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A Judge's Own Prison Memoir
By Sol Wachtler
Random House 369pp $24

Jail has been a boon to literature. From Jack Henry Abbott to Miguel Piero, cons have found a subject matter in prison life that stirred them to write. Others, whose time behind bars is now mostly forgotten, began their scribbling there. Nelson Algren, for example, the author of The Man with the Golden Arm, got started writing in a Texas jail where he was serving four months for the theft of a typewriter.

Now comes After the Madness: A Judge's Own Prison Memoir by Sol Wachtler, once the chief justice of the highest court in New York State. It was Wachtler, you will remember, who was nabbed by the FBI for conducting a bizarre campaign of harassment against his former mistress, Joy Silverman. There were phone calls and anonymous threatening letters. One note also contained a condom--and was addressed to Silverman's 14-year-old daughter. As part of his harassment, Wachtler assumed various guises, including that of ''lowlife'' David Purdy, who offered to go away if Silverman paid him $20,000.

All of this, the ex-judge says he reasoned in his manic-depressed, pill-addled mind, should have prompted Silverman to call and beg for his help. Instead, she knew from the first who her tormentor was--and called the feds, who monitored Wachtler's every move and arrested him. In 1993, he was convicted of harassment and sent to prison.

But After the Madness isn't primarily an attempt to justify or apologize for that weird series of events. Instead, this diary of Wachtler's 11-month imprisonment (which followed a year of home confinement) focuses on his penitentiary pals, jailhouse experiences, and reflections concerning the law, crime, punishment, and rehabilitation. Most of these legal ruminations are unsurprising, conforming to liberal orthodoxies. All the same, even readers who suspect Wachtler of trying to cash in on his notoriety are likely to find much of the book engrossing.

Most interesting are Wachtler's descriptions of prison life and his encounters with other inmates. First sent to a high-security prison in Butner, N.C., and later to a similar facility in Rochester, Minn., Wachtler's experience--he particularly wants us to know--bore no resemblance to a day at the country club. He often finds himself in ''seclusion,'' or solitary confinement, is frequently strip-searched and subjected to urine tests, is denied possessions, gets shackled and handcuffed regularly, and then is stabbed by an unknown assailant. The worst moment of his ordeal, he says, came shortly after his transfer to Minnesota: ''I had just been released from one month in the hole.... My nearly five hours of being chained in transit had caused every muscle and bone to ache.... I had not slept for two days. My stab wounds still throbbed.... And now I was being told that I was to be interred, once again, in the airless vault of seclusion.''

In stir, of course, it's the people you meet who make up for any unpleasantness. Early on, Wachtler met Elvis, Sam Cooke, and Adolf Hitler--all fellow inmates in the Butner psychiatric wing. Later, he encountered spies such as Jonathan Pollard and alleged mobsters Joe Aiuppa and Venero ''Benny Eggs'' Mangano. There's the art thief who described loot he had taken from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the book bandit whose stash of 19,000 rare volumes included the 1480 Coburger Bible and a first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. And, it goes without saying, there were the druggies--dealers in quantities large and, more often, small.

It's this latter category of prisoner that most frequently inspires Wachtler to climb onto his soapbox. Observing that 80% of new federal prisoners since 1987 have been drug offenders, he inveighs against the guidelines that have taken sentencing discretion away from judges. ''Under the Reagan-era approach of 'zero tolerance,' the punishment for possession of 100 grams of marijuana is the same as for the possession of 100 grams of heroin: a mandatory 5- to 40-year sentence with no chance of parole,'' Wachtler tells us. By contrast, ''the average time spent by a murderer in American prisons is nine years.'' Wachtler concludes that there should be punishment alternatives for victimless crimes, that society should focus on locking up the violent, and that real emphasis must be placed on drug rehabilitation. Elsewhere, he denounces capital punishment, conspiracy laws that have the effect of nabbing more little fish than big ones, and grand juries.

There's little that's startling in the legal analysis--or in Wachtler's statements about his own case. He admits he did it all but wonders why Silverman called the law rather than just telling him to stop.

It's all quite sad and tawdry. Wachtler was a self-made man who rose to the top of his profession. Today, his prison time behind him, he is shunned--but is hustling for work as a mediator. Does a day go by in which Wachtler fails to reflect on his prison experiences? It seems unlikely. There may even be times he will wish he had followed the advice given by his Rochester chums to a famous fugitive from justice. Glued to the TV screen, on which flickers the image of police in pursuit of O.J. Simpson's Bronco, the inmates hear an announcer say that Simpson is holding a gun to his head. They urge him to use it. Says one: ''Do it, man, or else you going to die the way they want you to die.''



PHOTO: Cover, "After the Madness"

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