Friday, March 02, 2007

Aspergers in Prison

Over at Boing Boing, I was reacquainted with the case of the three students who torched a bunch of SUVs in an act of California eco-terrorism. When I first heard about it,I didn't think much. So, whacked out kids went crazy in Cali. What's new? I figured they'd get a misdemeanor slap on the wrist and thought nothing more of it.

Well, it turns out that the two worst offenders ran away and are still at large, while the kid holding the gas can has Asperger's Syndrome and like many of these people, annoyed everyone in the process, including the judge, and got slapped with a guilty sentence and a longer prison term than many murderers. I feel this young man belongs in the same category of other white collar criminals: namely, that their imprisonment for long, harsh terms actually harms society, in the long run. This insane judicial treatment of first-time, white-collar offenders must stop.

I am deeply distressed about this case. While there is no doubt, the young man in question, Billy Cottrell, did a bad thing, there is also no doubt that the judicial process completely misfired by not allowing information about Asperger's to be admitted into evidence. He clearly did not understand the ramifications of his actions and was lead into an extremely poor decision because of his naivité and literalness.

Here is the LA Weekly article that reveals how he is being harassed in prison by prison guards and how the description of eco-terrorist, "terrorist", does not describe this guy accurately. Here is his experience:

In prison, he was regarded as downright freakish. His mother believes that prison guards took an early dislike to him because he wasn’t able to play their games. “He can’t play the subordinate,” she says. “He’d die first.” Cottrell himself thinks the guards were jealous of his intelligence. Whatever the truth, Cottrell has been hardly more popular with the prison guards than he was with the jury.

Next, Cottrell told friends and family on the outside, the guards assigned him a new cellmate, an especially tough bad actor known around prison for starting fights. In the summer of 2005, that man at first tried to tear apart Cottrell’s books, then tried to poke his eyes out with a broom, according to Cottrell. Cottrell fought him off and, he says, got blamed for the fight.
He ended up in the "hole" without his physics books, Chinese lessons and other work.
Cottrell went into the Hole on November 3 and stayed there until early January. It was cold. When Kates visited him, he found the temperature in Cottrell’s cell was at a chilly 68 degrees, and Cottrell was wearing only a T-shirt.
Now, without keeping his mind busy, Cottrell is getting more radicalized in prison. A letter from him includes this paragraph, which I will deconstruct a bit because it has so many classic Asperger themes:
“In regards to the social-protocol in prison, yes, indeed, I’ve had some problems. I suppose that this could be attributed to ‘Asperger’s Syndrome,’ although I have absolutely no interest in this matter (1). I told the jury the truth (2), I answered the psychologist’s questions. That’s it. That’s where my responsibility ends. Everything else is up to my attorneys. In prison, as on the streets, I treat everyone the same. (3) I basically find myself incapable of acting with the kind of humble subordination which some guards require. (4) Acting with honesty and integrity is my first and foremost concern. . . . This obviously creates many problems in a place where scandal and back-stabbing is rewarded. (5) ”
I will compare and contrast a "neuro-typical" with an Asperger's mind:
  1. A normal person would be very curious about a mental diagnosis that might confer a change in a prison sentence. In addition, most mental conditions make the person detached from reality and sometimes they can be brought back to reality with medication. In a sense, those with Aspergers are overly attached to reality and they are further misunderstood because they look normal. Spend any time with them, however, and their uniqueness becomes quickly apparent. He doesn't care about the Aspergers diagnosis because he doesn't have the self-awareness to see how it is affecting him. It is a paradox and it harms him. Where narcissists and sociopaths are fully aware of the social construct and exploit it, the Asperger Syndrome person is unaware and will ignore the construct if he deems it unfair or wrong.
  2. A normal person lies. A normal person will shade the truth especially if the truth is damning. So, if your two buddies torched all the cars, and you torched one, a normal person might say, "No I didn't torch any cars." A normal person will recognize that the jury probably doesn't want to punish you severely for being associated with bad people and need a reason to view you sympathetically. Not so, with Aspergers. The "truth" (or their perspective, which they often view as the truth even when it isn't) will be told no matter the harm done. A classic case of this is in a classroom where the teacher will ask, "Who threw that paper airplane?!" Only the Aspergers kid will tell, the other kids understand the social construct, and the Aspergers kid will be hated from then on.
  3. A normal person discriminates. Right or wrong, a normal person (black or white) will cross the street if a group of black young people come toward him. This is discrimination based on evidence. A person with Aspergers will not discriminate. He will not see the potential danger and if someone tried to explain it to him would be offended at the unfairness. A person with Aspergers truly sees the parts of the whole and not the whole. A past event also will not correlate to the current situation. It is called stimulus generalization. A person with Aspergers, like a computer, doesn't generalize the data obtained from each discreet act. So, a parent might warn a child about a fast car, but he will not generalize that warning to all parking lots and all cars. Therefore, he is in extreme danger almost all the time and doesn't know it. (This actually was a problem for my son.)
  4. A normal person will change their behavior in order to survive. If that means kissing the prison guard's ass, a person will do it. If that means not making eye-contact and talking softly, the person will do it. Not an Asperger's person. He will plead his case, stick to the righteousness of his cause and stubbornly refuse to submit even in the face of harsh punishment. He simply does not understand the social rules. On the receiving end, those in his life must work around his inflexibility. In prison, the prisoner must work around the guards. A person with Asperger's is incapable of doing this.
  5. A normal person will play by repugnant rules in order to achieve a desired end. So, if a person can inform on bad guys, make up stories, or fulfill a guards ego needs (or other needs) in order to get out earlier or otherwise succeed in a hateful environment he will do it. An Asperger's person simply won't. First, the game is mystifying. Second, the rules change and he can't abide that. Third, the purpose and results are unfair and unjust. He can't do it.
People with Asperger's Syndrome can be absolutely maddening to deal with. They test the patience of those who love them under the best of circumstances. Literal and stubborn, they will hang on to a wrong-point-of-view 'til their death. They often don't see how their actions and words hurt or annoy others and they figure the others will just put up with it.

My concern for this theoretical physics genius is that he will leave prison psychologically harmed and physically assaulted. I can see how his inability to discriminate might protect him in a sense. The prisoners will realize, quickly, that he would not treat anyone differently. They are all his friend or enemy. More likely, they are all discreet human individuals, to him. But to the guards, this lack of deference in attitude will be insufferable and enraging.

This guy belongs somewhere solving problems. The prison should allow him to teach others and apply his formidable mind to something constructive. In the drive for justice, the legal system is producing some unintended consequences. I believe that this case demonstrates a big one.


Anonymous said...

I am with you on this. This is very disturbing. This man does not belong in prison. It would be nice if this post could land on someones desk that could or would be willing to understand Aspergers. He needs someone to be in his corner instead of treating him like a freak, or making him feel like a freak. I feel really sorry for this man and he will need our prayers.

Anonymous said...

I'd prefer to see the other guys caught and put in jail for their part in this AND the fact that they left an Alegedly mentally disabled man to suffer for it. No offence intended in that last remark but i have only what i read from you to tell me the young man has aspergers. I HAVE a nephew with Aspergers so i'm not totally devoid of any sympathy. I just want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt. IF he truly is a victim of Aspergers and he committed these crimes, i don't think he should get off scott free...maybe some time in a facility with people taking the time to work with him. Obviously he is easily led. The thing that does disturb me is his overdeveloped sense of his own intelligence. He may be intelligent in an Aspergers kind of way but this is still UNacceptable behavior. c

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonyous 8:38...the behavious is unacceptable...but a prison sentence???

He needs professionals to work with him that understand this type of illness. I know a couple of people with Aspergers and it is something that needs to be understood before you can work with it.

Anonymous said...

I think you don't understand the extent of the eco-terrorist problem here in California. They are no question terrorists. They have destroyed billions of dollars worth of private property, endangered lives and in some cases actually gotten people, usually firemen the finest and bravest killed. All of course in the name of saving Mother Earth. This young man is undoutedly getting harsher treatment than you think he deserves in part because of the anger in this state at this murderous movement. I jjust hope more of his ilk suffer even harsher penalties.

Anonymous said...

1:46PM has a good point. If it was my car that was burned or destroyed, i'd want him in jail for a good long time, but i'd also be beating the bushes for the other two...being protected no doubt by sympathetic greenies. Sort of shows the extent of their ethics? morality? like NON-existent. c

Anonymous said...

No, 1:46 does not have a point. If you read the full article, you'd see that it's very much in doubt that he carried out the truly destructive part of this. The crooked judge and subhumanly moronic jury refused to take any of this into account. Also, the issue of the previous acts of others in this alleged "movement" is irrelevant. If people have endangered lives and killed firemen, then fine, THEY deserve punishment, but supporting this sort of scapegoating is just plain stupid and evil. And yes, that's what I'm calling you, 1:46 and 6:43.

Anonymous said...

Why is it necessary to call somone "stupid" because they are taking part in a discussion. That is really "stupid" and arrogant!

Anonymous said...

Doubt. You weren't there and neither was I but the kid was there holding a gas can so obviously he had some part in it. The pomposity of these kids destroying OTHERS property and considering the actions justified! Thank goodness there are people in California that are fed up with it....renews my faith...a California. Do Asperger syndromees go to college? Instead of flying off the handle at persons discussing the incident, how about directing your anger towards the criminals still running free. Something is fishy about this whole story...I have not known any Asperger syndrome kids who are able to live on their own totally unsupervised. DO YOU? c

Melissa Clouthier said...

I am not arguing that this kid is innocent. I am not arguing that the crime was destructive and terrible. I am not even arguing that a prison sentence isn't appropriate--for a time. What I am arguing is that for a first-time offender who has the traits of Asperger's Syndrome, his treatment (The Hole, for goodness sake? He's not a mass murderer or even a murderer or rapist)and sentencing is wrong-headed.

Those with Asperger's Syndrome possess no social understanding. Their arrogance will irritate Judges, juries, even friends and family get exasperated at their rock-headedness. Their lack of self-awareness harms themselves. He needs someone with understanding to lay out to him logically why his actions were wrong. He probably still doesn't get it. Additionally, he needs to be in an environment where his gifts can be used for good.

This is a problem for many white collar criminals. A person's freedom can be restricted and his gifts be used to benefit society.

Anonymous said...

I happen to be an Aspie who has had run-ins with the legal system.

My experience and observation has been that courts are courts of law, not justice, and that justice is, at best, a happy acciden that somehow sneaks in under everyone's guard.

Calling it the Justice Department is a sick mockery. Vested interests and rampant egos are the hallmarks of a flawed system, at almost every level.

This case contains no surprises.

Fortunately for me, I managed to argue my way out of almost every shallow, trumped up charge, and the others I had overturned on appeal. Those successes were welcome, but they did nothing for my opinion of the system and those running it.

Anonymous said...

somehow i'm getting the impression that Asperger's syndrome is now being applied to other behavior anomalies for whatever reason. Granted i am no expert, but i did do a little reading on the subject AND i observed my nephew.

Melissa Clouthier said...

Superficially, Asperger's is subtle. That's part of the problem. Only the irritating features become apparent with cursory exposure to these people. With time the sweetness, child-like innocence, inability to lie (or lie very well) and commitment to truth and justice (even though misapplied at times due to an immature social sense) come through.

While I've heard people say that Asperger's/Autism are being over-diagnosed, that is not my experience. I'll grant that ADD, ADHD, etc. are over-diagnosed. I also grant that those with Asperger's syndrome and Autism often were shoved through the system, undiagnosed, matured late socially, if ever, and managed to integrate into society as the "weird guy" or "shy guy", in the past. Now, with diagnosis, young guys like Cottrell are getting some social training (some, not enough) as children that hopefully help them navigate life better. See Stephen Gutstein's work for an example.

Normally, an Aspie would be so law-abiding (to an annoying degree) that this sort of legal situation would never happen. Part of ASD (autism spectrum disorders) is a respect for rules to an a-social degree. They don't realize that some rules are routinely broken for social reasons. Or that some people drive say, SUVs, with a different philosophy that may be equally valid under the greater principle of individual freedom.

My point is that those on the ASD will tend to be more law-abiding, more concerned with their fellow man. The SUVs that got torched were an abstract (and very real to the owners, mind you). Cottrell would NEVER purposefully hurt another person--the key is connecting his act to a person and violated principle.

With more people walking around with ASD, the whole legal system is going to have to have more awareness. I worry all the time about my son. Under stress, he could very easily "resist arrest"--if the rule about strangers super-ceded the rule about police officers. I've heard of autistic kids being shot by a police officer for this very reason.

Believe me, police officers don't want to be responsible for killing an innocent young person, either, and in the heat of the moment it is very difficult to discern the difference. Some parents have bracelets on their children and stickers on car windows.

While I'm trying to teach my son all the rules and exceptions, it is impossible to cover all the bases. This is where these children are so different. The social lessons other people just absorb, an Aspie must be taught. As one expert says, time is an Aspie's best friend (because they learn by experience), but if a guy like Cottrell gets put in a socially sophisticated and difficult moral situation too soon, he'll fail the test. Cottrell failed, literally. In his case, society will pay a bigger price by keeping in him in jail.

Anonymous said...

While i have great respect for your opinion and your experience with your AS child, this is not my experience nor what i have gleaned from my reading on the subject. Actually, the young man's alleged symptoms seem to me more a narcissistic or neurotic/psychotic (although mild perhaps)condition. Certainly no offense intended for your own situation and experience.

Anonymous said...

Prison guards have ways of dealing with prisoners they take a dislike to.

Such as putting him in a cell with a known violent prison rapist, after which nobody sees or hears a thing...

Anonymous said...

Who's word do we have that the guards have taken a dislike to him. COULD it be that the young man is not getting his way and he is being difficult. Could it be that his mom might just be on his side...which i can't blame her, but is she the only other one claiming 'abuse' by the guards. I will be demanding of righting a wrong but how many times has the public been worked up over a manipulation. Show me the proof this boy is being abused or mistreated and i will hop on board.

Melissa Clouthier said...

I guess I view getting thrown in the hole for six weeks as evidence. Shouldn't that kind of treatment be reserved for those who murder in prison? Or is it reserved for inmates whose crime is to piss off the jail guards?

Anonymous said...

Just looking for the facts. I don't doubt that some prison guards are vindictive evil persons, I've known hair dressers like that. I don't know what else works with people who won't behave themselves. The list says Asperger sufferers treat every one equal. I see he wants equal treatment but i also notice that he said some pretty ugly things about the prison guards. I thought Asperger sufferers weren't like that? I'm just saying that at this point, I don't know who to believe.

Melissa Clouthier said...

Anon 5:33:

And your ignorance demonstrates exactly why a jury should be educated about this neurological disease.

Please note, again, that I am not saying he shouldn't be punished or that he wasn't wrong, but that there are mitigating factors that need to be considered. It's called using judgment.

Anonymous said...

And that was totally uncalled for. This is just a discussion. From what i can tell we are in agreement regarding the righteousness of some kind of punishment for this young man. He went before a jury, they determined his guilt or innocence and his punishment. ALL I said was we don't know what has happened or what the actual facts of the case are. i appreciate your hospitality.

NSA said...

I would like to leave the following comments about certain responses before moving onto the article posted.

Just because a person has aspbergers doesn't mean they should get off scott free. Treating them specialy like you say people should, will just make them feel like they are seen as different.
Which really isn't any better then calling them incompetant or freaks to their face.
To comment 3 specifacly.
Just because you know some some people with aspbergers doesn't mean you understand them. It is not an illness, it not is somthing to be cured. It is obvious people like you, need to get over the human reaction to call anything different an illness or wrong.
I think it is wrong to believe that people with aspbergers need supervision as said by 8:49pm. In my view, it says your scared of what you don't understand, and that your ignorant that many people with aspbergers have acheived great things. One of the reasons that some turn to this type of action is people treat them like they need to be supervised. How would that make you feel.
Though I'm not saying that what they do is justified, they know what they are doing. But looking at the whole collective at how are a few are, is as bad as rascism.

Now no offence to Melissa, but you should realise having aspberger child yourself. We think differantly then most people, but some of the same as people without aspbergers. And not all people without aspbergers fit into the deconstruction of the letter you gave. Otherwise the world would already be at peace. There would be no humans of course, but really that is the only way we can have peace.

If this double posts sorry

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nerkul said...

While I agree that prison and weeks in the hole shows that society and Aspergers are at odds, I'm very wary of statements like "they lack self-awareness". In my experience anyone appearing to lack self-awareness is manipulative in a way you hadn't considered. Also people with Aspergers usually have more self-awareness.

And what's the solution? Two sets of laws? Ten sets of laws, one for each neurological condition?

Emmett said...

Hi there. I'm an autistic eco-radical, and I gotta say.... I don't agree with this article. He's not in prison because he's autistic. He's in prison because he committed arson, and in prison for an outrageous length of time because of the Green Scare and the federal government's obsession with putting away 'eco-terrorists'

When you claim he didn't have the mental ability to understand his actions, you are NOT helping autistic people. You are dehumanizing us all, and you are slapping him and the convictions he stands for in the face. He understood his convictions and was willing to go to jail for them. HOW DARE you take that away from him? His freedom is already gone, and you have to go and paint him as a victim, instead of the principled man he is? He recruited people, planned this out, and carried it out. No matter what you think of his actions, no matter what you think of his cracking under interrogation and talking, the fact is that he is a man of principle, and painting him as anything else is incredibly insulting to autistic people.

Can we not have principles? If I chain myself across a weapons factory, should I not be jailed with my comrades, or will you claim that I have not the capacity to understand my actions? If I die on hunger strike, will you weep for my naivety, or will you honor the principles I starved for? This man is not in jail because he can't lie (which we autistics CAN do)- he is in jail because he chose to speak the truth, and because he took direct action against a machine which could not be used in any way that would not contribute to the destruction of our ecosystem.

Listen to yourself- you are not respecting autistic people:

"People with Asperger's Syndrome can be absolutely maddening to deal with. They test the patience of those who love them under the best of circumstances. Literal and stubborn, they will hang on to a wrong-point-of-view 'til their death. They often don't see how their actions and words hurt or annoy others and they figure the others will just put up with it."

Really? Really? We hang on to the wrong point of view till death? We're uniformly stubborn and literal? We can't see the consequences of our actions? The fact that he was interested in ecology at all, whether or not you agree with his actions, is proof enough that he understood the concept of causes and effects, of relationships between factors. Again, he understood what he was doing, and he did it, not out of naivety, but out of conviction.

The tragedy here is not that an autistic man is in jail. The tragedy here is that the federal government is carrying out a campaign of repression on radical ecologists, anarchists, and anti-globalization activists, and that this man, who by his own conviction chose to commit a property crime, chose to confess, and chose to go to prison, is being mistreated.

And, of course, the final tragedy is that now his principles, convictions, and actions are being cheapened by such a disrespectful article as this, an article that claims to be advocating for autistic people while really just insulting us. For shame.

Lighten his sentence- not because he is autistic, but because the government witch hunt and unfair sentencing for eco-radicalism has got to end!

AHoward said...

Sounds alot like what just happened to my son... diagnosed w/Aspergers (after the fact) the judge basically punished him for the asperger traits ... 'changing his story' , not going home when it was so close, and showing no remorse..." Given a harsher sentence because of these facts... and the Judge ignored the asperger condition....his church and many of those who work in the system have been stunned... no priors and he had dozens of character witness.... Waiting on Appeal while he sits in jail... we pray he stays out of trouble and doesn't get taken advantage of.
(for more info - "JUSTICE FOR BRIAN" c/o
(this case happened in VA)

Cathie said...

I just read the article and a few of the "comments" I will be back to write and read more. I have to thank the author for writing this article. My 18 yr old nephew has Aspergers and is in jail facing serious charges for also being with some friends and allegedly starting fires. I am very concerned about prison for my nephew and I know the author of this article actually understands. Reading this article actually helped me to understand my nephew better; he was just described in this article to the tee. Thank you-