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.He ended up in the "hole" without his physics books, Chinese lessons and other work.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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.