A morning in court

Yesterday I attended the Bristol County 3rd District Court sentencing of Holly Landowne-Stein, who was arrested for cementing herself to the gate of the Bristol County jail in August 2018. Landowne-Stein and several others were calling attention to abuses at the jail by Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, and protesting his 287(g) agreement with ICE. The activists were charged with not only trespassing, but inflated charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest.

When you enter the New Bedford courthouse, you may not bring with you any recording devices or personal electronics. Justice [such as it is] may not be blind — but in the American justice system the nasty business that goes on in courts and jails must be done in twilight.

Courtroom #4 has three banks of benches, the front row reserved for a parade of legal counsel that handles hearings on an industrial scale. Bristol County now uses a scheme most Americans imagine only exists in Cairo, Riyadh, Beijing, or Kazakhstan — the cases are heard by a judge on the other end of a wire, providing neither the accused’s defense lawyer nor the public any chance to see or hear the accused in person. While we waited, two public defenders commented on the difficulties of properly representing their clients this way, not the least of which is the ability to confer privately during the hearings.

This electronically-dispensed “justice” seemed to be far from efficient. In case after case, defense attorneys complained of not having received discovery materials from the District Attorney’s office; in all cases this meant that the accused would have to sit in jail several more weeks until the ADA shared their information with the defense. In a few cases the accused’s lawyer was either not present or could not be located when the prisoner was hauled before the cameras in the Ash Street jail. In one case the prisoner’s bail had already been paid and the judge was confused about why the prisoner was still incarcerated.

In another dispensing of one-minute justice, one defense lawyer wanted to enter a plea but could not — because his client was not physically present. Another prisoner seemed to be in a Catch-22 situation with the New York courts. Miles away, and trying to be heard over the clanking of bars and the din of voices at Ash Street, it was impossible to see whatever paperwork the man was waving — hoping — that the judge would consider.

I’ve been to court before, but this one morning illustrates the efficiencies of the prison-industrial complex and the lengths to which the courts will go to create a simulacrum of “justice.” Each hearing took approximately sixty seconds as incarcerated widgets were processed through a remote assembly line — each prisoner’s humanity reduced to a smudge of pixels on a screen.

In one hearing, that of Maria Carrion, who was charged as part of Operation Ghost with fentanyl trafficking, District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III himself showed up in court, presumably to send a get-tough message to the judge, Douglas J. Darnbrough, a Baker appointee. Or maybe Quinn was just grandstanding like his matching bookend, Tom Hodgson.

Finally, the case we had all come to hear was being called.

Holly Landowne-Stein’s supporters, four from New Bedford, and twenty from Providence — including her mother, Rabbi Ann Landowne — had to wait until around noon for her sentencing. After posing numerous questions to the activist, including asking her if she voluntarily waived a jury or bench trial, her right to question witnesses, and querying if she was happy with her representation and understood all charges against her, Judge Douglas J. Darnbrough sentenced Landowne-Stein to 10 days in the Ash Street jail, with a one day credit for time served. She was immediately cuffed and taken from the room.

As the father of thirty-something children myself, I felt great admiration for this young woman, who had put her values and her freedom on the line to protest a sheriff who has quite literally killed and injured people through willful neglect and cruelty. I could easily imagine the fear and pain a parent feels as cuffs are placed on his child’s wrists — and, in this case, the anger at state violence masquerading as justice.

Nine days should pass relatively quickly for this young woman. Unlike many (if not most) detainees at Tom Hodgson’s jails, Holly Landowne-Stein has her health, her sobriety, and dedicated friends and family on the “outside.” Her experience will be nothing like a thousand others, far less fortunate, who are victimized for up to two and a half years in his facilities — all because society doesn’t want to know what goes on inside those walls.

The fight against Hodgson’s abuses and his ICE collaboration will continue.