Panopticon This is Not

29 04 2007

 Pay for Prison

by Derek Beres

One of the more disturbing pieces of news to come across my screen this morning was a report on California prisons in which low-level offenders can, for a price, rent high society prison rooms that serve more like hostels than penitentiaries. This quote served among my favorite from the NY Times piece: “Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’ ” said Janet Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department.

Should people who haven’t paid parking fines be thrown in next to murderers? Probably not. But this article, and mindset, did not stir up the expected response to me, which is along the economic disparity that plagues the rest of the country infecting it’s highest to it’s lowest sphere. This is not surprising. I’d expect nothing less from our governing officials. We have to step back from this a bit, and question the nature of punishment, and how we go about it, to begin with.

As mentioned in the piece:

“It seems to be to be a little unfair,” said Mike Jackson, the training manager of the National Sheriff’s Association. “Two people come in, have the same offense, and the guy who has money gets to pay to stay and the other doesn’t. The system is supposed to be equitable.

Like most else, it’s about money. It is common knowledge that prisons are, for the most part, underfunded. However they can get it in, so be it. Yet this only plays into the psychology of the other prisoners, as well as us on the outside. Worst of all, it continues to promote the idea that if you have enough money, you’ll get away with what you want.

Granted, again, this is about low-level offenders, but that leads back to the former idea: how are we treating offense in the first place? As my publishing partner, Dax-Devlon Ross, wrote in a piece from our upcoming book, A Staircase of Words, Vol. One: Essays. It’s from this essay “The Promise,” in which he visits one of his best friends who is locked up in solitary:

I’ve been to the prison enough times to recognize the chip on the shoulder of most C.O.s. They’re only used to seeing black men my age in jumpsuits and handcuffs. They’re used to ordering them around. Asking questions and expecting answers. There certainly aren’t any of us in Inez or Aurora or any of the other hayseed towns in the surrounding area. That’s problem number one. Some congressman lobbies to have a prison built in his district so he can bring a few jobs and look like he’s in Washington getting shit done. He never even thinks about the distance families will have to drive to see loved ones. He never thinks that the prisoners will be all black and the staff will be all white and that maybe there could be a problem. A moral problem. All the congressman sees is the next election. An overwhelming number of the prisoners in Big Sandy are from Washington, D.C., a hefty 350 miles away. 350 divided by 65 miles per hour is what? Five or six hours on a good day. Twelve hours round trip. How many people are making that trip more than once or twice a year? You’re practically insuring that fathers never sees their kids, that mothers can’t see their sons. Don’t do the crime and you don’t have to do the time, you say. Well, congressman, it’s a little more complicated than that, don’t you think

It is a bit more complicated, and offering Hollywood-ettes IKEA beds and the right to use laptops in a prison cell isn’t helping the problem one bit.

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