Steven Lindquist is an Author, Consultant, and Counselor currently in private practice. He specializes in Neuro Linguistic analysis, working with men and couples. He was trained at the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Chicago. He is a Father, husband, and is proudly owned by two cats and a five-acre farm. He maintains a blog at www.ruminatingbear.blogspot.com.
A prisoner at Joliet prison sued the warden for damages, claiming that his constitutional rights had been violated after being confined in solitary for three years, only being allowed to leave his cell every two weeks for a shower across the hall, or an occasional visit to the Infirmary. The judge had already ruled that the prisoner’s treatment was in violation of his constitutional rights. The jury was empaneled to decide the monetary compensation for damages due to the prisoner for his unconstitutional confinement.
Mr. Lindquist was asked to testify as an expert witness. Despite Mr. Lindquist having never acted in this capacity previously, a judge ruled that he was qualified as an expert due to his work in the prison system and his extensive experience in private practice. This is his story, in his own words, about his experience as an (in)expert witness in federal court.
A guy I had done some consulting work with calls me out of the blue and asks if I would be an expert witness for a case in Federal Court. He explains that he is defending a prisoner incarcerated at the Joliet prison, that he needs a couple of days of my time, and that I would get $600 for it, making a point of saying, “This will look great on your resume!”
He goes on to explain that the judge had already made the decision that the prisoner’s constitutional rights had been violated. The jury needed to decide how much money the prison owes the prisoner as compensation for the damages done to his constitutional rights.
He points out that, “The decision could affect prison policy, if we can give it some teeth. Don’t you think there should be consequences if this is how they are treating people?”
Just on principle, I want to help, but huge questions remain.
His plan is to call two witnesses to testify: a dog trainer, and me. I didn’t say it, but I thought, “Well, I probably have about as much expertise as the dog trainer: absolutely none.” So I ask instead, “How in the world did you pick me?”
He replies, “Didn’t you do some pro-bono work with a prisoner in Florida a while back?”
“Well yeah, I talked to him a half a dozen times, but that doesn’t make me an expert. I don’t even have a degree!”
“Don’t get hung up on the expert part. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to have expertise. The best example is a guy named Red Adair who puts out oil well fires all over the world, testifies all of the time, but only has a high school diploma. He doesn’t need anything more—he has enough experience in the field he is in.”
“Okay, so I might not need a degree, but how am I qualified to have an expert opinion?!” I hope I don’t sound as terrified by the prospect as I feel, but I am getting spooked.
He lays it out: “Have you worked with people who have lost physical functionality due to confinement for whatever reason? And, is what happens any kind of mystery, or would it be pretty easy to summarize the effects over time?”
“Okay then, I think you’ll make a good witness. Come to my office on Monday and we will get started.”
I am gobsmacked. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I would be asked to do anything remotely like this.
In his office he explains that the lawsuit was filed by a prisoner who had been kept in solitary confinement for three years, and was only let out once every two weeks to go across the hall to shower, and sometimes to go to the infirmary.
Before he was a prisoner, he was a 20-year-old gang banger, hanging around with his boys on the south side of Chicago. Out of the blue, a rival jumped him and took away his gun. He was already a low man on the totem pole, since he’s young, skinny, and short. He knew he was done for; now that someone bested him, he’d be taking shit from everyone, unless he could get the gun back. So, he went home and got his other gun to challenge the guy who took the first one. When he came back, a fight broke out and a struggle ensued. The kid ended up shooting the rival, and then got arrested for murder.
I’m told that he’s in solitary because he kept lighting trash cans on fire to protest how he was being treated. While in solitary, he managed to educate himself enough to file a lawsuit against the prison for how he’d been treated.
As screwed up as all this is, I can’t help and have some sympathy and respect for the guy. He bucked the system knowing that for the rest of his twenty-year sentence he was going to become a target because of it.
When the lawyer first pitched this to me, I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. It was a big commitment. The money was not an incentive;it’s not going to come close to covering expenses. Plus, the process was going to take up a bunch of time, which I really didn’t have. But after hearing the story, I’m cautiously on board. If I can help keep some other poor bastard from getting treated this badly, it’s worth it. Based on what I see, his punishment for the fires he set seems completely out of proportion to the offense he committed. I can’t see how three years of deprivation is fair or just, and apparently the current judge sees it that way too.
At the lawyers office I get the rundown on what will be expected of me. I’ll need to appear at a deposition (my heart sinks at the thought of being grilled) and I’ll need to be available for a couple of days in court. He hands me a two-inch tall stack of documentation to study, and says: “you’ll want to get familiar with this since you’ll need it for the deposition.”
I head out in a daze to get a decent suit.
I’m preparing as best I can for the interview. I’ve read everything a couple of times. The documentation has a basic review of physical, emotional, and mental effects of isolation deprivation, and the effects of extended exposure to it. None of this is new information to me. All of it is well known, and very common for a variety of different reasons. But I guess being familiar with this is the point. There was a lot of other legal-looking stuff I obsessed over, since I had no reference for what would actually be important for the deposition and trial.
It’s midnight, I can’t sleep, my stomach hurts and I’m feeling really anxious about tomorrow. I don’t know if I will ever get to sleep. Maybe I should get up and study some more. Never having done this before, I’m not really sure what will be useful tomorrow. This stuff is so dry, maybe it will put me to sleep. It didn’t help that the lawyer told me that the judge had summarily rejected the dog trainer, so it was all on me now. No pressure….
I’m finally heading home after the deposition feeling a little amnesiac. Being recorded under oath didn’t help ease my anxiety one bit. Going in, I’m hyper-aware that if I screw up, it’s not just a hit to my self-esteem—it could affect a bunch of folks’ lives.
The thing I remember most clearly from that day: they asked me how I knew the lawyer for the prosecution.
I froze, since I first met him in a confidential therapeutic situation. I couldn’t reveal that information ethically. Other than that initial relationship, I only knew him in a friendly, superficial way.
I sat there mute, not knowing how I could answer the question without violating his rights. I cocked my head and looked at him like, You know I can’t say anything, right? Can you please bail me out of here? The silence stretched on and on until the opposing counsel asked the question again, sounding a little irritated. I just sat there with my yap shut tight, trying to figure a way around this dilemma. Finally, much to my relief, he spoke up and said, “We met personally.” The opposing lawyers looked at each like, What the hell was that all about? And then they moved on, mostly bored with formalities they had been through a million times.
I’m on my way home and I’m really relieved to get past that hurdle. Having no way to gauge how well I had done, I asked the lawyer afterwards, “How did I do?” He chuckled a little, sensing my discomfort. “Don’t worry, you did just fine. We’ll get together just before the trial and prep you, so you know exactly what I need.”
I am now far more settled and relaxed for the prep session than I was for the deposition. The pressure is still here, just more in the background than in my face. He has me practice my testimony so we can review it. I lay it all out, the time frame and damages. He says, “That’s great, nicely done, easy to understand, and thorough. Now can you juice up the damages a bit, so the jury really gets just how bad this is?”
I’m stunned. “You want me to exaggerate the facts. I just don’t feel right about lying.”
He smirks a little, and says “Let me explain how the legal system works, since you’re new to this.
“The defense is expected to distort the truth as much as possible, and the prosecution is expected to distort the truth as much as they possibly can as well. The judge acts as a kind of referee to decide what is out of bounds of the law. The theory is, that within those bounds, the truth will emerge from the distortions.”
In my simple-minded way, I’m thinking, Well why not just tell the truth, if that’s what you want. What I said out loud was, “I don’t think I need to distort the truth to illustrate how awful this was for him. I think the unvarnished truth should do just fine.” He looks a little frustrated, and turns away. Finally he looks back and realizes I’m not going to budge, and grudgingly mumbles, “Okay, do your best.”
I get to the courthouse a little early, since it’s the stuff of my nightmares to show up late and then be fumbling around trying to find where I’m going. At the door to the courtroom, an officer directs me to a bench where I can wait. He informs me that the court is in session, and when they need me they’ll call me in.
The court takes a recess and I’m allowed to enter. I’ve been in traffic court, and civil court for my divorce, but I’ve never walked into a court like this. In the lower courts, everyone is focused on what’s going on immediately in front of them. Little attention is paid elsewhere. This has a very different feeling. The lawyer called it, “The box seats of the legal system,” and I can see why. There is a singular attention to THE matter at hand in the room. The general level of attention is high as I walk up to the prosecution’s table. I am very aware of my every move being observed.
The prisoner had testified just prior to my arrival and was seated at the table. The lawyer introduced me to him as, “This is the man who has agreed to testify on your behalf.” He stood up, we shook hands and he said, “Thank you, I really appreciate what you are doing for me.” Not knowing what to say, I mumble, “Sure, no problem.”
I noticed a tall, powerful-looking guy dressed in black yukking it up with the opposing attorneys during the break. I’m curious so I asked the attorney, who is that guy that’s so friendly with the opposing counsel? He says, “Oh that’s the warden from Joliet prison. He just came to eyeball the plaintiff during his testimony just now.” I’m thinking, I hope the jury recognizes that this is harassment, and takes it into account. What a jerk.
The prisoner-plaintiff is about 5’2” tall, a small black man dressed in a prison jumpsuit. His eyes are like those of a feral, trapped and caged animal. I can tell he’s been knocked around, has some swelling on his face, and favors his right leg when he moves.
The judge explains that while I haven’t been rejected like the dog trainer as a witness, I still needed to be vetted to testify. Then he does something unexpected and says, “I’m going to remove the jury so that we can get some things sorted out.”
Later, the lawyer explained to me that the judge had done us a favor. Since he’s already ruled that the case is unconstitutional, and he has skin in the game, he’s giving us the opportunity to confirm why I am qualified to make an appearance as an expert witness, and tie up any other loose ends. Sorting out these details can be messy, and he wants to make sure we don’t expose the jury to all the rigmarole that may be required to get there.
My anxiety has ramped up a bit since this is the part I’ve been worried about all along. How do I justify being an expert witness without having the traditional credentials to do so?
Since our side has no objection to my testimony, the defense has the opportunity to discredit me, so I take the stand to defend myself. The sharp young man questioning me is eager to prove I have no right to be there. If I can be dismissed, the case is over and there will be no damages. The prosecution will still win the case, but it will mean nothing, since without damages winning the trial is meaningless. This type of outcome also does not reflect well on the judges record.
The young fella starts grilling me by asking, “How can you expect to be an expert witness, if you have no expertise? You don’t have an advanced college degree. All you have is a high school diploma, and some certificate from the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Chicago.”
I explain that the training was a two-year postgraduate program, and that as a result of some of the networking I did while in it, I have a network of healthcare professionals who sometimes refer patients to me. But mostly, people come to me via word of mouth.
At this point the judge intercedes. “Clearly you don’t have traditional accreditation, but you have experience. Based on what you have indicated of your work schedule, you have helped hundreds and hundreds of people over the time you have been practicing. So let me see if I understand this. Let’s say my wife has a problem and has been to multiple specialists in order to alleviate her problem. If, after she has exhausted her options, one of your colleagues might refer her to you. They would justify doing this based on successful results in the past. Is this assessment correct?”
I say, “Yes, that is pretty much correct.”
“And it looks like you have some experience working with the prison population.”
“Yes that is correct.”
“Okay, so based on what I can ascertain about your private practice, and since you have worked within the prison system, I qualify you as an expert witness for this trial. Does the defense have any further questions for this Witness?”
They only ask, “How did you contact the prisoner? Did you call him or did he call you?”
I replied, “He called me of course.” (It’s a trick question since the only way a prisoner can talk to someone on the outside is by making a collect call, or in person.)
“And where was this prisoner located?”
“He was in Miami, Florida awaiting sentencing.” (I’m assuming they’re asking so they can check it out to make sure I’m not just making it up.)
The judge declares, “The court will adjourn and meet up again at 9 a.m. in the morning.” I slept better that night and had a sense of crossing a very important threshold.
Today in federal court, I am in the hot seat first thing. Initially our lawyer has some demographic formalities to ask to set the stage.
I lean back while on the stand, my right leg crossed over the left feigning a casual attitude. I know what’s coming, and I am trying not to get too worked up.
The lawyer’s tone changes as he asks me THE question: “What do you expect would happen to a prisoner who has experienced the amount and type of solitary confinement that has been described in this court?”
I put my feet flat on the floor, lean forward, and look the jury in the eye for a second. Then I talk about the overt losses of bone, muscle, and physical functionality he would suffer. And that in addition to this there are serious psychological consequences. Examples are depression, schizoid breaks, suicidal ideation, self-harm, a loss of cognitive capacity, and that these changes are more than likely permanent. I point out that there are other likely consequences, only recognizable in the long term.
The prosecution turns me over to the defense. They don’t try to argue the facts, instead they try to pick away at my credibility.
The young whippersnapper asks me how much I was paid for my testimony.
“I was paid $600.”
He immediately asks, “Where did it come from?
“I don’t really know where it came from.”
“How could you not know where it came from?”
I’m silently thinking, I know that the lawyer handed it to me, but I actually have no idea where it came from, should I?
Again he urges, “Are you sure you don’t know where it came from?”
Feeling frustrated that he keeps asking me the same question and isn’t satisfied with my answer, I say, “I don’t know where the money I was paid came from, and I don’t care. For the record, It was just enough to buy this suit. So obviously it has no bearing on why I’m here. The money could have come from anywhere. For all I know it could have come from you.”
He blinks three times, stands there almost frozen, and doesn’t say anything for a bit. Then he colors a touch and turns around, and goes over to confer with what is obviously a supervising lawyer. They have a little chat. It looks like he’s suggesting something he wants to do, and she is shaking her head no, like she doesn’t want him to. There is some more discussion, some head nodding, and when it looks like they reach some kind of agreement, he comes back over to me.
Right off the bat, he says to me sternly, “For the record, neither I nor my office have ever paid you, and never will, any amount of money to testify.”
He turns to the judge and says, “Your Honor, we have no further questions,” and I was done.
After I was dismissed, the lawyer said they probably stopped questioning me because it would be too risky to go any further.
Their attitude of incredulity pushed me enough to say something seemingly innocuous as a deflection. Instead I unknowingly lobbed a bomb with serious implications I had no idea of.
I was just too unpredictable to keep probing.
He said the crack about the suit completely undermined their argument, and they were smart to just let it go. Turns out, I had inadvertently blundered into accusing them of a felony. Talk about getting the wind knocked out of your sails. He also said that their expert witness was being paid five grand to appear (this is a fairly standard rate). That I would participate without a profit motive, seems to trip them up.
A week or so later I was having second thoughts about how I had done as a witness. Had I done okay with my answers, was I seen as too much of a smart ass for the answer about where the money came from? A million questions swirl in my mind.
Finally, I get a hold of the lawyer and ask him about my insecurities around the trial. He seemed surprised I had any, and said that I had done a great job. I asked him how things were going with the trial. He replied with, “The trial is over and the prisoner has been awarded the equivalent of three years of the warden’s salary, as compensation for the time he spent in solitary confinement.”
I said, “That’s great, I’m glad he got something for the trouble he went through.”
The lawyer says, “Well, that is the good news. The other news is, now that he has assets, the state is within its rights to charge him room and board for the rest of his time in prison. By the time he gets out, there will be nothing left of that money.”
I’m not exactly sure how I feel about them charging him while he’s in the joint. I just hope he came away with something more tangible than the money. I can imagine that he may now get some credit with his fellow inmates for standing up to the MAN. If I step back a little further, I wonder if it might have inspired some other inmates to follow the same path and challenge a system that is neither fair nor humane.
Joliet Correctional Center closed as a holding prison in 2002. Budget cuts and the obsolete and dangerous nature of the buildings were the cited reasons. All inmates and most staff were transferred to Stateville Correctional Center.
Our online blog space where we publish those who peek behind the veil of the legal profession.