Privatizing Prisoners

September 08, 1994|By JOHN BRAIN

"Lock 'em up and throw away the key.'' The correctional establishment promotes long sentences bringing jobs for guards and sales for prison-services peddlers. Prison building proceeds apace. New crack-down-on-crime legislation features ''three strikes and you're out,'' -- or rather in, for life. Before long half the population will be behind bars, supported in idleness by the other half. We need to find alternatives.

One alternative would be simply to eliminate most of the prison population by extending the death penalty to a wide range of crimes and carrying out sentences fast and often. Public executions would help to make penalties visible to all. Clearly, it's more important that the guilty be punished than that the innocent go free, because punishment itself is cautionary. Hanging judges would be a shoo-in at elections, because most citizens -- whatever they say -- really want criminals dead, not pampered in jails at taxpayer expense.

This solution would of course be opposed by bleeding hearts and those who cant about ''cruel and unusual punishments.'' The right way to deal with this issue is to make unusual punishments more usual -- but this solution might be tied up for years in the courts, and what we need now is a ready alternative with no constitutional hang-ups.

Let's try prisoner privatization.

Instead of warehousing prisoners in unproductive indolence, why not lease them to private employers for use in factories and on farms? Employers are always complaining that employees cost too much, demand benefits, don't show up for work and quit easily. Making prisoners available as work teams would provide cheap labor, which with firm supervision and physical restraint would be relatively easy to control. If prisoners slacked on the job, they would be eligible for Alternative 1 above.

For much of its history, America as a nation and colony made use of such help, and what worked for Jefferson and Washington could work again today. Not only would prisoners be valuable assets in factories and farms; they could also be of service in homes and small businesses.

One of the great benefits of prisoner privatization would be the teaching of family values in the home as well as job skills that ready prisoners for release. Only when they have proved themselves able to handle productive employment and repaid their debts to society in hard cash or hard work would they become eligible for return to society as taxpayers.

Advantageous as prisoner privatization would surely be, eventually it might prove possible to provide education and training for youngsters even before they reach prisoner status -- but that's for the future. We want alternatives now, and if prisoners are going to increase at today's rate, let's at least make sure they're an asset rather than a liability.

John Brain is a Baltimore writer.

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