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Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness: Prison Labor At Sheridan

REFLECTION FROM PRISON

Bill Bichsel, S.J.

February 20,1999

"Cleanliness is next to Godliness".  I've heard it hundreds of times but I don't think it is true; although it's deep in our detergent culture.  It's an active ingredient in the rotor action of our prison camp.

I've seen people such as Bush, Reagan, Clinton, Albright, and Strom Thurmond, who are neat as a pin and responsible for the deaths of untold scores of people.  And I've seen people such as Keith Harrison and Oscar Grice who sleep under a bridge and wear clothes soiled with smoke and grime and share their last bit of change with another homeless man for a cup of coffee at MacDonald's.  No, I don't think cleanliness is the characteristic by which we recognize God's
presence.

The play on cleanliness is a device used in prisons, the militaries and their academies, and like institutions to control people.  The emphasis is on how square that bed is made and not on what that person needs to lead a better life.  The focus is strengthened by a compulsive, national trait to cleanse ourselves.  Maybe to cleanse ourselves of untold horrors of which we, as a people are guilty. Wash the hands over and over and wonder with Lady MacBeth whether these
hands will ever be clean.  It's a ritual that doesn't take care of the deviancy.  But in our culture the honor and respectability of a person depends on how well dressed, groomed and
stylish that person is.  James, in his epistle had something to say about that. (James 2, 1-4)

In our prison camp at Sheridan this detergent driven ploy is mandated in our prison manuals and by our "counselors", prison officials, and guards that we are to keep the window sills spotless and free of any objects, the tops of our cupboards free of any  objects, the bunks made military style, one pair of khakis hanging from the clothes hook, and the floor waxed spotless clean.  My first day in the camp my "counselor" screamed at me because a pair of sweat pants were hanging on the bunk post.  Any infraction of cleanliness can lead to incident reports which affect whether a prisoner will get half-way house time, furloughs, or enrollment in a
program that could shorten a person's prison time.  Repeated infractions can lead to a prisoner being sent to the
hole (the federal jail next door) and held there for an undetermined time. The severity of enforcement is arbitrary and depends upon a guard or "counselor's" mood.

The emphasis in the camp is certainly not on what a person needs to improve the self.  There are relatively few educational opportunities here.  A good percentage of the limited classes that are offered are taught by prisoners with minimal or no expense to the Bureau of Prisons.  Pel Grants, which enabled a person to receive a college education in prison, have been cut out by the get-tough-on -criminals congress.  The righteous indignation of a respectable
constituency has determined that no low-life criminal is worthy of a college education.  This, in the face of well documented fact that the greatest deterrent to recidivism  has been education.  If value can be gauged by square footage then it should be noted that approximately 1200 square feet have be
en allotted to the four small classrooms in the camp and many thousands of square feet are allotted to the four warehouses of Unicor.  Unicor is the Fortune 500 prison industry that pays prisoners twenty three cents per hour to make furniture.

Prisons have always been bad; in many cases dungeons where prison officials prey on inmates and inmates prey on each other.  In the last 15 years the prison industry has let fall any pretext of rehabilitation. It's not in the federal glossary anymore. Prison is for doing the time for the crime.  The system is punitive and in no way restorative.  The  get-tough-on criminals propaganda has brought about mandatory sentencing which translates into much longer terms for many more people.  Very many of today's convictions revolve around drugs.  New categories of crimes are added.
Very many inmates have been convicted on conspiracy charges which ultimately means that a business associate, a friend, or a relative has been coerced to testify against that person .  People are being given sentences of 10-20-30 or 40 years.  Many offenses could be treated in other ways such as medical treatment, community service, home detention or shorter sentences.  Besides the punitive long sentences, prisoners are given long probation of 2 to 8 years which, in effect, keeps them in the prison system for a long, long time.  However, the burgeoning prison industry needs prisoners.  As it continues to expand the Bureau of Prisons receives $25,000 to $30,000 per year for each inmate and increases the number of slave employees for the prison-industry-complex-Unicor.

My crime was to trespass onto government property at Ft. Benning, Georgia and to put my red-painted hand-print on the entrance sign of that institution.  For these offenses I was sentenced to 18 months, a $3,000 dollar fine and two years probation period.

Well, like I said, the prison industry is booming and it looks like a clean sweep in our national life.  Representatives in Congress fear too much for their political lives to do anything about it. 

So that this article might end where it began, I want to point out, that whenever there is an inspection of our facility by the  'Big Suits',  the first thing that happens before the visitation is the compulsive scouring and mopping and cleaning and waxing of all areas.  Before the fateful days, officials, counselors and guards are on each inmate that not a wrinkle on the bunk or a woolly on the floor be in evidence.  All living and working areas are judged by their cleanliness.  The whole place becomes sanitized- and thus sanctified.  Perhaps we would do well to ponder Matthew 23,  Verse 25.
 
 

                                                Bill Bichsel, S.J.
                                                February 20, 1999
 
 



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