• Deborah Yaffe

Pride and penitentiary

The white supremacist sympathizer assigned to read Pride and Prejudice will now have enough time to get through all six of Jane Austen’s novels: Last week, he was sent to prison for up to two years, after an appeals court ruled that his original suspended sentence was legally problematic.


You remember this story: Ben John, now twenty-two, a Brit who downloaded tens of thousands of extremist documents, including a manual with viable bomb-making instructions, lucked out last summer when Judge Timothy Spencer decided he was more wayward child than hardened criminal.


Spencer gave John a two-year suspended sentence and ordered him to read the classics. “Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night,” Spencer directed. “Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.”


Advocacy groups decried the leniency of the sentence, prosecutors appealed it, and last week a three-judge panel overturned it and sentenced John to a two-year prison term, ordering him to spend at least two-thirds of that time behind bars. As news reports make clear, however, the judges’ ruling was based not on a perception of undue leniency but on a legal technicality about the permissible length of suspended sentences.


John had allegedly been doing his reading -- earlier this month, he returned to court with copies of Twelfth Night and P&P in hand and told the judge, “I enjoyed Shakespeare more than Jane Austen, but I still enjoyed Jane Austen to a degree” – but according to the prosecution, he had also been seeking out Nazi-related material on Twitter.


At the time, Spencer pronounced himself “encouraged” by John’s progress, but, as the BBC’s analyst points out, “We may never know what [John] was going to tackle next, or whether he will continue to plough through the classics in the prison library.” At least Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays.

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