He began to realize what the criminal classes know so well,
the impossibility of explaining anything to a man with power.
                     – – –  Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
I have quoted this before, I will undoubtedly quote it again because I am convinced it reads so well that its awe inspiring, gut clenching, sweat inducing truth is lost in the compelling simplicity of the sentence.
Consider this (yes, this is relevant to a discussion of the judicial system and prison . . . . really – – – –  and, it is not related to The Ceremony of Innocence, William Hanlin is not at Chancellorsville):
May 2, 1863, Brigadier General Charles Devens, a lawyer from Boston,  is in command of the division on the far right of the far right of the Union Army, in deep woods, a quiet spot occasionally interrupted by the sounds of the battle raging to the east.  His men face east, not very well dug in for they have been told there is little chance they will see action. Late afternoon, a Colonel Lee from an Ohio regiment is presented to the general.  Lee’s there to report large numbers of rebels moving around the flank.  Devens, in Bruce Catton’s words, “pooh-poohed” him.  Lee – a combat veteran – insisted, Devens ordered him back to his men and “loftily remarked that Western Colonels were more scared than hurt.”
Gen. Devens

Minutes later another colonel from another Ohio regiment was escorted in, reported his scouts had spotted masses of rebels deploying a half mile from the rear of the corps.  Devens dismissed him, called him a coward on his way out. Shortly, a Lieutenant Colonel from still another Ohio regiment reported with the same story — exactly. (There really is something Biblical about this).

 Devens must have liked something about this officer because he took the time to explain that if there really were rebels out there then surely headquarters would know and as he had no word from them …..
Just before dusk Stonewall Jackson’s 28,000 men burst through the woods, ripped into the Union army’s flank and completed the most famous military maneuver in American military history.
His division crumbling around him, Devens stood in a daze, refused frantic requests to order a change of front (i.e., reset the lines to actually face the enemy) mumbling he had no instructions from headquarters, was eventually – probably luckily for his future career – wounded.

The Union right was rolled up, destroyed, only darkness saved the Army of the Potomac and kept Robert E. Lee from his Cannae. . . . . .

. . . the impossibility of explaining anything to a man with power . . .
I could have cited hundreds of examples to illustrate the precept, chose the above for one selfish reason – I was incarcerated at FMC Devens in Ayer, Massachusetts for 22 mind numbing months.  It is indeed named after General Charles (who survived his well deserved wound at Chancellorsville to become Attorney General of the United States under Rutherford B. Hayes), it is run by the United States Government and fully representative of its namesake.

Here’s the thing: Devens was newly in command of the division, had no military background aside being wounded at Ball’s Bluff and surviving Fredericksburg; and yet with the star on his shoulder strap he ignored warnings from combat tested officers with impunity and disdain.  In doing so he helped precipitate a military disaster of now legendary proportions. I am sure he acted the way he did for the simple reason he could.

It had to be infuriating to be one of colonels trying to warn this martinet.  Imagine for a moment that the same colonel went back to Devens repeatedly and was treated the same way each time. Infuriating would not begin to cover it and being proved right by the subsequent devastation would be of little comfort — if one lived through it.

If you can imagine this and feel at least a little heat while doing so, you can begin to understand and empathize with what it’s like to be a defendant, inmate, client of a governmental body, anyone at the mercy, however temporarily, of ‘a man with power’.

To be looked at with dead, disinterested eyes and have your every concern, observation, remark, request – important, dire, and/or trivial – summarily dismissed without thought because you are utterly without consequence or standing is the very definition of humiliation. . . . . .

 . . . . . . and this must be understood before one enters the system, or represents someone facing it.  Must.


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