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January 26, 2007

Homelessness or imprisonment?

The question for the day is: If you had to chose one, would you chose to be homeless or to be in jail?

My son was telling me last weekend that he'd been talking with some classmates about whether liberty or security was more important. Specifically: Would they rather the government guaranteed their freedoms or guaranteed them the basic food and shelter necessary for life? About ten of them fell into this discussion while waiting for the rest of the class to finish a task. These are 11th and 12th grade students.

According to my son, the large majority of his classmates said they'd pick the second choice: having a guarantee of the necessities of life over a guarantee of liberties. (Let me note that the chances of any of his classmates having actually gone hungry for more than a day would be very close to zero.)

Then he added that they'd put the question in more concrete terms. Which would you prefer: to be homeless or to be in jail? I thought this was an interesting development in the conversation and a great reduction of the argument. Again, the large majority - including the instructor - said they'd prefer jail to homelessness.

To me, this is a no-brainer along the lines of, "Would you rather have your leg broken or have your eyes put out?" Being homeless, while not something I'd volunteer for, is still the lesser of these evils.

But what do you think? Comments are open to all.

Posted by joke du jour at January 26, 2007 09:01 PM

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This reminds me of the type of “word problem” we’d sometimes get in math class for which the correct answer was “not enough information to solve.” Which of these I would choose, homelessness or jail, would depend on a lot of factors, not just the simple matter of security v. liberty.

When I make this choice, how long will it last? the rest of my life? two weeks? a year? Where am I homeless? on a tropical island? a Midwestern woods, maybe near someone’s farm? the south side of Chicago? And where would I be jailed? Cook County Jail, which is a horrible, nasty place? or the women’s prison where I worked for a couple of years, a relatively non-threatening environment in a rural setting? Am I a woman about to go to a women’s prison, or a man going to a men’s prison?

As a homeless person, do I have all of my wits, mental health, and job skills about me? If so, I could probably get out of that situation more quickly than the typical homeless person, who might have a debilitating mental illness and who often lacks job skills. As a prisoner, am I in solitary confinement and have minimal contact with the outside world, or am I in a place with rehabilitative programs that will help me make different choices when I get out?

The answers to all these questions would influence my choice.

When I worked at the prison, it was during a time of great personal grief and uncertainty in my personal life. I often wondered what it would be like to be incarcerated. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with all this crap in my life, I thought. But I saw how the women’s lives were. On the whole, a woman’s life of “security” is dictated by people who rule her through petty, senseless rules and measures, who can and do tell her what to do every minute of the day. These people -- from the lowliest correctional officer right up through the prison warden -- are not very smart, and they don’t like the people under their care. She may get her three meals a day and free medical care, and maybe even education if she’s lucky, but she can’t even walk out to the edge of the institution without someone calling her to task and writing her up for it.

Any of the prisons I have experienced would be worse than whatever “American” homeless situation I could imagine, because I believe I could escape or at least mitigate homelessness through my own intelligence and skills. So that’s one answer. But let’s say the choice was between homelessness in New Delhi or Beijing, and the minimum security prison where I worked. Let’s say I had to choose one and it would last for six months. Homeless, I would have to survive on the streets of one of those cities, unable to speak the language or change my situation, susceptible to disease or violence. In the prison, I’d have to listen to stupid people tell me what to do, but I probably wouldn’t die. If that were the choice, I’d choose the prison. If that were the choice, it might not be a "no-brainer" after all.

(This may explain why I never did well on multiple-choice questions that had any degree of gray area.)

Posted by: A. Nonymous at January 27, 2007 08:38 AM

A similar thought occurred to me, A., when I wondered how the long jail term would have to be to change the person's response. If it's homelessness vs. 10 days in the county lock-up for disturbing the peace, I'd probably take the jail time. But if it were homelessness vs. a long-term sentence (over 1 year) in state or federal prison, I'd stick with what I said.

I soon got off into another speculation: where do these people draw the line? If I promised to feed them and house them, would they be willing to enter my service for as long as I did that?

Could I get some cheap household help this way? If not, why not? I'd be easier to deal with than most prison staff, I think, they'd have their security, and I wouldn't make them wear those ugly orange jumpsuits.

Posted by: JdJ at January 27, 2007 09:07 AM

Where I worked, they didn't wear ugly orange jumpsuits. Just reg'lar clothes. The jumpsuits are usually for jails (temporary) rather than prisons (long-term incarceration), at least in this state.

You'd certainly be smarter than most prison staff, I think, but you'd still have to make rules and expect that they would be followed. Prisons provide more than just food and shelter. Quite a lot of the services they provide are required by law (and some, of course, are not). Would you let your inmate have visits? Would you allow conjugal visits? Would you provide all requested healthcare? Haircuts? Books? Cable TV? (Is it "cheap" help anymore?)

Would your inmate be truly incarcerated and therefore unable to leave your house? And what if you didn't like the kind of household help they provided? What then? Would you have to force their compliance somehow? Your vision of yourself as "nice" (entirely justified) and your inmate's vision of what a "nice" imprisoner should do might be two entirely different things.

This sort of "what if" could go on for a while, to be sure. Perhaps your son or his classmates (maybe even the instructor!) would change their answers now, or at least say "it depends."

Posted by: A. Nonymous at January 27, 2007 10:01 AM

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