Sunday, September 16, 2007

So that's what he's been up to

The latest edition of the Drake University alumni newsletter came in the mail today. I'm sure it was chock full of stuff that some intern or whatever worked really hard on, but I never read anything but the "class notes" -- the part that tells you who is up to what, who has gotten married, who has had a baby and, increasingly, who you know who has died. You don't need to real all of the class notes, of course, just the ones that cover your time on campus. As a member of the Class of '92, I usually check everyone with a graduation date from 1990 to about 1995.

Lately, I see a lot of people whose big "accomplishment" is merely being mentioned in a newspaper article. Big deal. Just be in the right place at the right time, see a car accident, get quoted by the Register, and then send in the article to the alumni update. Oh sure, some people wind up in the newspaper because they actually do something noteworthy. But others will use any silly little reason. I mean, check out this guy:

This has not been doctored. This is real.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Keith Murphy Bible Hour

Look, you know I love Keith Murphy, right? The sports anchor at Channel 13? Unlike most local sports guys, he's actually funny. He'll talk shit about Bachman, Kiernan, Kirk Ferentz, St. Zach, pretty much anyone, and it's always a riot. It's when he tries to be poignant that he gets into trouble. Tonight, talking about Appalachian State's historic victory over Michigan in college football, Murphy said, "This is one of the reasons we love sports: Sometimes, David beats Goliath."

Aw, don't make me go all biblical on you, Keith. Read your Book of Samuel. David will always beat Goliath. Because it isn't a David-and-Goliath story unless David beats Goliath. If he doesn't, then it's just Goliath of Gath, all six-cubits-and-a-span of him, kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.

Golly, I wish I could go to prison

Today we learn from the Register's Bill Petroski, the best damn reporter in the state, that Iowa's prisons are considering setting up limited e-mail access for inmates. This news is almost enough to make XIOA sponsor its first contest: Guess which politician will be the first to grandstand on this issue by demanding that the Department of Corrections stop "coddling" inmates.

The Register's comment forum is already lit up, of course. To quote one poster, who is no doubt a recognized expert in correctional science:

"Maybe we can get them cushy recliners and Direct TV? Oh and every Sat night can be ribeyes & root beer. My God, these pieces of human debris are in PRISON! Hello! Maybe if we quit making prison like the Marriott we might actually get the point across to these dregs that prison is NOT a place you want to return."

He's right, you know. Prison is just like the Marriott. If you're not getting firehoses turned on you by the Marriott bellhops, you're being sodomized by gangs of other guests, or getting served maggoty fatback by room service, or being tossed naked into a windowless room by yourself for weeks on end for failing to address the screws as "Sir" and really meaning it.

I love it when people work themselves into a lather thinking about prison inmates getting all these "special privileges." The TV issue really brings out the best in them. The idea of murderers and rapists watching fourteen hours of television a day seems to really get under their skin. I mean, what a great life! Sitting indoors, under fluorescent lighting, staring at the idiot box? For years on end? Oh man, that's the American dream, right?

These chuckleheads don't know shit about prison, of course. But there are a few key points that they are really in the dark about. The first is that the purpose of prison is not to punish lawbreakers as severely as possible. It's to keep lawbreakers away from the rest of us until they've "learned their lesson" ... or for the rest of their lives, whichever comes first. By all accounts -- and I do mean all accounts -- the loss of personal freedom is by far the most punishing aspect of prison. Don't like someone telling you what to do? How about having someone tell you when to get up, when to go to bed, when you're allowed to stand, when you're allowed to lie down, when you can go outside (and for how long), when you can eat, what you will eat, when you can shower, when you can take a shit (which you'll be doing in front of everyone), who you can talk to, how you can talk to them, what you can read, and a thousand other things every day that we all take for granted. Plus, those same people will be reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, searching your cell, sticking their fingers up your ass looking for contraband, confiscating whatever meager belongings you have whenever they feel like it, and beating and possibly killing you if you dare to talk back.

Yeah, when you've got a sweet life like that, a little television or some severely restricted e-mail is just icing on the cake. It's like a country club, really.

Another thing these types aren't capable of grasping is that positive incentives work far better than negative incentives. Here's something the corrections people figured out a long time ago: If you tell a prisoner that the guards will beat his ass if he misbehaves, he'll behave just well enough to avoid getting his ass beaten. If you tell a prisoner that he'll get a cookie if he behaves, he'll behave better than he ever has. Want to exert control over a cellblock full of cons? Put a TV in the day room and tell them that if they all behave themselves, then they all get to watch. Not only will most of the prisoners toe the line, they'll also come down hard on those who don't. Television is addictive. So is e-mail. How many times a day do you check yours? What would you do if yours were suddenly cut off? If a prison gets its inmates hooked on e-mail, then that prison has gained another powerful tool with which to control behavior. See, the prison system controls inmate behavior more with persuasion than with force. Clubs, water hoses and "the hole" are only a last resort. But privileges -- outside visitors, phone calls, library borrowing, television, commissary privileges, exercise time, even paid work -- are given out and taken away to fine-tune behavior. So would it be with e-mail.

Finally, let me say this again: Television is addictive. So is e-mail. Jim Hogshire's groundbreaking book You Are Going To Prison makes this point elegantly: "People on the outside may rant and rave about 'mollycoddling' prisoners by allowing access to TV, but prison administrators know it's as good as thorazine for keeping otherwise dangerous men relatively docile." A guy who's staring at Jerry Springer and Divorce Court for eight hours a day is one who isn't getting into fights, isn't fucking with the guards, and isn't raping anybody. If so many people use the TV to babysit their kids, is there any wonder why prisons use it to babysit their own charges? Now imagine a guy who's anxiously awaiting an e-mail from his lady on the outside. He isn't going to do anything today that could cost him his e-mail privileges.

As Petroski's story makes clear, inmates wouldn't get Internet access. They'd simply be allowed to exchange messages with a specific set of e-mail addresses, all of which could be verified by the state. That means no attachments, no spamming. With that in mind, there isn't anything an inmate could do via e-mail that he can't do already, the old-fashioned way. Prisoners are able to run all manner of credit-card frauds, lonely-hearts scams and other classic cons through the U.S. mail. By allowing e-mail, however, the prison can review an inmate's correspondence more quickly and more cheaply than it can examine his written letters. All manner of software is available to scan e-mails for troublesome language. There's actually less risk, and it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything.

I'd wager that the people who get the most outraged over prisoners having certain feeble privileges are the ones who have chosen for themselves a life uncomfortably close to that of an inmate. To you, the idea of sitting indoors in front of the TV day after day, going out only for brief periods, and having someone feed you three fatty, starchy meals a day probably sounds like hell on Earth. To these people, though, it sounds like fuckin' paradise.