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Tragic Traps: Make a Mistake in America and You May Pay a Heavy Price for Decades

Unlucky citizens who fall victim to the U.S. justice system are treated like profit centers to be squeezed without mercy.
 
 
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Late at night through my window by the computer I can see my neighbor Stokes bicycling at 10 p.m. to the local convenience store to buy groceries. Not only is that an expensive way to feed one's self, but it is the only way for old Stokes to cop some grubs without getting thrown in jail. Seriously. As a convicted sex offender, he is not allowed to be near young women in a supermarket checkout line. Nor is he allowed to visit a park, or even his own grandchild, even though he is not a child molester by the court's own admission. He is not allowed to drink a beer. In fact, he is not even allowed to read Playboy Magazine .

A dozen or so years ago Stokes, now 66 with a gray ponytail, an altogether gentle soul who labors under the illusion he looks like Willie Nelson, (and even has a framed photo of Willie on his wall to invite comparison). Got caught by police in a, shall we say, "a vehicular sexual incident" with a married woman. They were both drunk, big deal. That happens in beer joints. To make a long story short, by the time they got to court, the lady's testimony was that it was all against her will, which being a married woman, solved a lot of problems for her. That resulted in Stokes being convicted as a sex offender, while his public defender all but slept through the trial.

To make matters worse, Stokes had an unregistered handgun stashed in his car. Stupid, I know, but rednecks are often like that, and I'd be willing to bet there are more unregistered handguns than registered ones around here. This may horrify urban liberals, but legal or not, it is the common practice of tens of thousands of people down here in the southern climes of our great nation. It's also common practice nationwide to many thousands of cab drivers, night clerks, hotel parking valets, bill collectors, repo men, single women and god only knows how many others. At any rate, thanks to the gun that he never touched, Stokes was prosecuted for armed abduction for sexual purposes and did ten years.

He's been out for years now. But he was released into an entirely different world than he left -- one that seems scripted by Adam Smith and Hanging Judge Roy Bean. As a convicted felon, he has been released from prison to serve a new sentence to serve time as a profit center for our economy. In truth, he has been one from the day he was charged.

First off, he was a profit center for the prison where he served his time. Now it is fairly common knowledge that America's burgeoning system of privatized prisons, "super jails," and related services has been a boon for corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections Corp.) and their investors. Prisoner leasing programs such as Florida's, which rents out prison labor for less than 50 cents an hour to private industry in the name of "job training," make building more prisons an attractive option for state governments and investors. It also makes recidivism desirable, since it assures the prison labor pool. Somewhere between 1 percent and 2 percent of Americans are behind bars, locked up at any given time, and as many more are on probation or under state monitoring. Obviously, capitalist style punishment is a solid financial investment.

Now I am not about to screech here that our prison system is anywhere near that created by Uncle Joe Stalin. We do not have 9 million people in it, and we do not get sent there for being late for work at the factory, our factories having been outsourced. However, after 1929 Stalin's prison camps were transformed to an economic machine. And in order to fulfill the camps' economic goals, more and more prisoners were required, just as more prisoners are required to fulfill the investor goals of Corrections Corporation of America, Geo Group. In any case, convictions are profitable and the more of them there are, the more money both private interests and the state take in.

That in itself is way the hell past just being strange. But throw in the term sex offender and get on the registered sex offender list (which seems to be mostly filled with Johns who solicited prostitutes, though you'd never know it by the way they name the offense) and it all gets really weird. Chilling even. This is partly because of the taboo and stigma associated, but mostly for the bizarre monitoring rules, and the money involved in enforcement. For example, Stokes must pay a couple hundred a month for counseling, group therapy and so on, until they tell him he can stop doing so. This therapy mainly amounts to listening to the stories of more serious offenders, such as child molesters, even though he is not one but is being treated by law as if he were. Such is the fate of being legally shackled to any of dozens of types of "certified sex offender treatment providers," an ever expanding industry they tell me.

He also must pay for registration as an offender, blood, saliva, fingerprints, palm prints, police registration of his internet address (within 30 minutes of obtaining it), and so on with the Department of State Police and the Sex Offenders Registry, providing a new photo, address, etc., for 10 years, effectively the rest of Stokes' life, not to mention registering with the local cops wherever he lives. After five years he may petition the court for relief from having to reregister monthly. He cannot leave the state. He is supposed to inform employers of his status as a sex offender. So he cannot get a normal job and subsists on handyman work. In the end he generates about $400 a month for one post-incarceration entity or another, whether he has a job or not.

Stokes' designated handlers tell him that the system would smile upon him if he would get more formal 8-5 employment, something that could be more easily tracked and taxed. Would that it were so easy for a 66-year-old man in this country. So he replies, "I'm retired dammit. I got the same right to live on my social security, if I can manage to, as anyone else."

Yes, but it's not much of a life for someone who once worked a skilled job setting up lights and stage gear in large arenas and performance venues. Now he lives in a basement workshop of an overcrowded apartment building/rooming house, in a space that is supposed to pass for an apartment but doesn't even come close. For that privilege he pays $600 a month and is allowed to work off part of it off by the landlord as a handyman.

Stokes tells me he could get out from under much of this by, and here's the legal wording, "satisfying the court's criteria for clear and convincing evidence that due to his physical condition the person no longer poses a menace to the health and safety of others."

"You could cut your dick off," I suggested.

"Sometimes I wish I had," he sighs.

In any case, I am pretty dammed convinced parole is a racket, just like incarceration has become a racket, just as everything in this whole goddamned country is a racket in disguise, from home mortgages to healthcare. If it is vital to ordinary citizens, it's a racket. But fear is the biggest racket of all. Even our rightful fear of sex offenders gets harnessed to the objectives of the corporate and political elites, woven into the weft and warp of the national delusion we call "the fabric of our society." The freedom loving one that currently has 2.2 million of its own citizens locked up and another 2 million walking around under strict post-incarceration supervision and monitoring.

At this writing there are supposed to be 117 registered sex offenders in this burg of 24,000 from which I write, Winchester, Va., yet only 61 in the surrounding county, which has a population of 73,000. Let me make a wild speculation here and say there may be a difference in the way justice is administered in the two localities.

As if Stokes' needed to catch any more bad breaks, Stokes' situation got worse. It seems he had the outrageous gall to get himself a dog. Stokes came upon a rather large black female mutt recently that looked like she had a little retriever in her, according to Stokes, though I could never see it. She was bone skinny, partially blind, and being neglected and abused by an old alcoholic woman down the street.

That dog, named Beulah, just loved Stokes. He lovingly fed her, and she stayed by his side constantly and obediently. But she kept getting skinnier and skinnier no matter how much he fed her. For a while we speculated it was worms, but I've seen enough dogs to know something worse was at work. Stokes spent money he didn't have on expensive worm medicine. But he surely did not have $150 for a vet and tests, and in a nation where uninsured folks are let to die slowly because they cannot pay cash, there was damned sure no more mercy for dogs.

Mercy too has been privatized and costs money. Meanwhile old Beulah is hanging out in the back yard in a friendly fashion, weak and sick as she is, sniffing and getting petted by all who come her way. Dogs are like that. Uncomplaining and decent unto death. I've had several who passed that way. She was old and getting ready top die, sure as god made little green apples. Broke as Stokes is, this was certainly was not going to be a veterinarian administered death, with a canine Kevorkian attending. And being a paroled felon, for damned sure Stokes was not going to produce a gun and shoot her, which is the way old dogs and other animals were put out of misery back in our day.

A situation like that is bound to draw the animal control officer's attention and rightfully so given the outward appearance of the situation. So Stokes was busted. An examination showed that Beulah had diabetes. Seems they'll get a vet to examine a dog to get a conviction but not to save a dog's life. Whereupon Stokes was charged with animal abuse by the animal control office of our city police department. "You should never have let that dog get in this condition; you should have taken her to a veterinarian!" Now Stokes has a court appearance on the docket for animal cruelty. And of course no money for a lawyer. That's where the compassion of a lonely old man for another sentient being will get you. Smack dab in the jaws of our justice system.

I hold middle-class America responsible for this deformed thing we now call justice. And I've wanted to write an article about the sex abuse crime industry scam in this country and proposed it to several magazines. Every one of them said that sex abusers are too unsympathetic as characters for them to publish. I pointed out that these are real people, not characters in a fictional work. The editors added that they were afraid the public might mistake such a story as being supportive of real sex offenders.

Governments and states exist to control people and for no other reason. If justice is achieved somewhere in the process, it's an added bonus. But control above all else is necessary for modern civilization to exist. Population grows by the minute, increasing social pressure on humanity.

More rules and more control are required to keep order. Order is defined as the way we think others should behave -- or imagine them to misbehave. We support the state's police machinery and massive incarceration of our fellow citizens, so long as they are being imprisoned for the right reasons. They should pay. Every action in a capitalist world must produce money. So they should pay in cash.

I was recently in Minneapolis and spent a couple of nights getting drunk with a friend, an apartment building owner who in his younger years did hard time for burglary. Things were somewhat different then, he avowed. In the '50s and '60s, a prisoner may or may not have worked off his "debt to society." But in these times, he says, "the system demands that you just deliver payment in cash. It's more efficient. But not fundamentally different. Back then, the rich still profited for our crimes more than we did. We stole $10,000 worth of stuff. Next day in the paper we found that the guy we burglarized claimed $30,000 worth for insurance purposes. Getting robbed was a winning situation for him. He made 20K on us."

It's also is a wining situation for the 20 percent of Americans in what we call the middle class -- those actually living the middle-class life as advertised by the commercial and financial state's marketing department. It works well for Stokes' psychologist, his piss tester, his lie detector service contractor, the people with the sex offender website contract, and all good citizens with investments on Wall Street. The psychologist needs money to send his kid on the private school trip to Italy this summer. The contractor providing the sex abuser services just built a summer down on the eastern shore of Virginia. The state police officer running the sex abuser monitoring program will retire in six years -- his investments need to earn another $50,000 in that time. But hold on!

Honest to God, as I conclude writing this -- and I swear on a stack of friggin' Bibles -- a police prowl car and two of the department's animal control officers in a police truck just parked in front of Stokes' place, across my driveway. They get out after rifling through some papers on a clipboard and talking on cell phones.

Now they have walked over to Stokes' back door. He comes out and they sit him down in a lawn chair while they stand over him, hands on hips, lips moving under dark sunglasses. And the neighbors are all peeking out their blinds, watching the cops accost the registered sex offender (once he was on the internet registry, word got around here fast). They are probably looking at the animal control officers' truck and thinking, "Oh my gawd! Bestiality too?"

Anyway you look at it, this cannot be good. Not for Stokes, not for you or me or anyone else less than enamored with the idea of a police state.

And Stokes? As he told me only yesterday, "I'm a goddamned magnet for bad luck."

No he's not. He's just one more anonymous human profit center to be squeezed, one more grape to be crushed in a grotesque blood and money press that has no mercy.

Joe Bageant is author of the book Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War . (Random House Crown), about working class America. A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his website.

 
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