Out of Irons, Into the Dock

United States Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit Nov. 30, 1966

Defendant was convicted of two violations of the Universal Military Training and Service Act by willful failure to report for and submit to Armed Forces physical examination and by willful failure to report for or submit to induction into the Armed Forces....The Court of Appeals, Mathes, Senior District Judge, held that evidence sustained the convictions.

Judgment affirmed.

Peter H. Irons, a first-year law student, leans back in his chair, fingers smoothing a neatly-trimmed moustache that is slightly tinged with gray. Irons looks at home in the Pound Hall class on criminal law--he seems relaxed, content to follow the discussion without participating in the argument, which is about negligent homicide.

Irons's interest in the law is more than philosophical or abstract. Convicted in 1965 on two counts of violating the Selective Service Act, Irons spent 26 months--from late 1966 to early 1969--in Federal prisons, paying for his refusal to carry a draft card.

His refusal had nothing to do with the war in Southeast Asia. Irons first sent in his draft card in 1961, long before Tonkin bay, even before Diem's murder. The House Un-American Activities Committee, although not as powerful as it had been in the mid-fifties, was still an active force. The civil rights movement was only just beginning to gain momentum. Most students were still more interested in panty raids than in politics.

A letter accompanied the card that Irons, then a sophomore at Antioch College, returned to his draft board in Wyoming, Ohio. "I have been imprisoned for a time because I presumed to sit at a lunch counter with my friends in the South--Negro friends. This sort of injustice is but a reflection of the malaise rooted deeply into our social system; a system that also says 'you must place your body at our disposal.' The authority of the government, insofar as I see it to be warranted, I will cheerfully obey. But I cannot obey a law see as wrong.... Therefore I say to you with all respect that I am returning the symbol of your agency and dissociating myself from your jurisdiction."

Irons was brought up as a Unitarian, but in the letter he declared himself an agnostic. This was before the Supreme Court ruled that men could be conscientious objectors without belief in a supreme being, and while that decision came down between Irons's conviction and appeal, the appeals court ruled not to grant him a chance to reapply for C.O. status.

Now 35, Irons stands out less in a crowd than he did in 1963, when an FBI file he has since obtained described him as having "a beatnik appearance." Of medium height, with brown hair cut above his ears, he looks much like any graduate student--a little older, perhaps, but no more revolutionary.

"It's easy to get lost in the Law School," he says. "You can go between classes and the libraries without ever talking to anyone."

Despite his desire to remain inconspicuous, however, Irons stands out in his classes. He isn't particularly interested in the law as a profession--he isn't even sure he will want to pass the bar when he graduates. A friend relates an incident that took place in the first week of classes this year, when the professor asked the class why the decisions of the seventh federal court district are not widely-respected among lawyers. The class offered a number of theoretical reasons--a tradition of lightweight judges, the number of cases the court sees--but the professor wasn't satisfied. Finally, says the friend, Irons answered it correctly. The seventh circuit--that's Chicago, and Daley controls all the decisions."

Irons doesn't remember the incident, but it expresses fairly adequately his attitude toward the law. "Lawyers control the law," he says. "I'm not a total anarchist--I do believe in some kind of legal system. I think the basic cause of crime is the political social system, which has inequality built into it. But that doesn't answer the problem of what you do till the revolution comes."

The oldest son of a nuclear engineer, Irons lived all over the eastern United States during his childhood--"everywhere they were making the bomb," he says quietly. He doesn't articulate a link between his father's profession and his own social consciousness--Irons doesn't often speak of his personal life. His father died during Peter's first year at Antioch, and Irons ended up the only one of the seven children to get a college degree. His four brothers are house carpenters, one sister is married to a house carpenter, and the last sister teaches in a Montessori school in Cambridge.

Now, six years out from behind bars, Irons is less bitter about his time in jail than he when he was first released. "Jail isn't as bad as everyone thinks," he says.

The worst thing about it, he says, was the boredom. He spent 18 of his 26 months in the medium security federal prison in Danbury, Conn. "It's supposed to be the country club of prisons," he says, "but it's an undeserved reputation. There wren't too many petty rules, but it's incredibly boring--no library, all you can do is watch television, see a movie once a month, or if you're a member of the Mafia you can play bocci."

He draws a map of the prison courtyard on a paper napkin, dividing it into the areas controlled by the various social groups. The blacks played basketball in one corner, homosexuals lifted weights in another, the hippies who were in on drug charges hung out in an area the inmates called "needle park," the Italians played bocci in the center. And the section of the courtyard that had benches was reserved for the "senior citizens" of the prison community.