Culture & Criticism Since 2003
J. Tony Serra is one of the finest criminal defense lawyers in the country – an old-time barrister noted for his unique ability to communicate with a jury on a gut-level and pull them to his side of the argument.
Serra has been called – “the best of the best in the courtroom.” Serra has also been called – “the only one around who can swim in the mud and win those unwinnable cases.”
But back in 2005, Tony Serra found himself on the other side of the fence: The renowned attorney suddenly recast as defendant, sentenced to ten months in federal prison at Lompoc for failing to pay income taxes.
Upon learning his fate, Serra didn’t flinch. No stranger to fighting the good fight (he was first jailed on tax charges in 1974 in protest of the Vietnam war), Serra seemed energized by the challenge of a prison stint, saying he could serve the sentence “standing on his head;” he added:
“I would rather get down with inmates. They’re interesting, they’re dramatic. They’ve over-stepped the bounds of society. Some of it is high principle; some of it is low principle. But these people are extraordinary. They’re not ordinary. These are my people!”
Walking The Circle, published last year by Berkeley, California’s Grizzly Peak Press, further illuminates the mind of a lawyer transformed into the dark archetypal self. In his own inimitable style, Serra uses his time as prisoner to paint us a living picture on what life on that other side is really like.
With a swirling under-stated elegance and look-you-in-the-eye honesty, Serra tells the story of every odd-man-out who society has said owes it a debt.
In sum, Walking The Circle is both a sharp slap in the face and a stark statement on America’s hidden reality. You see, in prison, life must always be interspersed with the salty specter of death. And Serra writes:
“The “real” Lompoc Prison has outdoor spaces between the old, decrepit, block-like steel-boned buildings, and between the buildings a double fence with curls of razor wire on top and in between. The outdoor spaces are flat, dry brown grass: nothing green, no flower, no plants; a blanched, bleached downtrodden earth with deadened grasses, a threatening sterility, not of nature but defacing nature.”
You see, in prison, every soft and silent flash of solitude is governed by the watchful eye of the captor. And Serra writes :
“We line up in front of our bunks. Some inmates still [are] not dressed fully. Some standing and reading: others chest out, attention military style. Two guards, one behind the other by several feet, march briskly in the aisles. Their counting is seen by watching their lips move as they pass. … Up and down three aisles they pass, then return to their office at the extreme end of the barracks near the front door.”
You see, in prison, one must voluntarily fade into himself until he becomes the actual story of time, this life beyond spools of memory, beyond spools of meaning. And Serra writes:
“After a protracted silence, we are informed that we may now exit the barracks. The long line of us rushes out. A Saturday at prison camp resumes normalcy.
“Why the recount? Did someone escape? The whole event submerges in lost memory as quickly as it occurred.”
More than anything, Walking The Circle is a story about a man who’s lived nearly half-a-century in the public spotlight suddenly left to himself, left to the bone-sharp mirror-stains of his own reflection. But rather than run from the images he sees, rather than flee from the reality he can’t escape, Serra wades into the dark hue of the stench.
And the result? The result is a ‘chronicle’ of life behind bars that tells a universal story. You see, this isn’t just a story about a lawyer who got busted for not paying taxes. Instead, it’s a story about what can happen to you when the government says you have to pay for a wrong turn.
And the images that remain, like the great movie of life, are often not pretty. But they are real.
Still, Americans circa 2013 don’t like too much reality. It seems to scare them. Truthfully, they’d rather hide behind the screens of their mobile phones than examine their abject failures.
Nonetheless, reality has a way of sneaking up on you and catching you in its jagged black jaws. You see, sometimes a person has no other choice but ‘walk the circle’ with the other inmates. Sometimes even great defense lawyers can’t out-wit their captors.
Kudos to Tony Serra for having the balls to write down what he saw in bloody ink on the warden’s shit-stained paper.