Saturday, April 2, 2011

In Response to 'An East Texas Redneck '

Dear Mr. Darrell Rose, resident of Huntsville, TX,

Good day to you, sir. I recently read with some interest your OP-ED piece in the Huntsville Item newspaper (date unknown). I am not a subscriber to this fine paper, but the article elicited such a pronounced and vitriolic response from my neighbors that it was eventually passed on to me for evaluation. I am, I suppose, sadly, the closest thing to what passes for an intellectual around this cesspool, so it fell to me to organize a response to your position. This I intend to do, and I will attempt to remain as respectful as possible, as I am of the sort that believes civil society functions only through civil discourse. Call me old fashioned. I will readily admit that I have the tendency to stray into the realms of the sarcastic when I debate, though I will try mightily to rein in this impulse.

Before touching on the specific proposals you mention in your piece, let us establish a few facts which are pertinent to your political position. I do this solely because you mention said position explicitly in your first paragraph, and I am not one to allow certain terminology to escape a semantic evaluation; indeed, the older I get, the more I realize the importance of how we define the words and concepts we use and believe in. Given that you are a self-professed " redneck" and Tea Party supporter, I know you will be tempted to brand me as some species of "European style-secular-socialist" simply because I do not agree with your positions. It would be very easy for me to conversely slap you with the label of a "Jesus-flavored neofascist" (or some thing of the type), but I will refrain from such infantile tactics.

Please extend to me the same courtesy. When it comes to politics, I evaluate every issue on its own, and base my positions only upon quantifiable, empirically sound evidence. This policy leads me to progressive, liberal, centrist and even conservative opinions, depending on the issue at hand. I will concede to you that on economic matters I tend to find myself in the centrist camp, while on social issues I am somewhat left of center. Do not make the mistake of assuming that I am totally in opposition to the conservative agenda; I merely defy labels because I believe the world is far too complex to side with one camp all of the time.

First, let us address the root problem which your "plan" proposes to resolve, namely the immense budget gap currently facing the policy makers of the 82nd Legislature. How large is this shortfall, exactly? The precise dollar figure remains elusive, varying somewhat when you use different models of accountability. Variance to one side, all parties agree that the number is huge, probably more than 25 billion dollars. That’s billion, with a "b", sir. Texas was supposed to be thriving, even as-the rest of the nation (i.e., the liberal parts) wallowed ever deeper into crisis mode. Our wonderful governor-for-life (your guy, Mr. Rose) blatantly lied during his reelection bid when he claimed that Texas had a "budget surplus." He was able to broadcast this obvious untruth due to the fact that Texas enacts budgets once every two years, and he was intentionally using the numbers from before the downturn had a chance to stretch its legs. As a fiscal conservative, such shenanigans ought to piss you off to no end, but I have yet to hear any anger from your quarter. I know your memory cannot be that poor - the election just happened in November. Beyond that, our state government - again, populated mostly by Republicans - has for years used smoke and mirror tricks to conceal a "structural budget deficit" - i.e., a deficit which persists even in times of plenty. What we are now left with is a budget gap worse (by any method of calculation) than New York’s, and about as bad as the state of California (and worse than CA's under some methods of calculation). Wasn't this sort of thing supposed to be made impossible by modern conservative economic theory? Sir, it is becoming quite obvious that the theory of budget balancing by solely redlining spending (as opposed to raising taxes) is beyond broken down. On top of that, it is going to be awfully hard to use the standard GOP tactic of blaming the liberals for all the evils confronting us, since there don t happen to be any of them left around to point the finger at. This is your mess, and yours alone.

You proudly mention in your article that you are a "Reagan conservative." I will admit that I am not a huge fan of the man. I don’t dislike him, and I am certainly not a "Reagan-hater." Even the simplest of human beings is an immensely complex creature, and forcing people into partisan/hyper-generalized categories is beyond foolish. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that doing this misses the entire point of living. But please allow me to supply you with a few historically unimpeachable facts about Reagan, which you and the rest of your ilk seem to be intentionally ignoring.

First off, you believe that he was a tax-cutter, despite the fact that he raised taxes in seven of his eight years in power. You also believe that he was a budget-cutter - this despite the fact that he tripled the federal budget. These are hard numbers, sir, that do not bend to fit a liberal or conservative agenda. You believe that he was a boon to the middle class, yet his " Reaganomics" gut-punched that very constituency to a nearly fatal degree. Forgive me for seeming a little didactic with my next comment, but since you are labeling yourself as "an east - Texas redneck," I am going to make the assumption that you have never attended a college-level course on economics. In the 80's, a certain mathematical representation known as "the Laffer Curve" became very popular with conservatives, even becoming the cornerstone of national economic policy. It still does, to a certain extent. Very simply, this curve, developed by economist Arthur Laffer, states that when you reduce taxation, you increase revenues. It is worth noting that this concept has been abandoned by all economists in this day. Even Paul Volcker, who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve during the Reagan years, has repeatedly stated publicly that this concept is mathematically unsound, even going so far to be somewhat amused that anyone ever took it seriously. It is, in no uncertain terms, a gigantic ball of bullshit. And we are now seeing the effects of this policy in Texas, aren’t we? We have the same debt levels as everyone else, only none of the social safety nets in place in states like California and New York (or Europe). I will state it plainly: every time a report comes out showing the dismal state of school funding in Texas, or the fact that Texas ranks dead last in insurance for children, or that the poverty level for said children is many times worse than in some east-coast states, conservatives reply to themselves that this is the cost of not building a welfare state. Only now we must acknowledge that we embraced terribly harmful and unethical positions for no conceivable fiscal benefit at all. Well done sir, well done. The accumulated misery brought about by ignoring the poor and least among us is something that you and yours are going to have to answer for on Judgment Day, if you believe in that sort of thing.

Now, on to your specific proposals, which you weirdly think are made conservative simply because they are aimed at convicts. Governor Perry has proposed a 12.7% cut to state corrections spending. Since you live in Huntsville, home to the headquarters of the TDCJ and location of about a gazillion prisons, presumably you are already aware of this uncomfortable fact. By the way, before I go on, reputable newspapers always report the position held by the authors of op-ed pieces, so that it is apparent if the responsible party "has a dog in that fight," to use a term you are probably familiar with. The reading public might have found it useful to know whether or not you are in fact an employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Such data is vital in determining the level of your disinterest on this issue. Please consider rectifying this the next time you decide to make your opinions known to the world.

At any rate, back to the numbers: the Texas Senate wants to cut 786.4 million dollars from TDCJ's total budget. That is obviously a freaking immense number. Do you honestly believe that taxing prisoner commissary purchases is going to make even the slightest dent in this massive figure? You do not state whether you think this is a panacea or merely a band-aid to what ails the state, but I can assure after processing the numbers it is decidedly neither. To give you some perspective, the prison commissary grossed more than 100 million dollars in the last fiscal year, much of that profit. Even if you were to place a 500% tax on all purchases and levied all the fines you mentioned in your article, it wouldn’t come close to closing the gap. In any case, Mr. Rose, we inmates are already TAXED on all purchases, a fact that you would have discovered had you bothered to do any research before penning your piece. If I can manage this feat from lockdown, sir, then you should be able to do so from there. (For extremely in-depth reporting on the budget cuts unfolding in the 82nd Legislature in Austin, see GRITS FOR BREAKFAST, operated by Scott Henson. This is first-rate journalism at its finest, and I think even the briefest of evaluations of this site will increase vastly your understanding of the problem at hand.)

I will grant you that investigating the exact workings of the TDCJ can be a daunting task. You conservatives are supposed to hate bloated, bureaucratic monstrosities, and I have always found it simultaneously amusing and perplexing that you so willingly endorse this prison system. Don’t you understand that these places are festering pockets of totalitarianism, tucked quietly away into the fabric of your republic? Read a TDCJ press release (any of them will do), and you will find a collection of outright lies and Orwellian half-truths that would have made any Politburo member nod and wink out of respect. Since I am enmeshed into this place by poor choices that I made, I will offer you a few modest proposals for increasing some things that we both desire in this system: accountability and efficiency.

We can start off with the prison commissary, since this seems to be an issue that you have somewhat fixated upon. First, something like 60% of all TDCJ inmates are indigent, meaning that they have less than $5.00 on their accounts at any time. All of your fees and taxes will not affect these men in any appreciable way, since all of their purchases occur on the black market. For those of us who do have a little cash in the bank, all of your taxes and fees wouldn't amount to all that much due to one very significant fact: you can’t tax what you don’t sell. Namely, there exists a near total breakdown in the supply chain which is supposed to send goods to each unit. Take a look at this recent PURCHASE LIST I submitted to the Polunsky Unit's commissary department. All of the black writing is mine, and the red belongs to that of the commissary officials. See all of those red lines? Those mean that these items were not currently in stock. Note that intended purchases totaled up to $61.30, yet I only received $13.50 in actual items. Of 70 items requested, I received 11. This always reminds me somewhat of the lines which used to build up outside of the GUM department stores in Soviet Russia: miles of peasants clamoring for six or seven cans of corn or beans, everyone gray and forlorn. The reason for this short-fall, Mr. Rose, is simply good, old-fashioned laziness. You see, prison commissary employees are paid the exact same salaries whether they order 20 trucks worth of merchandise or one. Since they are forced to endure precisely zero oppositional oversight, it is easy to see how this scenario came about. Government sloth is something we would both like to see excised from the equation, yes? I can tell you this: if they actually stocked the inventory like they were supposed to, commissary would suddenly be a vastly larger source of profits than at current levels. It is difficult to quantify exactly how much, but just look at my list. They missed out on nearly 50 dollars from just one inmate during just one spend period. There are more than 160,000 inmates currently in the system. That quickly adds up, sir, to numbers vastly larger than all of your fees combined.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. In an effort to punish convicts, the TDCJ has implemented something called a "spend limit." For most inmates, this limit is $75.00 every two weeks. It is ten dollars higher for Death Row inmates, based on a coldly utilitarian acknowledgment that DR offenders generally have more freeworld support than general population ones. Why do this? Why limit any source of capital? Items on the commissary are already given very large tariffs in the form of a mark-up of 35 to 91% over wholesale prices, so each item represents money in the bank. There are several thousand inmates in this system who would spend significantly more than the minimum were they permitted to do so.

More: in the past, Death Row was allowed to go to the commissary once every week. After the Richard Tabler-induced mayhem of late 2008, the system punished all of us by reducing this to one trip every two weeks. Sure, that stinks for the inmates but it also represents a disaster from a budgetary standing. If a business in the freeworld operated in similar ways, it wouldn’t be a business for very long.

It should be mentioned at this point that increasing the supply of goods would not greatly increase operational costs because unlike in real business all of the labor involved in the commissary process is supplied by inmates, for free. Having slave labor exist at all is a pretty reprehensible thing, sir, but having slave labor that just sits around all day twiddling its thumbs due to managerial incompetence offends the OCD gremlins in me in a way I find difficult to put into words.

You see my point, Mr. Rose? Why aren’t these places operated like businesses? No one is suggesting that Texas should go about coddling its criminals. Let's get that straight. I deserve to be right where I am. But many other states have learned that using the carrot occasionally instead of the stick can produce a penal environment which is safer for officers and offenders, and which produces markedly lower rates of recidivism.

Let's take a look at a number of potential examples. The medical care here is atrocious. This fact is acknowledged by nearly everyone. I lived with a broken arm for nearly two years before they finally deigned to operate on me - and I only got the operation because I learned how to use §1983. Had I been treated with even a tiny modicum of compassion and professionalism, I wouldn’t have needed to sue the crap out of UTMB. Ineptitude and raw nastiness ended up multiplying the costs of my surgery tenfold. Now, complex medical issues are simply going to be expensive, no matter what we do, but there are many minor medical issues that could be addressed without even bothering the immense bureaucracy that is the UTMB system.

Let's say that you come down with a seasonal bug. Normal procedure indicates that you must first submit a " sick-call request form." Then you must wait to be called down to see a nurse, a process which may take up to a week. If your situation warrants seeing a physician, you will then be put on yet another waiting list, unless they happen to lose your request, an event which occurs with such an alarming frequency that it has become obvious that this is a tactic meant to reduce costs. Either way, you are going to end up waiting at least another week to see a doctor. (That is assuming that the unit in question even has a doctor, unlike Polunsky at present. That's right, no doctor at all. Right this minute, three thousand men cannot get their prescriptions filled because there is no one present to sign the forms.) At the end of the process, you might get some medication, the bill for which is picked up by you and all the other tax-paying citizens in this state. Now, wouldn’t it simply be more efficient to stock the commissary with a variety of over the counter medications? I am not talking about simply Ibuprofen, but rather drugs like Zantac, Claritin, Prilosec, etc. This way, the costs of many illnesses are borne by the afflicted and not by the state. This suggestion also has the benefit of being far more humane in that those of us behind bars can actually receive medication when we need it - instead of weeks after the illness has already run its course. I can promise you immense profit margins just for the introduction of one item on the commissary: Rogaine Shampoo. The stress levels produced by these prisons are so high that the prevalence of male pattern baldness is far above the national norm. Tack on 50%, and let human nature do what it always does. After all, vanitas peccata mundi, right, Mr. Rose?

Did you know that all clothing items worn by offenders in the TDCJ are produced within the system by other inmates? Given this, why would there ever be supply-side issues? Notice that in the previously linked purchase sheet, the item listed as "1X thermal shirt" was x-ed out. Workers in this system are not paid one cent for their labor, so why should any item made by prisoners be unavailable? Several other states have reached deals with local providers to offer a short list of pre-approved items direct to prisoners. Can you imagine the boon to local businesses this would represent? 160,000+ product hungry consumers is not a number to be sneered at by any small business which produces clothing items. Since the state would presumably tack on an additional 35 to 91% to these sales, this represents an additional source of revenue. We are currently not allowed to own things like stocking caps or sweaters, and are only given threadbare jackets during the cold months. These jackets possess precisely zero thermal qualities, so being allowed to purchase a freeworld model would guarantee large sales. After all, who wants to freeze their organs of generation off? The only argument to be made against such an idea is the one stating that the cold is simply a part of the punishment process. If that is your position, I don’t suppose that I have anything further to say to you.

You could easily extend this to a select list of electrical appliances, too, like many other states have done. Allowing such perks is an excellent behavior modification tool, a fact which has been documented beyond question.

But let's dig deeper. These prisons are not paragons of self-sufficiency. Again, why is this, given that labor costs are exactly zero? At Polunsky Unit, there are entire fields of land inside the fences that could be used to plant gardens. We all know that growing fruit and vegetables is far cheaper than buying them from a supplier, and yet that is precisely what we are doing. This would also save money in the long-term, because the health benefits of eating fresh produce vs. canned are well documented and will thus decrease the costs of inmate healthcare far into the future. The savings of this could be massive when multiplied by 120 something prisons, for very little start-up capital - the cost of seeds. Also, don’t forget the therapeutic and restorative value that such work may produce in a man. This is a win-win-win, and yet not a single prison official has mentioned such tactics in the midst of these crippling shortages.

Living in Huntsville, I know that you have seen what these complexes look like: long, squat buildings which cover immense swaths of land. Most of the rooftops are flat, and cover a large surface area - perfect for solar panels, in other words. I have read many stories in the newspaper about power companies entering into deals with big box stores like Wal-Mart to lease their rooftops for the production of solar energy via large solar arrays. Everyone wins in these deals: the owner of the building complex by having access to free or vastly discounted electricity, and the owner of the array by selling power back to the grid. In addition, this policy would also create an opportunity for convicts to get green-collar job skills that would greatly reduce their chances of returning to prison. Everyone comes out ahead in this scenario, but no politicians have had the testicular fortitude to suggest such a partnership. Unlike, I add, in the state of New York, where inmates actually manufacture solar panels for government buildings. Damned east coast elitist libs… they beat you to the punch, cowboy

Now, none of what I have suggested here is going to solve the main issues facing this system, but it could represent the presence of an additional several hundred million dollars in the state's coffers. Additional suggestions include totally removing all officer " perks", such as free meals, free haircuts, free laundry services, free use of official vehicles, and subsidized housing units for officers. These items have no place in a prison system running at maximum efficiency.

The main problem, though, with this system is an obvious one: there are simply too many prisons in this state. We built a behemoth during the Bush years, and it has become glaringly obvious that we are going to have to dismantle some of it. There are now 2, 383 felony crimes in the Texas penal code (that is my count, and I may be off by a few, though it wouldn’t really matter if I were off by 1,000 for the point I am making.) Felonizing everything has not made us any safer as a people. All it has done is lock up hundreds of thousands of people who might hive been castigated for their crimes in ways which actually benefit society at large, rather than merely incurring fiscal debt. I speak with particular concern for men and women currently in prison for non-violent drug felonies. I have seen various figures on this, but on average, if everyone in the TDCJ serving time for possession of marijuana were released to the drug treatment centers they should have been sent to in the first place, there would be 30,000 fewer inmates. That right there would - in and of itself - close the budget gap in its entirety. Keeping these people locked up for long sentences is just another aspect of the way this system lures common sense into dark corners and cudgels it.

We must learn to think in deep-time about how we cut programs which have a proven track record of helping to reduce recidivism. Cutting prison reintegration programs is incredibly short-sighted, a perfect example of the "penny-wise, pound-foolish" thinking so prevalent in today’s conservatives. The goal is to keep people acting in socially beneficial ways, not returning them unnecessarily to prison. We should be doubling down on these sorts of programs, not slashing them as the current brainiacs in Austin are discussing.

One program that I do tend to agree with banishing is the prison chaplaincy. These people do very little in the way of real work, by my experience. Even a casual reading of Hume or Spinoza or Thomas Paine or John Locke (who I will assume you have read, as he is the philosophical father of conservatism) will present an inmate with more ethical instruction than all of the chaplains in the system put together. I know this for a fact, from personal experience. Although I will admit that ceding all moral instruction to some of the fringe groups that typically bombard prisoners does trouble me a great deal. For examples of what I am talking about, I received THIS, THIS, and THIS in the last week alone. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to see the standards we are taught to reach for, doesn’t it?

At this exact moment, something like 65% of all inmates within the TDCJ are eligible for parole. Read that again, Mr. Rose: 65 bloody percent of these men and women could be out there right now working, paying their taxes, and raising their kids. Aren’t you supposed to want freedom for all men? The parole board is, unfortunately, made up of members appointed by your chum Perry, and they are all terrified of releasing someone that might go out and reoffend. This fear is somewhat rational, but comes with a staggering cost, both in moral and in economic terms. For a really egregious example of this policy run amok, see THIS article.

Need I go on, Mr. Rose? The entire point of this response is that an ostensibly conservative government created, and is now running cover for, an entity you should be horrified by: a huge tumor of uninspected, big-government-style waste. Treat the TDC.J like any other agency in Texas. Demand accountability. Pierce the veils of tradition that have covered these prisons for decades. Stop believing their claims, because surely, as a conservative, you are skeptical of all other government claims, right? Stop letting career politicians and bureaucrats use unspecified fears to fleece you out of billions. It is not easy to believe in the rehabilitation of a man, but to deny that very concept is to lose something integral to being a human being.

In Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass, the White Queen famously told Alice that because of her youth, she was capable of believing no fewer than six impossible things before breakfast. Ignorance may be somewhat charming in a child, Mr. Rose. It is markedly less so in adults.

On a personal level, I must admit to feeling some sense of revulsion in your apparent happiness about forcing new taxes on the downtrodden. Your glee is apparent in your comments about your kind having the power to enforce new punishments on a group of people who will have zero legislative ability to respond. Such comments make it difficult for me to believe that you have even the slightest idea of what libertarianism is all about, but I have little desire to roast you over the coals for the general level of ignorance I have detected in the Tea Party crowd. That you seem to promote the idea of taxing the families of convicts for actions outside of their power should be alarming to you and is indicative of a real lack of moral perspective. Where is your decency, sir? I will go out on a limb and assume, based on your title and geographical location, that you are an evangelical Christian. Trampling on the downtrodden just because you are able to do so is anathema to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and I am going to ask that you refer to your holy documents to see if what they contain at all syncs up with your rhetoric. I wont quote the Bible to you, Mr Rose, as I do not wish to be that much of a hypocrite. But I am remembering quite a number of verses which should leave you cowering in shame.

Does it surprise you that a Death Row convict would want to see this system run as efficiently as possible? It shouldn’t; spending a mere few minutes behind bars is enough to convince anyone that these places are badly in need of some good old-fashioned common sense. I will never be released from confinement, but the same thing cannot be said for 94% of the men currently behind bars.

Making prisons work as they are supposed to will directly (and vastly) decrease the recidivism rates when these men do hit the streets. That is something that we both want. I would show you some real numbers on this, but most of them come from liberal states and Europe, and I am betting that you wouldn’t want to see them. I kid, I kid, relax. Hopefully you received this in the spirit in which it was transmitted. Check my numbers and facts, and if they hold up to inspection, then this indicates that you have some evolving (err, changing) to do on this issue. Hopefully this will lead you to a more economically sound place - not to mention a more ethical one.

Best Regards.
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


Erin said...

I think that I am going to say what everyone else here is thinking and that Thomas is too eloquent to say outright.

Dear Mr. Darrell Rose,
You are a douche bag.
A tax paying citizen

terry said...

I like this blog, I really do. But Thomas's smugness is getting a little hard to take.

Admiral_John said...

I don't know that I find Thomas smug... he's definitely intelligent and well spoken, and maybe because that's not a common trait on death row he comes off that way.

The conditions of death row aren't meant to be cozy and comfortable, but the way Texas treats its condemned prisoners is repulsive. Why not allow them to have a TV? Why not allow them access to group activities on a case-by-case basis?
All this does is create an environment where the prisoners are doomed to fail; when they submit their clemency petitions they have nothing positive to offer, as they haven't been given the chance to DO anything that's positive... all the pardon board sees is a list of transgressions that are brought on by the conditions Texas insists on imposing on its condemned convicts.

I've always been a supporter of capital punishment, but in reading Thomas' blog I've realized that no one should be able to say that until they've experienced capital punishment through the eyes of all parties involved, and that includes the condemned... I still haven't decided in Thomas' case if the death penalty is warranted, but unfortunately it won't matter, because other than this forum he doesn't have any hope of doing anything to foster his case that he's not a threat to society.

Ilaria said...

Thomas for President!
I mean, seriously.
It amazes me how a prisoner can speak as a politician, while governors seem unable to succeed agreeing on issues like this ending up managing the thing in the worst way possible. It's simple, it is very simple, allowing prisoners to work is a gain for everyone. In some countries of Europe they've been using this system for years, and I don't think that there are higher rates of crime in the United States.
Anyway, I'll do some research. :)

From Wikipedia:
- Non-punitive prison labour
In a number of penal systems, the inmates have the possibility of a job. This may serve several purposes. Some say it gives an inmate a meaningful occupation and a possibility of earning some money. It may also play an important role in resocialisation: inmates may acquire skills that would help them to find a job after release. It may also have an important penological function: reducing the cruel monotony of prison life for the inmate, keeping inmates busy on productive activities, rather than, for example, potentially violent or antisocial activities, and helping to increase inmate fitness, and thus decrease health problems, rather than letting inmates succumb to a sedentary lifestyle.

The classic occupation in 20th-century British prisons was sewing mailbags. This has diversified into areas such as engineering, furniture making, desktop publishing, repairing wheelchairs and producing traffic signs, but such opportunities are not widely available, and many prisoners who work perform routine prison maintenance tasks (such as in the prison kitchen) or obsolete unskilled assembly work (such as in the prison laundry) that is argued to be no preparation for work after release. Classic 20th-century American prisoner work involved making license plates; the task is still being performed by inmates in certain areas.

A significant amount of controversy has arisen with regards to the use of prison labour if the prison in question is privatized, a phenomenon present in a few areas of the United States, where goods produced through penal labour are regulated through the Ashurst-Sumners Act which criminalizes the interstate transport of such goods.

Erin said...

I would vote for Thomas if he went the way of politics, he cant be any more corrupt then the old white guys we have "looking after" us now.

freaking congress.... (bullshit!)