Stop Asking Where I'm From

Occasionally we order books for inmates. There’s a lesson in this, I swear.

Written By: humarashid - Apr• 01•13

We don’t do this for all of our clients that are currently in custody. Obviously. That would be far too big a project, and it would cost us far too much. It’s not that we’re cheap, because my boss is quite generous with a lot of our inmate-clients, and I’ve seen that repeatedly since I started working with him, but still, we can’t buy books regularly for all of our clients that are in custody.

But we have this special client. I talked about him on this blog before. I’m going to call all of our client by the names of Disney characters, so let’s call this client … Sergeant Tibbs.

Sgt. Tibbs is great. He’s very personable and charming, and it was impossible for me not to warm to him instantly. I first met Sgt. Tibbs during a PSIR (pre-sentence investigative report, called a PSI on the state level) interview conducted between him and a federal probation officer. My boss and I were both present, and it was done over an iPad.

Sgt. Tibbs answered the questions honestly, was forthcoming on the details of his life, even the uncomfortable ones, and he cooperated fully with the federal probation officer, who ended up writing an excellent mitigation section about him in the PSIR. That worked out really well, and it’s these little things – like helping your client truly connect with the government official in charge of writing this kind of an evaluation – that really matter. Sentencing is in late April, and I’m looking forward to it.

Anyway, Sgt. Tibbs’s case was originally a (federal) death penalty case. I probably mentioned this before, but Sgt. Tibbs is supposedly the former second commander of the Black Disciples, one of the most vicious Chicago gangs, and this case involves a violent crime.

My boss, Raymond Wigell, and his co-counsel, Andrea Lyon (one of the rockstar Cook County PDs who made me yearn to be a criminal defense attorney), took the case and successfully “de-deathed” it. Now we’re gearing up for sentencing. (Although my boss has been prepared for it forever, telling me that he “could do that shit in [his] sleep at this point.”)

The last time I saw Sgt. Tibbs was probably a month ago. Maybe. No, according to the write up I did about it, it was two weeks ago. Phew, time flies when you’re having fun, right?

Anyway, I saw him a month ago when he was moved to another prison a bit closer to Chicago. Before, he was quite a ways away. Perhaps the U.S. Marshals moved him closer to the city in anticipation of sentencing? I have no idea. I will never claim to have any insight as to what the Marshals do or why. :P (No, but they’re always so sweet and helpful when I am making an ass-ton of calls frantically trying to locate our clients.)

So Sgt. Tibbs sang us a song, and it was great, and it made me yearn for another College Dropout-esque album from the Great Yeezy, Lord and Sustainer of Awesome Music. Even though that will never happen, now that he’s an international superstar instead of a struggling young artist in Chicago.

Back on track. The last time we were all together, Sgt. Tibbs asked if we could send him some books. He likes urban fiction, and mentioned James Patterson specifically, and added that he wanted some new releases, from late 2012 or 2013 so far, since presumably he’d read all the other relatively newer releases at his previous facility.

Now, my boss adores Sgt. Tibbs. He loves him. And it’s easy to understand why. So when Sgt. Tibbs asked for books, I made a specific note to my file because I knew that my boss would later ask me to take care of that for him. And sure enough, the other day, he gave me the firm’s card and told me to handle it.

It can be kind of a process to get books to prisoners. Detention facilities often have differing rules about what they’ll accept and from where. Some will let attorneys stick paperbacks in an envelope and mail it in, the same way they’d send any confidential legal mail. Other facilities will allow newspapers, magazines, and even hardcovers in as long as they come from “publishers,” meaning retailers like Barnes or Amazon or whatever.

Sadly, Sgt. Tibbs’s prison doesn’t allow in any hardcovers, at all, so I was restricted to paperbacks. But I found a couple good Patterson novels on, and I use the term “good” very loosely, because frankly it’s a crime against the English language to put “good” and “Patterson novel” in the same sentence.

I ended up picking “Tick Tock” and one of the Alex Cross novels, I think. I put in Sgt. Tibb’s inmate number and the prison address, and they should arrive early this week. I hope they make him happy and he gets a few hours of joy and escape through them. And they’re his, so hopefully they get to travel with him when he inevitably changes facilities after sentencing and goes to a federal pen rather than a county/state/federal mishmosh detention center.

I’m more than happy to take some time to mull over the myriad of Patterson books available (far too many, really, so as to be basically unconscionable) and figure out which ones he’d want, and which ones I can send (ie, no paperbacks). And I’m glad that my boss will occasionally do these sorts of things for his clients.

On a human level, I love it. I think it’s appropriate, and I think it’s worthwhile. On a selfish note, it just makes me feel good, plainly put, to know that I put some time and care into selecting a book or two for an incarcerated man who has very few pleasures left in his life.

And on a professional level, I think it’s appropriate and worthwhile, too. I think doing little things like this is a good way to practice. Sure, it’s not actually practicing law, but it’s an incidental aspect of practice. It’s about client relationships.

It hurts when I hear clients say they hate their attorneys. I usually hear this about PDs, and I think part of that is clients not understanding, much less appreciating, all that their PDs do for them. But sometimes, unfortunately, it is a case of attorneys who have a very heavy case load and maybe don’t devote as much time or attention to individual cases or clients as perhaps they should. (And that’s true of plenty of private attorneys, too, lest anyone think I’m ragging on my beloved public defenders.)

But I think it’s very important that clients in general, and especially our clients since, frankly, they’re the only ones I care about, understand that we care for them beyond the particulars of a case. And the way we practice, I think they get that message.

It reminds me of what my boss was explaining to me when I was very new and trotting along after him as he handled a few status dates for some of our felony sex cases out of 26th & Cali. He likes to lecture me at any given moment about the finer points of practicing, and I am always up for it. It’s great. He’s such a great attorney and I have so much respect for him and I love when he shares his methods and insights with me.

But that day, we were hurrying to yet another courtroom at 26th after wrapping up a status date for his Innocence Project case, and he was telling me a little about the family in the case we were about to handle, and what he was going to do on this date.

His court date procedure (and mine) is very simple but very structured. When he gets there, he takes a few minutes to talk to the client and the client’s family about what he’s going to do that day. This conversation is admittedly brief and not … too specific. He stays away from saying certain buzz words in front of the client or his family before everything is nailed down, and sticks to more general ideas.

Then he goes and talks to the State, or gets right into the call. And then he says his goodbyes and has the client and/or his family follow him out of the courtroom, where he finds a quiet corner and talks to them. He’s very careful not to say anything too sensitive, because courtrooms are public places, and anyone could be listening. When there are sensitive conversations to be had, we tell them to call in and set up an appointment for an office visit.

But after the call he always explains in detail what happened, even if it was as simple as the State asking for a continuance to file their response. Shit like that takes 20 seconds to handle, especially if you’ve set up a date in advance with the prosecutor, but to the average person, it looks like absolutely nothing happened. So he takes some time to explain to them the details of what was said, what it means, and how it affects the positioning of the case. And then he draws them back to the positive, and lets them go with that thought.

This is his procedure, and this is exactly what I do as well when I’m handling my cases or court calls.

And I remember trotting after him that morning at 26th & Cali when we were rushing to this sex case, and he was explaining why he sets up his court dates this way.

“A lot of attorneys don’t do this,” he told me as we hurried along. “But I can’t imagine practicing any other way. A lot of attorneys just say, oh, call my office, or give them a sentence or two in explanation and then rush off. You’ve seen me do this a few times – how many minutes do I normally spend with clients or their families after the case has been up?”

“Ten minutes, give or take.”

“Exactly, and there’s a reason for that. You always do that. Always. These people are paying us a lot of money. A lot of money. Sometimes, all the money they have. And you’re just going to come to court, do your thing, and walk by them after only a few words? Fuck that. You think they’re going to feel good? They’re going to feel like shit. Like they don’t matter and their attorney can’t be bothered to talk to them and tell them what’s going on with their loved one’s case. You always take the time to talk to your clients, no matter what else you have going on. And if they want to talk specifics, you say, that’s a good question and it’s important, but this is not the time to discuss it. Call the office, come in, and we’ll talk about it in detail. Because you never want them to feel like you’re brushing them off – because if you are, you’re not doing your job.”

I always do this. Always. Doesn’t matter if the call was as simple as the State saying, “Your Honor, we’re waiting on additional discovery in the form of blah blah blah.” I still always spend about ten minutes with a client in a conference room, or whispering quietly in the corner of the hallway, to explain what that means, why it was good or bad, and ending on something positive.

Because that bolsters the bond between the attorney and the client, and that’s really important. And granted, buying a few Patterson books off Barnes & Noble isn’t doing anything substantive for the case.

But it’s letting Sgt. Tibbs know that we heard him when he asked for the books, and we remembered his request and followed through because we care about him. And that we care about little things like the fact that he’s bored and likes James Patterson and urban thrillers. Even though none of that has fricking anything to do with sentencing.

It’s very similar to when I spent probably two hours total (if I were billing hours … which I’m not, since we don’t do that billable hour stuff) working on a similar incidental for another (also federal) client. This client is actually the one whose case we’re taking to trial in June of this year. (It’s a great/awful case and I know the discovery like I know the back of my hand, and I’m so excited.)

He’s Jewish, and desperately wanted Kosher meals for Passover of this year. Back in February, he asked us about it. My boss immediately handed that project over to me, knowing that I’m big on prisoners’ rights issues. For my Sex Crimes seminar back at John Marshall, I wrote this massive proposal about how Illinois could combat prison rape in its jails and prisons. I can’t even tell you how much I read in preparation of crafting that proposal – about prison rape, and about prison life in general. If there’s ever any way I can help our inmate-clients, I’m all over it. Any little, tiny thing. It means a lot to me, and I find it personally rewarding (but that’s really selfish, so whatever).

So I took over the Passover project, and it was … kind of insane. I found out a good way to get the Passover meals, but he wanted specific items that weren’t there on the prison commissary list for special items, or the meals provided by the 3rd party organization that deals with this. So I had to try to track that stuff down, which led me on a wild goose chase in which I ended up calling all of the other federal facilities he’d stayed at, the Bureau of Prisons, and even a rabbi or two who he had been in contact with in the past. But I was able to get what he needed, and he has Passover meals, so I’m pleased about that.

I’m NOT pleased because apparently they’re really small meals, and the prison he’s at won’t give him any additional food, so he called the other day to tell me that he was really hungry. And it’s horrible because there’s nothing I can possibly do to help him. And he understood that, and just asked that I document it for the file, which I did, of course. But ugh. I felt so bad. Not in a way that expended energy and diverted that energy from shit I really needed to do, but still. You guys know what I mean. I just felt bad that he was hungry. Ugh.

But I like doing these little incidental things. I love doing my actual legal work, which is fantastic, but I like doing these little things. I like spending a half hour on the B&N website, picking out the perfect books for Sgt. Tibbs. It’s a nice little way to break up the day, it’s different from my normal lawyerly work, and it’s a nice little way to de-stress after spending all morning working on actual stuff.

And again, being totally selfish for a minute, it just makes me feel good to help someone in some tiny way, to bring a little bit of happiness into their lives. But I try not to dwell on that, because it’s not at all about how anything makes me feel.

I just hope those books are enjoyed. Even if they are Patterson novels.




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