I was over at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office the other day, headed for a press roundtable, and I’d forgotten what room the event was in so I wound up at the reception desk on the second floor. When I arrived, a man was standing at the counter, highly agitated, trying to explain that something was wrong with his case, and that nobody was listening and he was getting the runaround the kind of scene you see every day at the bottom level of the legal system, where people who don’t have money scramble constantly to figure out which end is up.
And on the other side of the counter was a young guy who was calmly collecting the information, analyzing the problem, and explaining exactly what the client needed to do. He sent him a few doors down to another service then said, with a smile: "But don’t worry, if they can’t help you, just come right back here and we’ll get you taken care of." He was the model of what a good public employee ought to be professional, friendly, polite, smart, and (particularly important in this office) sympathetic.
And as I stepped up to ask him where the press event was, I realized I knew his name. He still looks just like he did when his picture ran on the front page of the Guardian on Sept 3, 2003, the day he was released from prison after serving 13 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
John Tennison works for the guy who devoted years to winning his freedom, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and as far as I can tell, he’s a perfect fit for the job. He survived 13 years of hell with no visible bitterness. And he’s a reminder, for all those who like to forget, that everyone in prison is not a violent thug or even guilty.
Coincidentally, if there is such a thing, I had just been working on a story about a move to criminalize cell phones in California prisons. The wardens have gone beyond drugs and weapons; phones are the new contraband. I posted an item on the politics blog about it and got the typical responses: Why should prisoners have access to cell phones? Aren’t they supposed to be punished? Give ’em bread and water and that’s it.
I get that cell phones can be a safety issue if they’re used by gangs and violent criminals to conduct business. But I also get that prisoners (or more truthfully, their families) have to pay exorbitant rates to make collect calls on the pay phones in prisons, and that there is often a wait, and that calls can only be made at certain times.
I’m not going to make cell phones for prisoners the biggest crusade of my life, but you know, a sizable number of the 170,000 California inmates did nothing other than buy and sell drugs that ought to be legal anyway; a fair number did nothing at all and were wrongly convicted; and most of the rest will get out at some point and the more contact they have with their families (and potential employers), the better and safer we all are.
Something to think about. *