Society in Jail
by Jeffrey Tucker
[Posted on Monday, April 10, 2006]
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"What are you in for?" the inmate of Lee County jail asked the new prisoner.
"Rolling through a stop sign in my subdivision," answered the new
inmate, to gales of laughter from others languishing in the same cell.
As they laugh, crumbs from their hard, dry sandwiches — distributed
by the wardens twice per day — flew from their mouths to add to the
debris of filth on the floor that was ground up by the cracked plastic
sleeping mats and absorbed by the old, thin blankets inmates use to
keep warm in this cold and wet 8x8 room.
The new inmate today joined the 500 prisoners, among whom were some
of the most violent threats to society — but also people who, like
Inmate 501, are no threat to anyone.
He had been trying to make his one phone call, to which you are
supposedly entitled when you land in the big house. The phone would
only call collect, even for local calls. That meant that it couldn't
call cell phones. Most local services don't even have collect-call
options anymore. So you dial and dial but the phone might as well be a
prop on the wall. There is no way out.
There is also no way for you to be called, by anyone. You have no
cell phone. No laptop. No book. No watch, and there is no clock on the
wall. No one knows what time it is. No one who does know will tell you.
Not even a single scrap of paper are you allowed to take into the cell
after your arrest. You can only stand there in your paper-thin prison
clothes and plastic sandals.
"Man, this is jail," someone screamed as the new inmate tried to dial for the tenth time. "Jail! Phones don't work in JAIL!"
So Inmate 501 stood for an unknown number of hours, hoping that he
would be bailed out by his wife and kids who had seen him handcuffed
and dragged away from home after Sunday brunch. He also hoped that this
would happen before he needed to use the toilet, which was filthy and
frontally exposed to everyone, including the women coming and going.
The saga began last October, when he rolled through the same stop
sign in front of a private swimming pool that he and fifty others roll
through several times per day. He thought he had paid the ticket but he
hadn't, and the court date came and went. He received no other notices.
But something interesting was brewing in local politics after he
received the ticket. The local newspapers ran a series that claimed to
unearth ticket-fixing going on in the Auburn city government. It seems
that some friends of powerful people were getting their tickets
dismissed. Auburn was already known for its lax enforcement but this
had the whiff of corruption.
The papers lacked details but there were hints that the whole story
was a result of a dispute between an elected official and an appointed
city manager. The city manager later resigned or was kicked out.
The suggestion of corruption was enough to attract the attention of
the FBI, which made some inquiries. The combination of the media
pressure and FBI curiosity was enough to force a change in city policy.
The new policy in Auburn would be total crackdown on ticket violators,
particularly those that didn't pay and didn't show up to their court
Now, usually people who don't show up for court dates for petty
issues such as this are just contacted and eventually pay. But
technically, they can also be arrested, just as this person was. When
the city government is under pressure to show that it is not corrupt
but good and clean and tough on crime, the result is that the fine
print becomes a license for just about anything.
So in the last several months, the city has been busy issuing
warrants for people who have outstanding tickets of any sort. Cops have
been tracking down people in their workplaces, homes, on the streets or
anywhere, and treating them all like violent offenders.
The new prisoner, for example, who had never been arrested in his
life, still had discolored marks on his wrists where the handcuffs had
been slapped on.
We tend to think of the law as some sort of oiled machine that works
according to the regulations. The truth is that the law is administered
by people with a great deal of discretion over how others are treated.
The wardens and correctional officials can choose to humiliate a person
in whatever way they want. They can put you in prison clothes that fit
or in some that are way too tight. They can tell you the time or not.
Leave you to languish or make a call for you. They can insult you and
lie about your status or be kind.
The only sure way to elicit something approaching humane behavior
from them is to crawl and beg like a dog. You are worse than a slave,
because you have nothing of value to offer your new owners. You are
worse than an animal in a zoo because you are of no value to your
captors. They really don't care if you live or die. Those who do care
No one has more discretion than the judge, who holds your life in
his hands. You are dependent on his mood of the moment. If he lets you
off easy, he considers himself benevolent. If he sentences you to 10
years or a life in prison, he is only doing his job. It's always your
fault for not having been sufficiently subservient at the outset.
The dramatic change in Inmate 501's life occurred in the course of
minutes. All it took was a knock on the door. It mattered not at all
that the supposed crime was completely innocuous. Once you are on the
wrong side of the law, your life is officially worth nothing to anyone
but those who can do little or nothing to help you.
People talk of government compassion. But there is no compassion in
jail, which is where anyone who resists the state — even in the
smallest way — ultimately ends up. People talk of social justice but to
implement it means requiring everyone to make a choice: obey or face
humiliation and servitude.
Yes, people can "file grievances" or "sue," and that is always the
first thought of anyone who finds himself in the hands of captors. But
to whom do you appeal? Whom do you sue? You are here again appealing to
the same class of people, the same group of coercive agents, who have
robbed you of your freedom. Your rights extend only as far as your
masters allow them to extend.
People who criticize government as nothing but beating, killing, and
hanging — to use Mises's phrase — are sometime accused of using
exaggerated and hyperbolic language. Surely government is more than
that and is not always that. Something as simple as a stop sign doesn't
beat you or kill you!
And yet, what the critics of government mean is that all law, even
that which appears to be a mere guideline and a help, must ultimately
be enforced at the point of a gun. It represents a threat to obey or
lose all freedom.
This insight applies to all law, whether it results from a
Constitution, legislation, or appears out of nothing more than a
regulatory body. Every regulation, no matter how small is enforced at
the point of the gun. Every tax can result in handcuffing and jailing
and even killing those who fail to fork over. Hidden behind each
mandate is an armed tough in jackboots and a bulletproof vest who is
prepared to beat and kill to serve the state and its laws.
As legislation extends, so does the coercive arm of the state, its
police powers, its jails, and its reach over society. It is like a
poisonous fog that descends and grows more by the day, seeping into
every nook and cranny of life: schools, businesses, homes, churches.
Nowhere is exempt. The sound of the jailer's key rattling grows louder
and more ear-piercing. The culture of the jail, where people are
treated worse than animals, proliferates. You can't move without
risking life or limb.
At some point in his day, Inmate 501's heard someone holler out his
name. The electronic click on the bars sounded and the door opened. He
had been bailed out, $500 in cash having been extracted from his bank
account and forked over to the city police. He was now free — pending
payment of the ticket and another court date.
He left behind 500 others who are not so fortunate. Some of them are
hardened criminals. Others are in jail for smoking pot. Others were in
the same boat as he: a minor traffic violation gone wrong. None have
rights. All are captive, like citizens in an occupied city where there
is only violence and no law.
But how free is he really? He lives in a society where nothing takes
place outside the purview of the state, which is to say that he will
always live one step away from the prison cell that was his home for a
day. One or two wrong moves and he has lost it all. All of society is
not yet a jail such as you find in totalitarian societies or a society
under occupation due to military conquest, but with every expansion of
the state, the jailers get that much more power over all of us.
Their power is not always overt but it always lies in waiting.
This was triggered by a zealous cop looking to fill a ticket quota, and
an attempt to clean up government from corruption — prompted by a
media-driven non-scandal that attracted the attention of the Feds. It
resulted in personal catastrophe. We really don't get all the
government we pay for, and thank goodness. Lord protect us on the day
that we do.
Jeffrey Tucker is editor of Mises.org. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.
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