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America loves its laws but adores its outlaws. Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, they burn up the screen from Alcatraz to Oz. We're particularly fond of jailbirds. Those silent lambs. Those women behind bars. All that bottled rage. All that toughness, that loneliness, that yearning to breathe free! We've been so in love with them, so besotted for so long, that all we could think about for years was how to change them.

But we learned, as anyone in love soon does: You can't change your beloved. You can love them and they can love you, but they're going to change only when and if they really want things to be different.

Okay. We know that now. And we accept it. Sort of. But we can't help wondering: Isn't there some way — some trick — to make those bad, wicked convicts want to change!

Liberals hoped that a few sessions of therapy and vocational training would do it: wrong. Punishment hawks think they've got it now: Make it so damned rough for them in there they'll prefer being dull and obedient (like us) to being sexy and defiant (like themselves).

Expressed as policy these sentiments have changed the terminal end of the criminal justice system from a policy of corrections to one of containment and punishment. Our prisons are harsher, sentences are longer, programs that help prisoners build new lives are fewer. "Warehousing" would be a more accurate term than "corrections," or, in some institutions, "torture."(1) Programs proven to reduce recidivism — like drug and alcohol rehab — have been tossed out with perks like weight rooms and cable T.V.

Even the mainstream media has begun to worry that our prison system is becoming scarier than the criminals, and there's reason to suspect that they're right.

The most frightening development has been the advent and increase of private prisons, now the fastest-growing segment of the correctional system. Private prisons are scary because, having been adopted in a free-market, anti-government spirit, they are under-regulated. Fox Butterfield of The New York Times, whose crime reporting has been one of the bright spots of the New Correctional Era, describes conditions in a juvenile prison in Louisiana that could justify a military invasion if they occurred in another country or Waco, Texas.(2)

Private prisons make their profits by cutting costs, which is often done at the expense of safety — for prisoners, guards and the public.(3) Increasingly, they also profit by contracting out prison labor to private companies.

Our constitution explicitly permits convict slavery,(4) but that doesn't mean we should run with it, particularly since we so enjoy raking China over the coals for comparable practices. When U.S. prisoners labor at substandard wages for private companies, and those companies are allowed to sell their goods in the open market, as they are now doing, union wage earners will be made to pay — literally — for others' crimes. So unions can be forgiven if they yell: "We was robbed!"

Worse, privatized, for-profit prison labor creates a lobby of employers dependent on maintaining a supply of convict labor — a well-heeled lobby with a financial stake in social degeneracy! Whoever believes that private prisons will save us money must be heeding the voice of that little dog who keeps whispering to psychos: "Kill them all!"

It makes sense for prisoners to work (as many now do) to repay their victims, to support their families and to recompense the state for the cost of keeping them, provided that they work at jobs that society needs done but can't seem to finance — like rebuilding schools,(5) or producing school textbooks, furniture and equipment. That way they would repay their debt to all, rather than to a few at the expense of the innocent.

Longer first and second terms for violent crimes should deter wannabe felons enough without adding economic exploitation or dehumanizing treatment(6) to the mix. But, to reassure those who fear that a humane prison is an attractive alternative to life on the streets, we could let anyone who wanted the steady work, the health care and the glamorous, B-movie company simply pay to go to jail without committing a crime.

Footnotes:
(1) In "Extended Solitary," Salon's excellent report on high tech prisons, author Jim Rendon writes:

"Opened in 1989, Pelican Bay has been a long-running scandal for the Department of Corrections... Placement in the SHU (Solitary Holding Unit — ed.) is often for the duration of a prisoner's sentence. The 8-by-10-foot cells have no windows... Many inmates do not have televisions or radios. And, as at Marion, they are kept in their cells 22 and a half hours a day. Guards perched in control booths can open and close doors and communicate with inmates without ever leaving their seats. Human contact is minimal.

"...Significant numbers of inmates had mental problems that were exacerbated by the high-tech isolation inside the SHU. They experienced audio or visual distortions and outright hallucinations, aggressive fantasies, paranoia or problems controlling their impulses. Suicide attempts and violent outbursts were regular occurrences. Guard-on-inmate violence skyrocketed.

"Despite its problems, Pelican Bay has become a model for dozens of supermax prisons popping up around the country... And now, the Twin Towers has become the first facility to bring the supermax concept all the way down to the county jail level — where most inmates have yet to be convicted of anything and are still awaiting trial."

(2) New York Times
Louisiana Boys' Prison Is Epitome of Neglect and Abuse
To purchase this article search for author "Fox Butterfield" in the NY Times archives and scroll to July, 15, 1998

"Here in the middle of the impoverished Mississippi Delta is a juvenile prison so rife with brutality, cronyism and neglect that many legal experts say it is the worst in the nation...

"...inside, inmates regularly appear at the infirmary with black eyes, broken noses or jaws or perforated eardrums from beatings by the poorly paid, poorly trained guards or from fights with other boys.

"...Corrections officials say the forces that converged to create Tallulah — the incarceration of more and more mentally ill adolescents, a rush by politicians to build new prisons while neglecting education and psychiatric services, and states' handing responsibility for juveniles to private prison companies — have caused the deterioration of juvenile prisons across the country."

(3) AFSCME's Prison Privatization page
"More than 40 assaults, including 20 stabbings and two inmate homicides in an Ohio for-profit prison."
Also on Youngstown, see ABC News
"The private prison that opened one year ago in Youngstown, Ohio, brought the promise of new jobs and $47 million in construction contracts... They put their trust in Corrections Corporation of America, a 15-year-old multinational that now commands 77 money-making correctional facilities‹an empire larger than the penal systems of most states. But no one was banking on brutal stabbings and murder. More than 13 inmates have been stabbed there since the prison opened its gates a year ago, some say as many as 20..."

(4) The U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIII
Article 1. "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

(5) New York Times
August 26, 1998
To Help Wire Schools, South Dakota Turns to Prisons
By PAMELA MENDELS

"All over South Dakota these days, one can find work crews pulling cable, installing electrical outlets and doing the other work necessary to get the state's classrooms connected to the Internet.

"...The crew members are all convicts serving time in South Dakota state prisons. They are also participants in a novel project that aims to connect the state's schools to the Internet for a relative pittance, while teaching criminals a marketable job skill.

"'It was better than sitting, just doing time.You got to learn a lot,' said Tony M. Janssen, who participated in the program while he was serving a sentence for a drunk driving conviction. Janssen, who lives in Sioux Falls, now works for an electrical contractor making $8.50 an hour."

(6) From Human Rights Watch's dry but comprehensive report.


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