Convicted Watergate conspirator John D. Ehrlichman told a Law School Forem audience last night that "There is a pervasive climate of indifference in the federal prison system."
A top aide to President Richard M. Nixon, Ehrlichman served 18 months in an Arizona prison for his role in the Watergate affair. He addressed most of his talk to the handful of self-identified aspiring criminal lawyers in the audience of about 250.
"Every lawyer has a professional obligation to his client that extends beyond the jury verdict," said the former aide for domestic affairs.
"Stick with your client when he gets to jail, he needs you," he said. He described his position as a former lawyer in prison as being like a "doctor in a leper colony."
Ehrlichman said his fellow inmates' calls to the lawyers who had defended them in court were not returned, and they faced parole boards without the counsel of attorneys.
Ehrlichman described the parole officers at his minimum-security prison as "old hacks who had never studied law." He said the parole officers based their decisions on prisoners' records based on an interview with the prisoner, unaided by an attorney.
The record, according to Ehrlichman, contains incriminating material, and he cited a case where a prisoner wasn't given parole because he admitted in the interview to having used narcotics sometime in his past.
"Don't drop him at the door of the parole hearing, he badly needs your help at this point of the process," Ehrlichman said, adding, "This is why I come to law schools, to deliver these sermonettes. You don't learn about this in your criminal law classes."
Ehrlichman was one of Nixon's top domestic advisors and a major figure in the cover-up of the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in 1972.
After his address, Ehrlichman entertained questions on a variety of issues, including his own treatment in prison. He said he had not received special benefits because of his former political position and wealth. "My case manager leaned over backwards to make sure I wasn't favored," he recalled.
When asked if he feels he "deserved going to jail," Ehrlichman said, "Once I was convicted of the crime, there was nothing else they could do with me."
Responding to the question of why he resigned, on April 30, 1973, Ehrlichman said, "I didn't resign, I was canned."
Asked how he would reform the prison system if he were given the opportunity. Ehrlichman said he would first attempt to solve the overcrowding problem. "Where I was, barracks built for 40 were housing 65," he said.
He also indicated his support of alternative forms of sentencing "to harness people for social good" Ehrlichman had asked to provide free legal counsel to Indian tribes in Arizona in lieu of a prison term, but had been denied that option.