was that I allow him to collaborate. That was not a problem since I've always valued defendants' involvement in their legal proceedings if they are mentally competent.
The federal facility where he is housed provides email for inmates, so that became our main channel of communication. From February to June he sent me about a hundred emails, sometimes several a day. It became overwhelming, especially since I had to log in to the prison's cumbersome email service for new messages. I asked him to limit his emails, and he cut them down to a few per week.
My client would send citations, case analysis, court opinions, and different legal theories he had discovered. Fifteen years behind bars with access to the prison law library turned this man into a legal savant and my co-counsel. His knowledge of criminal law, the federal sentencing guidelines, and federal and U.S. Supreme court opinions is stunning, although his writing and formatting skills are inadequate.
Whenever he mailed me case files, documents, and briefs he had drafted, he would also include a letter. With all that information flowing in, visiting him was unnecessary.
Then at the end of June he went silent; no more emails. I guessed something was wrong. A few weeks later he sent me a typewritten letter informing me that due to minor misconduct, the Bureau of Prisons had sanctioned him and stripped him of all his privileges for email and phone calls, and limited all visitors. He asked me to come see him.
It took more than a month for the prison to approve my visit. In addition, it restricted his legal visits to two hours on specific days, plus a few phone calls per month - a direct violation of his constitutional right to counsel.
On the first Sunday of August, I drove 100 miles through the desert to the prison. After a lengthy search of the files and folders in my two briefcases, the staff notified me that my visit would take place through a window. I complained and insisted that my client and I meet in the attorney room where inmates and counsel sit together; a sergeant approved my request.
I was then directed to wait in the attorney room located on one side of the main visiting hall. From there I could see nearly 60 inmates dressed in khaki jumpsuits, sitting with their families.
After 45 minutes, my guy walked into the hall dressed in an orange jumpsuit-due to his disciplinary status-and escorted by two officers. I recognized him from the photo in his case file. He had a big smile, and a twinkle in his hazel eyes. After he entered the attorney room, an officer locked the door from the outside.
I wasn't expecting what I saw. I am used to seeing gloomy faces and depressed eyes on inmates, whether before conviction or after being sentenced to even short prison terms. It was hard to believe that a 49-year-old man who recently lost all his prison privileges, and who may never be released, could sport such a refreshingly cheerful attitude.
On my drive back, I reflected upon my own attitude toward life, and I thought about people who don't appreciate their freedom and privileges. When I got home, I couldn't wait to call my brother who seemingly has everything yet is unhappy and rarely smiles. I told him about my exceptional "lifer," who sees the glass half full and who is a happy soul regardless of the conditions in which he lives.
My client left behind his wife and four children when he started his unending term behind bars, but he did not succumb to despair. Instead, he strived to improve his skills and education by completing his GED and by studying about auto dealerships, real estate, and other subjects.
Now my jolly lifer is a motivating force who reminds me every day to be positive, tolerant, and emotionally generous, and not to dwell on annoying, trivial events. My mission is to return him to his family.
Azar Elihu is a criminal defense lawyer and a fee arbitrator in Los Angeles.