Neo-Serfdom in the U.S.A.

By G. Patrick Callahan

Two million people behind bars evidently aren't enough yet. In order to sustain America's infamous distinction as the world's largest concentration camp Attorney General Janet Reno and Bureau of Prisons Director Kathleen Hawk are demanding construction of forty new federal prisons. Assuming it will take about six to eight years to complete this recurring folly, and by the time these prisons are built, the government will immediately need another forty facilities to house those arrested and convicted during the new construction period. Then again, no one has said it would be cheap or easy to disenfranchise and enslave so many Americans within our own borders.

It requires a staff of around 350 employees to run each additional prison. In total we'll soon have 14,000 additional minor BOP bureaucrats and scores of major ones, each vested in the Federal Employees Retirement System. These regiments of generally useless but highly paid taskmasters will-oversee the lives of sixty thousand fresh federal vassals, a large percentage of whom will toil in the prison industry known as UNICOR. Non-violent drug law violators, nondeportable aliens and computer dweebs will compose the bulk of this slave labor force, neo-serfdom in the U.S.A. The federal government will soon hold in thrall 200,000 human beings, and within the next decade our state and federal governments when combined will have in custody three million prisoners, a figure that exceeds the current population of 21 states. (1)

In a bizarre anticipation of this population growth in 1984, that darkly portentous year, a group of rabid but farsighted congressmen drafted the Arctic Penitentiary Act, surely a sincere attempt to deal with the influx of Average Joe drug law violators, the ones without political connections. The plan was to ship them en masse to the Aleutian Islands where, it was assumed, they would line bleak gray cliffs like colonies of emperor penguins, wistfully staring south.

The November Coalition might offer two suggestions to Janet Reno and Kathy Hawk, the first of which is based upon the above precedent. Rather than dotting the country like small pox with ten thousand prisons, why not appropriate one of those sparsely populated states, surround it with razor wire and shove all state and federal prisoners inside? Seizing a state for this purpose has been hinted at in the past, and at least one state began as a penal colony, thus proving the adage of nothing being new under the sun.

There are sound, bureaucratic reasons for annexation at this point in history since the government plans to arrest, convict and sentence people ad infinitum to justify its war on (some) drugs. This kind of acquisition would not be hindered by humanitarian concerns such as visitation and preserving family ties because safeguarding a prisoner's family ties never has been a concern of the steel and concrete mind-set anyway.

The savings would be tremendous, especially with transportation costs cut dramatically by the one way Con Air ticket to Vermont or North Dakota. No more shuttling prisoners back and forth across the country with its attendant astronomical fuel bills! No more obscenely high overtime checks for U.S. Marshals, just one address for sending supplies and mail!

November Coalition's preferable suggestion, the second, is that our leadership should come to its senses and reject the kind of policies that have made this country Stalag Amerika. We are way past the point where such policies crossed the line from sensible to savage. Astoundingly, the same people who drafted the sentencing guidelines prompting this voracious appetite for prisons are now calling them an ill-conceived, catastrophic mistake. Most judges, and many prison wardens, disagree with the harsh punishments they are forced to manage. A recent law review by professors Marc L. Miller and Ronald F. Wright call federal sentencing guidelines an utter disaster. (2)

An imbecile can see that sentences for drug violations are too severe, arbitrary, unfair, and affect too many people. Yet rather than press for a retroactive lowering of guideline penalty levels - the easiest solution in the interest of justice - or reinstatement of parole for non-violent inmates, we hear the same, dreary cry from the top two officials who should know better. Do they not comprehend the dimensions of this social calamity of mass imprisonment. Land of the Free? Guess again, America; we have become our own homegrown gulag from sea to shining sea.

Rather than mindlessly harping for endless prison construction, would it not be wise for everyone to examine how and why this nation has criminalized over 20% of its citizens? It doesn't require much research, and you don't have to be a legal scholar.

Understand, however, that governments are naturally oppressive and often corrupt, an old Machiavellian principle supported by written history. Unlike most citizens of the world, Americans like to believe their government is some kind of warm nanny or benevolent ol' Uncle Sam. Some of us see America as iron-fisted champion of truth, justice, with a Manifest Destiny. The American Way has that iron fist all right, but it has lost the truth and justice part. This is nothing original for it was Cornelius Tacitus, the Roman historian, who said that the more corrupt a state, the more numerous its laws. Consider that for a moment; then think about the ongoing federalization of the United States with its volcanic vomiting of laws and regulations.

Lao-tzu, a Sixth Century Chinese philosopher, wrote that the greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers will there be. Does that sound familiar to all you income tax cheats? How about you techno-nerds? Ever imagine doing five years in federal prison for 'hacking'? What about five years for telling a lie to a U.S. Park Ranger? American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson warned in the 1800s that every state is corrupt and that good men must not obey laws "too well."

The Germans should have mulled that one over in the 1930s. Janet and Kathy ought to dwell upon it for the new millennium. There won't be much appreciation of a future defense for them to claim they were just being good Americans, just following orders. It's simply a case of doing justice, not injustice. In a moment of wisdom, the late Hubert Humphrey declared thirty years ago that there can never be enough jails, enough policemen, enough courts to enforce a law unsupported by the people. This is the essence of the grave error made by criminalizing so many people as drug law violators.

A recent poll indicates that 74% of the US people are in favor of drug policy reform.(3) Is it safe to say that half of that number use some kind of illicit substance and under current law could be imprisoned for it? The others see what an unmitigated disaster the war on drugs has become and fear further curtailment of civil rights. They want alternative solutions, a way out of this ever-expanding quagmire. So the question for Janet and Kathy is easy. Is there any compassion and wisdom left in you, or are you both simply nuts?

(1) Bibliography - State Fact Finder, 1999. Kendra A. Hovey/Harold A. Hovey Congressional Quarterly Inc. ISBN 1-56802-454-1 Projected population by 2000 for 21 states:
New Mexico
West Virginia
New Hampshire
Rhode Island
South Dakota
North Dakota

(2) - Marc L. Miller & Ronald F. Wright, "Your Cheatin' Heart(land): The Long Search For Administrative Sentencing Justice," 2 Buffalo Criminal Law Review, 723, 726 (1999); see also U.S. v. Alatorre, 207 F.3d 1078 (8th Cir. 2000)
(3) Zogby, 2000.

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