L. Neil Smith's

Number 10, July 1996

Tougher Prisons a Good Start ...
But Only a Start

By Vin Suprynowicz

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

         Do you believe someone contemplating a holdup will think twice if he learns that during his four years in stir he can only watch PBS?
         Obviously, the threat of prison isn't much of a deterrent if the style of life provided there at taxpayer expense is more attractive than what the perpetrator faces at home. Thus, some of the reforms proposed last week by U.S. Rep John Ensign, R-Nev. (at the federal level) and state Sen. Mark James, R-Las Vegas (for state prisoners) are common sense, and worth pursuing.
         The lawmakers propose that prisoners be forbidden to smoke -- I presume that refers to tobacco -- and that televisions and VCRs be removed from the cells, so prisoners would get a gander at TV only in a group setting, and then only the educational channel.
         Pornography and sexually explicit materials would be banned, along with conjugal visits, sexual activity, and "music with lyrics that are violent, sexually explicit, vulgar, glamorize gangs, demean women or disrespect law enforcement."
         Leaving aside the ill-advised use of "disrespect" as a verb, many taxpayers will doubtless be shocked to learn such things aren't banned "inside," already. Many taxpayers have spent time at boarding schools, summer camps, or YMCAs or YMHAs where such stuff would never have been tolerated for a minute.
         The lawmakers also propose mandatory drug testing of prisoners.
         (This conceals a shocking admission: If the government can't squash the traffic in consciousness-altering drugs in its own lockups, where there is literally a "cop in every bedroom," what chance can it possibly have of suppressing the trade "outside"?)
         Anyway, I wonder what the punishment would be if an inmate were to fail his urine test: cutting off "Wall Street Week with Louis Rukeyser"?
         OK, OK, let's make these places less attractive, by all means. Felons are sent to prison to contemplate the error of their ways, not to enjoy recreations for which many of their victims would have to rent $80-a-night hotel rooms. If they're bored, they might be encouraged to learn to read.
         But, that said, it's four months to election day, and one can't help but suspect some of these proposals are intended to do more for political careers than for our troubled justice system.
         Let's not forget how many a drop is lost between the cup of the politicians' intent, and the lips of the unelected bureaucrats who turn such well-meaning initiatives into books full of rules and procedures. Remember how taxpayers were promised "three-strikes-you're-out" laws would be applied only to recidivist "violent offenders" ... only to see the laws applied to teenagers caught with small amounts of marijuana, or (literally, in one recent California case) a hobo stealing a guitar from an unlocked church?
         There are some good ideas here. Rip the TVs out of the cells and sell them at auction, by all means. Or just ship them to the predators' victims.
         But somehow I see all this fol-de-rol coming down to poor Sam Zhadanov -- falsely imprisoned for manufacturing plastic bottles in New Jersey, of which the federals contend some eventually saw use as "crack bottles," making the 68-year-old Russian immigrant and plastics engineer guilty of "conspiracy to distribute" cocaine he never saw or sold -- being deprived of the "privilege" of calling his lonely wife in Brooklyn every Sunday afternoon.
         Anyway, none of these "get-tough" proposals deals with the heart of the problem: too many Americans clogging our courts and doing too much time for newly-invented bureaucratic offenses -- victimless crimes -- thus leaving our wardens no choice but to release truly violent predators back onto the streets much too soon.
         Rape, murder, and robbery were all against the law in 1916, weren't they? Does anyone remember a "crime epidemic" in 1916, when our lawbooks were one-twentieth, one-fortieth the size of today's?
         If our lawmakers want to see the worst criminals do harder time, all they need do is repeal 80 percent of the new laws crafted in the past 80 years, starting with drug prohibition, "currency crimes" (which will disappear overnight when we find the courage to drive a stake through the heart of the income tax and the IRS) and every infringement of the individual right to keep and bear arms.
         While the criminal the public thinks we're "getting tough on" is some tattooed illiterate who's raped, robbed and slashed a trail of inarticulate terror across three counties, in fact our federal "yards" are now full of low-men-on-the-totem-pole, the last and lowest guy with no one left on whom to "drop a dime," who gets fingered by all his pals in a ring of investors trading inside stock tips, bookies placing bets over long distance phone lines, or importers trying to provide consumers with the medicinal plant extracts or self-defense weapons they're guaranteed a right to purchase by the United States Constitution.
         Send home all these harmless woebegones, and the gentlemen might just be amazed at how quickly and efficiently our existing courts, police and prisons would then deal with the small minority of real sociopaths in our midst.

Vin Suprynowicz is the assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The web site for the Suprynowicz column is at http://www.nguworld.com/vindex/. The column is syndicated in the United States and Canada via Mountain Media Syndications, P.O. Box 4422, Las Vegas Nev. 89127.

Staff at The Libertarian Enterprise wish all our readers a happy Independence Day!

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