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July 18, 2004 - The Gainesville Sun, The (FL)

Prison Life: Theatre Of The Absurd

Creating Criminals Is A Business, And It Is In No One's Best Interest To Change It.

By K.C. Walpole, abbot of the Gateless Gate Zen Center of Gainesville. The center has a prison program that works with the county jail as well as state and federal prisons.

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Fast forward to the year 2014 and envision a split-screen production on Channel 12 of Cox cable TV.

On one side is the opening of a new courthouse attended by a well- dressed crowd of the political, business and cultural elite of Alachua County.

On the other is a cheering crowd with placards flashing in the sun. They are celebrating the conversion of the old courthouse into meeting rooms and stages dedicated to cultural affairs.

Farfetched? Not really. A precedent has already been set.

The Hippodrome Theater was a federal courthouse and post office for many decades. It was made obsolete in the 1960s by the construction of a new federal courthouse and post office with more courtrooms.

Are we there? No, but we are not all that far away either. Statistics indicate that one in 15 citizens will become a convicted felon and do prison time.

Is that number ridiculous? Far from it. It was only a couple of years ago that one in 37 citizens was a convicted felon with prison time. We have 2.1 million citizens in the jails and prisons of our land, and another 4 million under the control of parole or probation officers.

Alachua County alone has an incarceration ratio that hovers around 350 per 100,000; this is exceeded only in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Latvia.

It is more than triple the incarceration ratios of Communist China, France, England, Germany and Turkey. An interesting contrast is that Alachua County's incarceration ratio is 10 times the national ratio of Japan.

Let's face it, creating criminals is a business, and it is in no one's best interest to change it. Criminals are made and not born. I dare anyone to walk into a neo-natal clinic and tell me that one out of 15 babies has a gene or genetic defect that will make it a criminal.

We as individuals and as a society make conscious choices about how to educate and socialize our children.

As individuals, parents and society, we create the situations and conditions that are conducive to a life of crime. Let's single out a high-profile institution to serve as a case in point.

Public schools spend 12 years with our children, which is more than any other group or institution, except parents.

Teachers get paid, promoted and retired based on being orderly functionaries. It makes no difference if a student fails or retains the material.

The proof is in the numbers of high school graduates entering college who are required to take remedial math or English at the college or university level. These numbers run between 40 percent and 60 percent.

Aside from this absurdity, the only non-waiver able requirement for graduating from the 12th grade is passing a 10th grade exam, an exam written by the state as a quality control measure for the counties.

Alachua County had 535 dropouts in grades 9 to 12 during the school year 2002-2003. The graduation rate for the same period was 67.5 percent. Where do a lot of these dropouts and non-graduates end up? Prison.

The Department of Corrections tested incoming inmates in 2001 for educational development. They found the median test score was 6.3 years of education.

The tested grade level achieved most often (13.9 percent) was the fifth grade. About 70 percent had less than GED prep skills (less than 9.0 grade level). This means that 70 percent of the admitted inmates for that year were not eligible for GED courses while in prison.

A large portion of our population is invested in or dependent on the existing judicial system: Lawyers, police, prison staff and elected officials, to name the tip of the iceberg.

BellSouth Yellow Pages has 66 pages of listings and advertisements for attorneys. A call to the Florida Bar association a couple of years ago revealed that there are more than 700 members in Alachua County.

Between the Gainesville Police Department and the Alachua County Sheriff's Office alone, there are 532 guns and shields on the streets. This is a university community of about 220,000 residents. About 50,000 are among the best and brightest students in Florida. What are we doing wrong that we need so many guns and shields on the street?

Prisons are big business in Florida. The Florida Department of Corrections employs 25,126 people and has a budget of over $1.6 billion. This is a major economic force and a lot of political clout.

Not 50 miles to the north, the state complex in Raiford has five prisons and a death row. In this complex are 5,283 inmates, with 2,058 correction officers and staff.

About 100 miles to the south is a federal complex with five prisons with about 6,500 inmates and will house an additional 1,500 in about a year.

Our elected leaders at the local, state and federal levels set the precedents and allocate the resources that stimulate the growth of the prison industry.

They start by telling us we need protection from ourselves, and then make criminals both by passing new laws and creating the incentives for criminal activities. Citizens caught up in this web are then sent to prison.

Is this the theater of the absurd or is it just a way of life we have come to accept?

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