Hard Time: Reflections on Visiting Federal Inmates
Bennett, Mark W., Judicature
A federal judge meets with those he sentenced.
I was standing two feet away looking the killer straight into his eyes. I last saw htm 10 years ago. Then, his 19-year-old eyes were steely, his gaze piercing, emotionless. Was he really involved in the brutal gang execution of a 15-year-old boy kidnapped from a small Iowa town and shot in the head while ori his knees pleading for his life in the dark basement of an abandoned Southern Minnesota farmhouse? After a three-week trial, a federal jury said yes. He was given a mandatory life sentence. In federal court that means you almost certainly die in one of 115 federal prisons run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) . I know this- I was the judge.
His eyes were much softer now and he smiled at me with surprising warmth - like greeting an old friend. He was shy and unassuming and more slight of build than I had recalled. He still looked like a teenager- - I thought, does he even shave yet? Why was I here at a federal prison in the middle of the woods of Wisconsin seated next to him having this one-on-one conversation?
I had sentenced nearly 2000 folks to federal prison in the intervening decade-virtually all the names and faces have faded from memory. Many are coming back to me now as I criss-cross the nation visiting inmates I have sentenced. We had a very personal conversation about his life in prison. As I was getting up to leave his eyes welled with tears. He asked in a whisper, "Will I ever be able to go home?" I tensed up knowing the answer. "No," I said. "Your only possibility is a Presidential pardon and on the facts of your case I do not believe that would ever happen."
As the words were floating from my mouth it seemed like time had slowed and this was happening in slow motion. I realized how harsh this must seem to him. Was I too brutally honest? I did not want to create any false hope - but removing all hope - how wise is this? He was so young. His actions more than a decade ago were drug crazed and fueled by his meth addiction - but a Presidential pardon? I asked if he had learned about the procedure for a pardon and if he had anyone who could help him. He said no. I had long ago finished my involvement with his case so I volunteered to find a law school legal clinic or pro bono lawyer to help him. It was an extreme long shot but it was also a matter of hope.
For a lawyer, being appointed a United States district court judge is considered by many as the best legal job in America, As one of 678 in the United States, I conduct civil and criminal jury trials in federal courts. If you like courtroom action and the unfolding of human drama that is often stranger than fiction, this position is terrific.
I have always had a hard time with sentencings. It is an awesome responsibility to take one's liberty away. Even though I have sent more than 2500 people to federal prison, it is no easy task for me. Early in my judicial career, a much more experienced federal judge mentor told me about the emotional drain of sentencing: "Don't worry, Mark, it will soon get much easier" he advised. Out of respect for my mentor, I remained silent but my self-talk said to me: "If this ever is easy either shoot nie or 1 should resign immediately." Neither has happened.
In 2009, I visited 10 BOP facilities to meet with more than 200 inmates I had personally sentenced. I am in my 17th year as a United States district court judge in the Northern District of Iowa - a district that, surprisingly, had the 5th heaviest criminal caseload per judge among the nation's 94 distinct courts last year.
At each prison visit I am privileged to meet with the warden. I always ask, among my many questions, if they have ever had a federal judge come to meet with inmates they have sentenced. The answer is always the same - no. One of the major reasons for writing this article is to encourage other judges to try this.
I have been visiting inmates I have sentenced for over seven years. …