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How Many Times Do We Pay?

Across the country a litany of political voices have been raised demanding that prisons become tougher. One expediently popular way to achieve this punitive nirvana is to eliminate inmate "perks" such as televisions, weight lifting equipment and coffee pots. The idea being -- I guess -- to make prisons such pits of boring despair and idle desperation that a reasonable person would think twice before committing a crime.

Just two problems with the concept. First, most people who commit crimes don't think; at least to the point where they could be incarcerated if caught. Second, our prisons are not the lauded country clubs some would have us think them to be.

On the national level, Representatives Dick Zimmer (R-NJ) and Steve Chabot (R-OH) have added amendments to the 1995 "Contract On America" crime bill that will restrict prison construction grants allocated in the 1994 crime bill even more. In addition to forcing states to modify their own penal codes, dictating that their prisoners must serve 85% of their increasingly long sentences, the state penal systems must now; ban weight training equipment and the menial in-cell amenities of personally purchased televisions, electronic musical devices, typewriters, etc. to qualify for the largesse of federal prison building dollars.

All this in an effort to codify the drive to make prisons "places for punishment, not luxury and relaxation," as the New Jersey congressman so simplistically states. An ironic proposition considering that on a whole the U.S. prison system is already in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and 39 state systems or facilities are under court order or consent decree to limit populations and/or improve conditions. Now Congress is devoting time crafting ways to force states to make conditions even starker and meaner.

In his rationale to eliminate prisoner purchased possessions, Rep. Zimmer even questions who prisoner personal funds belong to. "I believe," the congressman iterated, "inmate earnings should go preponderately to victim restitution and to pay for their own upkeep." A noble and politically self-serving thought that ignores how many times and in how many ways the nation's prisoners already pay for their transgressions against society -- payment that essentially never ceases.

First and foremost, offenders pay for their crimes with the loss of the most precious of all American commodities: their freedom. In this process they lose not only their liberty, but in many cases pay with the loss of all of their assets, their friends and family, and to a large degree their self-respect. Moreover, in many states offenders are also fined at their sentencing to specific amounts scaled to the seriousness of their offenses, the collections of which are channeled into various victim assistance funds, and never paid to any actual victims.

While incarcerated, most work at prison jobs earning a national average of 56¢ an hour if they are lucky. Prison jobs and industry positions were created not as a luxury for the inmates, but rather as cost saving measures, management tools, and rehabilitation programs for the benefit of society; that is, the taxpayer. Prisoners perform the janitorial, housekeeping, food preparation, and menial clerical duties that all institutions require to function. If these needs were hired out, even at minimum wages, these functions would cost the states billions upon billions of additional dollars.

Penal administrators manage their overcrowded and underprogrammed institutions by attempting to alleviate some of the oppressing monotony by employing as many of the prisoners as possible. Even the slave labor (suggested reading: the 13th Amendment) of these men and women requires some-meager remuneration. Then these wages are largely recouped in the prison commissary (i.e. the company store), where the prisoners purchase toiletries, over-the-counter medications, and clothing, which if they did not possess the funds to buy, the state would have to furnish at its own expense.

Prison industries, which generate billions of dollars in profits for the correctional system, were instituted to provide skill, training and work ethic inculcation (i.e. rehabilitation) for convicts. Prison factories produce a myriad of products that are consumed by the system, creating even more savings, and are sold to other public agencies, saving them, and ultimately the taxpayer, billions more. California, which incarcerates approximately one-tenth of the nation's one million plus prisoners, budgets $57 million for their wages. Extrapolating from this base, it is estimated, when computing at just minimum wage levels, that nationally prisoners provide nearly $5 billion worth of labor each year. By this fact alone, are not offenders who work for pennies on the hour "paying for their upkeep?"

Finally, offenders continue to pay for their sins even as "ex-cons." Through legislation restricting licensing, occupations, political stigmas, travel, financial purchases and voting rights, ex-offenders continue to pay for their violations. Socially, the symbolic scarlet "F" that these ex-felons carry with them will plague the rest of their existences in our society, which never truly forgives nor forgets, no matter how many years are served nor how many times we pay.

And now after the countless means and ways Caesar exacts his tribute, the honorable representatives believe it prudent and just to confiscate the fifty- cents-on-the-hour labor that our country's prisoners are begrudgingly allowed to earn. When do the men and women of this nation who transgress into our prisons cease to pay their debt? Even Shylock only wanted "a pound of flesh."

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