HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 17, 2007, Herald Journal

Jails are not country clubs

By IVAN RACONTEUR

Have you noticed that criminals are always the first to whimper and whine and complain that their rights are being violated?

They show a blatant disregard for the rights of others, but the minute they think their own rights are in jeopardy, they wail like banshees.

It was recently reported that the poor unfortunate angels at the Dakota County Jail are upset about the menu.

In order to save money, the county serves two delicious bologna sandwiches per day to each guest.

The precious inmates complain about the lack of variety in their diet, and say they are concerned that they are not getting the appropriate number of calories each day.

Perhaps they believe they should be receiving steak and lobster and a nice bottle of wine as a reward for their crimes.

Dakota County, and other jurisdictions that are working to reduce jail costs are to be commended.

Prisoners should never eat better than law-abiding citizens on the outside.

And another thing, the cost of prison medical care is enough to make one sick.

Wright County budgets $200,000 annually for inmate medical care.

In McLeod County, the 2007 budget for prisoner medical care is $155,000.

There is something seriously wrong with a system where many working people and families cannot afford health insurance, but taxpayers are saddled with exorbitant medical costs for criminals.

We need jails to keep the riffraff off the street, but these places don’t need to resemble spas.

The problem is many of the inmates have it better in the slammer than they did at home.

Regular meals, recreational facilities, and access to medical care are just some of the rewards these people get for breaking the law.

Perhaps this is why so many people end up being repeat offenders and frequently return to enjoy the hospitality of the hoosegow, and regard it as a sort of country club for cons.

Maricopa, Arizona County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” has an interesting approach to running a jail.

His unorthodox methods have stirred up controversy among people on both sides of the law, but one can’t help but think he is on the right track.

Arpaio is responsible for creating the tent city jail, where 2,000 prisoners sit around in their pink government-issued boxer shorts in a camp surrounded by barbed wire.

Like Dakota County, there are no fancy meals in this jail. Arpaio feeds the inmates bologna sandwiches and similar fare. He has reportedly reduced the cost of meals to between 20 and 40 cents per serving, and charges the inmates for their meals.

He eliminated coffee from the menu, and told the prisoners, “If you don’t like it, don’t come back.”

Arpaio also banned smoking and pornographic magazines in his jail, and cut off access to all but “G” rated movies.

Arpaio implemented chain gangs so that the prisoners could work on county or city projects.

It seems unlikely that anyone who has spent any time in Arpaio’s jail would be in a hurry to return, and that is exactly the point.

Jails should be nasty, unpleasant places that no one wants to visit.

There is something to be said for those grand old medieval dungeons, where prisoners were chained to the walls and had to fight the rats for crusts of moldy bread.

Now those were institutions that provided some serious deterrent to crime.

The proliferation of drivel about “criminals’ rights” in this country makes me want to puke.

What about victims’ rights? What about taxpayers’ rights?

The scofflaws, especially the repeat offenders, are not choirboys. They have committed crimes, been convicted through due process of law, and now they need to face the consequences of their actions.

It is time to eliminate the perks and comforts from our jails. It is time to stop mollycoddling the malefactors.

Doing time should not be treated like a vacation.

We should expand the programs to put the crooks to work on community service projects, and implement systems by which they can help pay for their keep. Doing some honest physical labor will have the added advantage of providing all of the recreation they need. We don’t need to pay for expensive gyms or sports equipment for our jails, we just need to put the inmates to work.

Arpaio’s prisoners complain about the heat in the Arizona desert. If we adopted a similar program in Minnesota, there are times of the year when the prospect of living in a tent in our own fair state could provide a strong deterrent to crime.

We could institute a snow patrol program where chain gangs of inmates could shovel snow at public buildings and at the homes of senior citizens and others who need help.

During every season, there are tasks that would help the community and keep prisoners out of mischief.

The criminals will whine and say this is cruel and unusual punishment, but it is no more cruel or unusual than the crimes they committed to earn a ticket to the clink in the first place. They made the decisions that got them incarcerated, so they can hardly complain about the hospitality now that they are there.

We are paying a fortune to house, feed, and care for these inmates, so we might as well get some value for our tax dollars.

Some criminals might even decide that being responsible and getting a job is less work than going back to the old calaboose, which might make them think twice before committing another crime, and if that happens, we all win.