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Prison as prison – not Motel 6

By Spencer Price It was 7:00AM and the temperature was already above 90 degrees. All indications were that the summer was going to be a scorcher. I had just arrived at the workshop ‘“ the first day of my summer job with a landscaping company. By day’s end, our crew had mowed 13 lawns, spread new pine straw in the flower beds at an apartment complex, and trimmed rows and rows of hedges at a local community college. The work was hard but the pay was decent and, along with my part-time evening job at a nearby hospital, I would be able to earn enough money to return to college in the fall. The first day on the job, I met Willie, a 34-year-old fellow with a colorful past. Originally from New Orleans, he’d made his way to Georgia several years before, as he put it, to avoid some’ trouble’ he’d managed to get into back home. Willie was a hard worker, that is, when he actually showed up for work. He was funny, generous with what little money he had, and generally well liked by the other members of the crew. But Willie had a problem ‘“ it seemed his favorite past time was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Often was the time when his nightly indulgences left him physically incapable of making it to work the next day (I never did figure out why he didn’t get fired for ‘layin’ out’ of work so often). Willie had a few other problems as well ‘“ he seemed never able to pay his marijuana dealers on time and, he couldn’t stand cold weather. The former problem kept him on edge, constantly looking over his shoulder as if being stalked by dope dealers. He once took off running when he saw a burgundy-colored ’84 Monte Carlo with tinted windows and chrome rims driving slowly by. He showed back up an hour or so later ‘“ I didn’t ask. The latter problem seemed not to bother Willie so much in the heat of the summer but, as soon as the leaves began to change colors, he got antsy. Willie had an interesting solution for both problems ‘“ whenever it turned cold and whenever his drug dealers began threatening him with physical violence, Willie went to jail. That’s right ‘“ Willie knew just how to manipulate the system in a manner that would allow him to spend time in jail either to avoid his dealers or to avoid the cold weather of winter. It worked like this: Willie was on probation for numerous infractions and was required to meet regularly with his probation officer and to pay regular installments on various fines. Missing a meeting or failing to pay an installment could result in Willie being sent back to jail ‘“ a situation he manipulated to his advantage. Whenever Willie felt he had pushed his dealers as far as he could, or whenever the temperature dropped below his comfort level, Willie would fail to show up for his weekly probation meeting or pay his fine, and off to jail he went. He knew exactly how much time he would get for each violation. In Willie’s world, jail wasn’t so bad. He was safe from the wrath of his disgruntled drug dealers, he got three hot meals a day (or at least two hots with a sack lunch) and, best of all in his mind, he didn’t have to work for any of it. So, what about his favorite past times? No problem. Willie claimed he could regularly get marijuana and alcohol in jail. According to Willie, drugs and alcohol in prison were almost as easy to get as out on the street. Call me crazy, but Willie’s idea (and reality) of jail doesn’t fit with mine. When I think of jail, I think of a place no person would want to go. Jail is not supposed to be a refuge. It’s not supposed to be a place where criminals can indulge in substance abuse or lay around watching MTV all day. Prison should be a place of dread. It should be a place that criminals pay for their crimes through denial of worldly pleasures and through hard work. Criminals, after all, are paying a debt to society, not the other way around. Prison reform is a subject that comes up often but one in which, regrettably, little is ever done. Prison administrators argue that denying prisoners access to various amenities such as cigarettes, cable television, and exercise facilities, or requiring them to work makes them unruly. Unruly? Are you kidding me? Aren’t jails and prisons designed to deal with unruliness. Of course, the problem isn’t just about unruly prisoners or reluctant prison administrators ‘“ much of the problem rests in societal attitudes in general. When we decide as a society that criminals should actually pay for their crimes, meaningful prison reform can occur and prison and jail can be made to be more like prison and jail rather than Motel 6. When that happens, Willie will really be in trouble. To contact Spencer, read his blog, or review an archive of his columns, please visit

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