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Looking for next 'Convict 79206'

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When Conrad Black was jailed for corporate crimes, I was saddened by the big man's fall.

I wouldn't have felt that way about ordinary white-collar criminals, such as Bernie Madoff, although his crimes were extraordinary.

Black, however, is a gifted historian, intellectual and writer.

His lengthy incarceration seemed excessive and a loss to the world of ideas, although the Internet and email ensured his opinions were and are still widely available.

Among other literary ventures since his fall from grace, Black has been a motherlode of wonderful comments about the legal and penal systems in the United States.

It is hard to dislike a man who has the courage to describe his prison environment thus: "You are subject to the authority of unskilled labour frequently masquerading as figures of much more natural or earned authority than they actually possess."

The jailing of talented people like Black came to mind when I happened upon the writing of a long-forgotten criminal -- he was barely known in his time -- by the name of Convict #79206, although his real identity before incarceration was Owen C. Middleton.

In 1932, the publishers of On the Meaning of Life by Will Durant asked Convict 79206, who was serving a life sentence in New York's Sing Sing prison after being sentenced as a four-time offender, to comment on the subject of the book.

It was just a coincidence his case was reported a year before the book was published.

Unfortunately, his crimes were not identified in Durant's book and, working with the assistance of Google only, I was unable to discover any details about the man's life, but the publishers were clearly moved by his predicament.

"What meaning did life seem to have from the viewpoint of one so unjustly condemned to apparently so empty a future?" the publishers asked. "The reply was so well thought-out, and so well expressed, that it commanded a place in this symposium. It is incredible that we should be unable to find any better use for such intelligence than to lock it up forever."

Convict 79206's response runs for several pages -- too long to print here -- and it is, indeed, an inspiring read.

He dismisses the idea of suicide for himself, but does not deny it might be permissible for those who have truly concluded life is without meaning.

He was not religious in any sense and warned against seeking "comfort in delusions, false tradition and superstition."

Life, he believed, was accidental, "but it doesn't follow that it need be meaningless."

He expounds at length on the difference between truth (neither beautiful nor ugly) and belief -- "the idol-worshipping strain in our natures."

He found happiness in "mental contentment," which "may be achieved under any condition, even in prison."

"In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this great, wonderful upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration and my treasure," he said in the final paragraph.

Durant's book is gentle by today's standards, but it was controversial at the time because of its discussion of the merits of suicide -- a full decade before Albert Camus struggled with the absurdity of life in The Myth of Sisyphus.

A Free Press editorial called Durant's book "startling," particularly following the attempted suicide in Ottawa that year of eight unemployed ex-servicemen.

Durant also invited the leading thinkers and celebrities of his day to explain in writing what meaning life had for them.

He received responses from Gandhi, Sinclair Lewis, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Will Rogers and many others, but they were almost all disappointing.

Most said they were too busy to consider the matter in any depth or thought the question was meaningless.

"How the devil do I know?" Shaw responded. "Has the question itself any meaning?"

Many more declined the opportunity "lest they incriminate themselves," Durant said. "Public officials in particular were reluctant to speak frankly on so delicate a question, since their tenure of office depended... on the goodwill of the uninformed."

Shaw may have been right in calling the exercise pointless, but the point here is the reasoning and arguments of Convict 79206 eclipsed them all.

And so I wonder: Are there any inmates like 79206 in the Canadian penal system today?

I'm sure they are out there, or in there, and I would enjoy hearing from you on the meaning of life, or on the legal and prison system, or something that rises above the ordinary.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2011 A18

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