Saturday, May 16, 2009

Three Days Until My Release From Federal Prison

Each day I learn more fascinating stories that describe why people come to prison.  Sometimes these stories shock me, and sometimes they bring me sadness.  I identify with white-collar offenders because I know what it is like to live in total disbelief that anyone in our society can consider us criminals.

This morning I had breakfast with a distinguished, well-spoken gentleman.  The man’s name was Sebastian, and it turns out he was an internist from Los Angeles.  Sebastian had just self-surrendered to Taft Camp with a 40-month sentence.  He said it could have been less but his attorney had not counseled him on how sentencing guidelines worked.  He did not understand that he could have received consideration by cooperating early, nor did Sebastian understand the importance of the presentence investigation.  Better guidance of the federal prison system, he said, may have resulted in a lower sentence.  Nevertheless, Sebastian expressed total composure and said he was at peace with his imprisonment.

I admired Sebastian’s equanimity.  Most of the men I’ve met or interviewed expressed a real bitterness when they were saddled with sentences that they felt were longer that they deserved.  Sebastian told me he was at peace because he said that he had no shame in the crime he committed.   Faced with similar circumstances, the good doctor told me that he would do the same thing again.

When I asked Sebastian about his crime, he said that he was doing what he was trained to do.  He administered medicine and helped people with their health issues.  His clinic served a clientele that lacked insurance coverage.  They were poor people, he said, but decent people who had been patients of his for years.

Cutbacks in social funding programs rendered many of his patients ineligible for sufficient medical coverage to meet their needs.  Pharmaceutical companies inflated medication costs, and Sebastian’s elderly patients lacked alternative funding sources. The doctor said he treated the people for free, doing everything within his power to alleviate pain for as many of his patients as he could. He submitted bills for lab tests and pharmaceutical medication to Medicare, however, and by improperly certifying the expenses as within policy, Sebastian was guilty of health care fraud.

“I knew what I was doing and I accept the consequences.  In fact, I’d do it again.  That’s what I do.  I’m a doctor.”

His composure reminded me of Henry David Thoreau.  Sebastian was a selfless man and he said he’d rather serve a prison term for helping people cope with illness then deny them treatment because of a bureaucratic rule that he deemed unjust.  If the government wasn’t wasting so much money on prisons, he said, more funding would be available for medicine. I learned some new lessons from Sebastian.  The lesson of humility.

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