Captive Elevations

It’s a wonderful feeling getting caught up in something hopeful. But with this elation a feeling of trepidation often seems to linger, as if an unaccounted force waits beneath the high wire, willing and drawing a fall. Some would call this healthy conservatism, or caution. It is the degrees that matter, however; the height of the wire, its strength and thickness, and your balance that fuel the equations. It is also what actually does, or does not, lurk below.

I hate heights. That’s a lie. I avoid heights. I still remember the first time I climbed a ladder to the roof. My dad made me. It’s odd how weight becomes more tangible when distance from the earth grows. Becoming aware of every bend in the ladder with each step along the climb, and reaching the top you find no safe and easy way to achieve the final goal. You can only plan, and take that leap of faith, or resignation to fate. Forget coming down. You never expect a descent to be harder than a climb. Lunch is just fine taken on the roof. Mom can always throw up a sleeping bag, too.

It is very different, flying a plane. In planes, large engines vibrate and you are surrounded by metal and glass. You feel power against your body as you push the throttle, and the swift sink in the stomach as you pull back, while wings lift you almost immediately above the trees. You leave the scale of rooftops far beneath you. Height is no longer height. It is altitude now. And nobody fears altitude. The world is a different place, where even fast cars move in slow motion beneath you. Yet somehow, as you travel, the whole world seems to pass slowly by, even at high speed. The entire ground is encapsulated on an alternate plain, while you feel only the contours of the atmosphere you slice through.

When I first moved to the East Coast it was during the Reagan Era. I cannot think of other presidents who have their own Era. I was staying with a friend whose father was an executive at the FAA. His mother required and unending supply of frozen glasses for her Coke. He was a large, gruff man and always wore a suit. He was an alcoholic. I soon found out that everyone wore suits in Washington, D.C., even in the most stifling heat. There was business to be done. There were rules to be made and rules to be broken. There were appearances, and there were intentions. I suppose the uniformity of suits worked better than costumes.

My friend had a job which allowed me to wander this other Washington for hours each day. I watched the people there, and I listened to them. My clothing and expressiveness told them I was not part of any game to worry about. I asked them questions that they often found amusing and luckily for me, endearing. This was not my intent; I was being genuine. At first I thought their reaction to me was based in condescension. Later, it became clear they did not actually look down upon me. Instead, they were simply suffering from some form of extreme cynicism combined with the same dark humor of doctors and nurses who work exclusively with the terminally ill. Of course, they performed superficial banter admirably. But even then, a self-awareness of scorn seeped around the edges. I quickly became unhappy there, but learned a good many things.

I suppose my experiences were not much different from becoming indignant with a hard drug dealer who I discovered was cheating at a game of hearts. Or being in love with a prostitute who couldn’t stop turning tricks. It was basically the same theme. Only the clothes had changed. And the level of education. One side thought they were morally superior, while the other side thought they were smarter. Interestingly, you can switch those around, too. Then there’s me in the middle getting all surprised. I can’t believe you would do that to me!

Time has taught me many things, and also revealed gaping holes of stupidity, with nothing to fill them. It is likely I appreciate things like our space program and the sciences around it in large part because the people involved are often focused upon ideals larger than selfish gains. They are like-minded in their curiosity and betterment, without their psyches being wrapped in indistinguishable suits and ties that belie a multitude of divergent and purely self-fulfilling undercurrents. They have a goal that is unquestionably good for us all. It is refreshing and restores my hope when people adhere to their better selves, despite adversity, and more than just on a Sunday. They know the path is difficult, yet they walk it anyway. Yes, this is idealized. But far less so than most. And, for a better cause.

A while back I wrote about walking around without corrective lenses, seeing the world as I would, with no other options. There is both beauty and fear, seeing things how they actually are. I didn’t mention the banged up toes and shins, though, from stumbling. Walking around in such immersion distracts from what is right below your feet. Usually I just end up bruised. Sometimes I break things. Always at one point or another I’m taken at unawares and must react, if I can.

Disasters happen. Things get set into motion to help. Para-military mercenary soldiers are deployed in Louisiana getting billions, while still so many people are homeless. New Orleans now has school vouchers. In California, the National Guard is long gone, deployed in Iraq. FEMA hosts a fake news conference, where they ask questions of themselves and provide the answers. Disaster relief is big business now. We don’t let in UN aid, but we’ll contract a company to build shelters, which sometimes come with a McDonald’s now. Usually these are the same companies who build our prisons and manage the inmates.

Washington State likes to consider itself very different from the rest of the country. We are nicer people, more connected to what is important and more focused upon humanity. We care about the world and its people, not just what we can take from them. Of course, there are those pesky Oregonians, always trying to one-up us from their little villages. They often succeed. Then again, it was Oregon who first managed to get activists and protesters labeled as terrorists, and prosecuted. And it is Washington State whose people just a few days ago, overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that legalizes farming out our prisoners to corporations for labor. I don’t understand how it could happen. I suspect it happened because we still have a degree of trust and idealism toward the faithful custodianship of our lawmakers and law enforcers. I know it happened because we do not always make the effort to thoroughly consider what is behind appearances. After all, we feel wind on the wings of our metal machine as we slice through the air, while the little toy people so far below mill about in whatever they do.

Washington State Prison Population TrendsWashington State Violent and Non-violent CrimesSo here, on one side, we have climbing to higher altitudes, while on the other side we have descent. More and more people are being put into prison, while fewer and fewer commit any violent crimes. Housing people in prison costs a lot of money. In fact, it’s the third largest slice of Washington State’s budget, approaching $1 billion per year out of the state’s general fund. Back in 1981, Correctional Industries, Inc. was founded by the state. Prisoners can apply to work there, and are encouraged to work there. They get paid between $0.45 and $1.50 per hour, most of which is taken back by the state to help pay for their incarceration and other expenses incurred by the state. A small percentage is put in the Crime Victim’s Compensation fund, and a small percentage is put into the prisoner’s mandatory savings account, which they receive when they leave prison to help them “get back on their feet”. On average, their savings seems to amount to about $100 per year. Meanwhile, Correctional Industries, Inc. has become a conglomerate of approximately 35 companies with 2007 sales projected to be $50 million. Recently they have experienced budgetary problems in their desire to upgrade their facilities and equipment to keep pace with the demand to produce more products and to employ more prisoners. Incarceration TypesThey see the upgrades as necessary with prison populations continuing to rise. They cannot sell their goods in the consumer markets, only to state agencies (including schools) and non-profit organizations. It was only a few years ago that companies like Microsoft and Boeing, and many smaller ones, were using prison labor. Even Starbucks was having their Christmas coffee packaged up at Monroe State Penitentiary. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that such things were unconstitutional, however, since our State Constitution specifically and clearly said that we could not participate in convict leasing.

It amazes me how Washington’s Senate Joint Resolution 8212 to amend our state’s constitution was passed so overwhelmingly by we voters. My father mentioned to me few days ago how it reminded him of the old chain gangs, where prisoners were routinely used as slave labor to companies in exchange for money, favors, or gains of some sort. Taken from Wikipedia, chain gangs were often justified by very sensible reasoning:

  1. Punitive punishment for crimes.
  2. Societal restitution for the cost of housing, feeding, and guarding the inmates. The money earned by work performed goes to offset prison expenses by providing a large workforce at no cost for government projects, and at minimal convict leasing cost for private businesses.
  3. Reducing inmates’ idleness.
  4. To serve as a deterrent to crime as well as satisfy the needs of politicians to appear “tough on crime”.

Interestingly, here are some of the “official arguments” presented to the voters on our 2007 ballot:

  1. Offenders should not just sit idle while they serve their time in state prison.
  2. They should work to reduce their burden on taxpayers for institutional costs.
  3. In addition to punishment, the most important purpose of our criminal justice system is to provide justice for victims. If SJR 8212 fails, victims will have to wait much longer, even decades, before receiving just compensation.

I suppose we’ve advanced a little. We’re at least taking that higher ground of money concerns instead of just wanting to punish. I just can’t seem to understand how we can justify turning prisons into big business at a time when big business is also mercenary armies, kidnapping and torture, and the use of the military/industrial complex to take over other nations. During this very dangerous point in history, we the people have spoken: even when more and more of us are being sent to prison for lesser and lesser reasons, it’s just fine if you put all those prisoners to work for corporations. Maybe I’m a lunatic?

The opposition’s argument was limited to purely financial implications. You see, some companies will be able to exploit slave labor, while other companies would not have that advantage. And that’s not fair. For example, companies who used slave labor could produce products or services with far less cost, giving them an unfair competitive advantage. Also, labor unions might have to compete against companies that didn’t have to pay their workers much of anything. If you dig a little deeper into the propaganda, you find out that many labor union leaders actually like prison labor. Apparently, they say it gives them trained and skilled workers once they emerge from prison and are looking for jobs.

Our government officials pushed this constitutional amendment through the house and senate very quickly, and nearly every one of them supported it. I mean, everyone. I’ll let you check into the history of the legislation yourself if you’re interested. But earlier this year a graduate student in the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington named Erin Campbell Henderson under the supervision of Professor Joaquín Herranz wrote a paper as part of their Master of Public Administration degree requirements entitled Jail Industries, Labor Unions and Business: Competitive Realities in Washington State. In this paper you will find a lot of the thinking going on behind the scenes related to this issue. This paper, like the proponents of the amendment, say a lot of things that sound very good and plausible. But the bias is clear and overwhelming. You often hear things such as, “inmates have an opportunity to work a “regular” job for the first time in their lives,” yet you never find any statistics. I did manage to find an actual reference to an older University of Washington study that said 50% of inmates never had a job. I couldn’t find the study, but the Department of Corrections cited “a University of Washington” study.

The rhetorical justification for convict leasing, as well as the justifications in this paper, are limited almost exclusively to economic considerations. These economic considerations are based almost exclusively in the Chicago School of Economics thinking, which is most certainly not all of Economics. The Chicago School advocates the dismantling of nearly all public institutions and handing them over to private ownership instead. It is the same thinking implemented in Chile when the US backed a coup against Allende, placing the dictator Augusto Pinochet in his place. Pinochet handed nearly everything over to private ownership and removed trade barriers, winning the praises of Chicago School people like Milton Friedman, who is also highly influential even still in US policymaking, particularly amongst the neo-conservatives and even the libertarians. Chile’s economy is growing steadily. However, the distribution of wealth between the rich and poor in Chile is staggeringly lop-sided. Chile is worth looking at as a model for Chicago School economic policies in action.

The money flow stuff is easy to see, though. What do we see when we look up at the Space Station, though? What do we see when we look at knowledge of our existence, just for the sake of knowing? Something compels us to ask questions, and something gives us an insatiable desire for exploration. Something lets us know that it is not all just about us. It’s about all of us. We have to remember as we keep our heads flying in our little planes, that there are people on the ground, and even in those slow-moving toy cars, each of them on their way to somewhere very much like we are.

The most glaring omission to me is the lack of any ethical concerns. In all my digging around on the issue of prison labor businesses which we now endorse, I was unable to find a single mention of ethics. The only ethics ever mentioned, and it was repeated again and again, was the “work ethic”. Actually, I take that back. I do remember one, other than some “work ethic”. I can’t remember where. It dealt with a utilitarian perspective on ethics, which I suppose is not surprising since so much of the reasoning is economically-based. Apparently, it’s okay to have prison labor because the public will benefit from having good, trained people afterward. Yes, that’s quite shaky.

And the devil in me is squirming. Let me ask a question around ethics: can we justify gaining a benefit from criminal acts? What are the wider implications of such reasoning? Or, more true to the point, can we justify benefiting from people held in captivity? What are the wider implications?

The obvious and myopic answer is, why not benefit? They did the crime. If we can get some benefit back from them, why not? First, this pre-supposes that they did a justifiable crime. Look at the number of people in prisons for dubious reasons. It’s very easy to come up with dubious reasons, insuring a population of captive workers. Particularly when radical sentencing systems with baseball metaphors like “three strikes, you’re out” are in place, which keep many people in prison for life, even when they have done very little, if anything, justifiably wrong. Second, it fails to consider the wider implications of creating a system where it makes excellent business sense to have lots of people in prison. This last one should need no more words of caution, particularly when we see how closely our legislators are tied to business concerns.

None of this really effects us though, does it? It’s just another crazy thing going on in the background somewhere. Just like the meeting in Seattle last Friday, where the FCC held public hearings about their intent to remove the last barriers in place that are holding off complete media consolidation. Just like the imminent vote in Congress to make corporations immune to any lawsuits when they help the government spy on us. Just like confirming a new Attorney General who believes in extraordinary Presidential powers, and can’t say if a given technique is actually torture or not.

I listened to Diane Feinstein’s reasoning behind her support for making corporations immune to our lawsuits for spying on us. She said, these poor companies have no way to defend themselves in court because of government secrets. Maybe she forgets that we people have no way to defend ourselves, either. Maybe the corporations really are more important. Maybe the Chicago School of Economics is right. Corporations should be unfettered. It’ll trickle down to our benefit. Just like the mean income in Chile, and their struggles with dictatorships.

Speaking of which, I recently ran across a neat lecture by Naomi Wolf at the University of Washington about her research into the historical techniques dictators employ during their gradual assumption of power. She has identified 10 techniques common to all, which she calls their “blueprint”. It is fascinating, and somewhat unsettling. I highly recommend it. Another Naomi, Naomi Klein, also has some remarkable insights in her book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”. Did I mention that our prison-building, military-servicing, oily-mogul Vice President Cheney has an impeachment resolution in the Judiciary Committee right now? It would be a wet dream for me to see it become more than showmanship. God bless that little Kucinich. And here is his supporting documentation. Thank you Sheli 🙂 And one other thing that’s made me happy in a way that disturbs me: Donald Rumsfeld is suddenly having to watch everywhere he steps in the world to stay away from countries that might throw him in jail for war crimes.

Which brings me to something outrageous. President Bush showed up at NASA to welcome those most admirable astronauts home. He touched them, and caused them to interact with him. It’s as obscene a thing to witness as him shaking the hand of a soldier. Filth. The most vile duplicity. A juxtaposition of such monumental extremes, it would cause even Wilmot to loose his composure in the face of it, and wretch.

A few days ago I was talking with one of my dearest friends. He told me that he hardly ever says what he’s thinking or feeling. I didn’t need to be told that. I knew. It was something small, secret, and nevertheless something privately monumental to say. I told him that I knew. I told him also that it often worried me, thinking of him isolated in his own thoughts like that. It makes him sound weak when I describe him this way. He is weak, in some few ways. But you would have to know him. I have also never seen such strength, intelligence and compassion. All in the one man. All in that silent man. Maybe one day there will be a place for such beauty.