During the June 12th meeting of the County Commission, the idea of having convicts clean the courthouse was brought up. (County Commission June 12th, 2013 minutes (a .pdf file)) I thought this was an excellent example to highlight the current culture we have created in our country. I also thought it a perfect opportunity to question that culture — and point out what I believe is a better way to govern ourselves.
The current thinking (the conventional wisdom if you will) is that such an idea will save the county money and it gives the convicts something productive to do. We’ve become absolutely Pavlovian about “saving money” when it comes to taxes. You might think of this as a “Win-Win” situation. But let’s look at it another way.
Do you know what the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution says? I’m betting most people don’t. The few that know it outlaws slavery probably didn’t note the exception.
“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
So, there you have it, slavery is illegal in the United States — except for convicts. In other words, you can have slave labor clean your courthouse.
Let’s dwell on the “optics” of that for just a moment. “We the People” of Pike County are considering the use of slave labor to maintain the very symbol of justice in the county — the courthouse. That big building on the square, the one that dominates the town, the very beacon shining on the hill that tells the world we are a civilized people. We’re going to use slave labor to maintain it?
I think that sends the wrong message. And here is another message it sends. We spent around $3 million dollars on this building of justice. Are we going to pinch pennies on its maintenance?
The selling point on the courthouse renovation project has always touched on the historical element. The Pike County Courthouse was built in 1895. Assuming we want it to last another 118 years, is it wise to maintain it on the cheap? I hope you are coming to the conclusion that it is not only morally expensive to use slave labor but it would also be “penny wise and pound foolish”.
Let’s make this proposal a little more real. Let’s imagine we have a convict or two cleaning the courthouse when you walk in the door. I assume they will be wearing their prison-issued clothing with PIKE COUNTY PRISONER stenciled on the back. That’s a heck of a “Welcome to Pike County” sign for anybody that walks in. Won’t that be a nice first impression? Speaking of which, what do you suppose they are in for? The convicts? Drunk driving? Robbery? Are they dangerous? Surely not. The Sheriff wouldn’t let that happen, right? Will somebody be guarding them? Watching them? How much will that cost? Speaking of cost, won’t they have to be trained? I’m assuming that nobody stays in the county lockup for a long prison term so does that mean we’ll have an ever-changing stream of petty criminals poking into every nook and cranny of the courthouse? How does all this work?
I know how it works with a full-time employee — someone we pay a decent wage for their honest labor. We get someone that knows their job and appreciates it. Someone you wouldn’t be afraid to walk up to and ask for directions to the Magistrate Court or the tag office. Someone that takes pride in their work and it is reflected in the job they do. A friendly, familiar face that actually does say, “Welcome to Pike County”.
Which would you rather see when you walk into the courthouse — a custodian or a convict?
The big difference, of course, it that you get what you pay for. It takes tax-payer’s money to pay for a county employee. And that is the reality of the situation that you have to decide on as a citizen in a democracy. Are you so impoverished that you have to rationalize the use of forced labor to maintain the very democracy you are in charge of? Will we allow our imprudent hatred of taxes to destroy our sense of decency and democracy?
The Democratic Party of Pike County has printed up some bumper stickers that simply state — “Trickle Up”. It’s a play on words about the discredited economics of the Reagan era known as “trickle down economics“. I believe this situation — using forced labor to maintain the courthouse — provides yet another way of viewing “Trickle Up”. There’s an opportunity to create a job here. Sure, it’s a humble job but it is an honest one. And we can make it a decent one — paying a decent wage with benefits. We can invest in ourselves, provide a good job for a citizen of Pike County and set an example as to how workers should be treated.
We can watch our taxes “trickle up” through our local economy as a citizen with a decent job buys groceries and gas from our local merchants. We can watch as our investment in them helps buy a house and build a family. We might even help send a kid to college.
Or we can coerce convicts to clean our courthouse. That sets an example too. A bad one.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to thank you for reading and leave you with one final thought. These kind of ideas are why we need an active Democratic Party in Pike County. Even if we don’t win an election, there needs to be an opposing viewpoint. Pike County needs different ideas from which to choose. There needs to be an organized voice in the county that can call on the political conscience of the county’s citizens with a different idea. Hopefully, a better idea.
Don Brown — Chairman
The Democratic Party of Pike County
July 23, 2013