"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 July 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.




Tear-jerking shopaganda from

corporate libertarians has

turned Orwell's paranoid

pessimism into an academic

afterthought; technology,

advertising tendentiously

insists, is the great

emancipator. Big Brother never

stood a chance against

AT&T's Chatty Long-Distance

Sister or Cellular-Phone Mom;

the latter's freedom to ignore

her children at the beach

instead of at her home office is

one that inspires us all.


In the long run, consumer

sovereignty is simply far more

profitable than totalitarian

oppression; except, of course,

for those unlucky incarcerates

who've forfeited the right to

purchase their freedom on the

retail enthrallment plan.

Today's hi-tech Power Prisons

lift their business strategies

straight from Orwell: Combining

computer-controlled surveillance

and security systems with

Draconian lock-down policies

that keep inmates in sterile,

sunless veal pens for all but 90

minutes a day, grim behavioral

commodification factories like

California's Corcoran and

Pelican Bay turn even the most

recalcitrant cons into docile,

easy-to-manage inventory units.

Video cameras and underground

motion sensors detect their

every implosive push-up and

bored jerk-off session;

microphones dutifully record

their eerie nightmare yelps and

impotent rants against their




"Inhuman and degrading" is how

the United Nations recently

described conditions at Pelican

Bay - a sentimental assessment

that shows a stubborn failure to

embrace the new prison economy.

The big house has become big

business, and the goal of the

increasingly privatized, US$20

billion a year corrections

industry is no longer

rehabilitation or even

punishment, but rather,

retention. Cost-efficient

warehousing of inmates and the

cultivation of institutional

loyalty - by making inmates

unfit for any other kind of

living - are the orders of the

day, and a panoply of ingenious,

Sharper Image-style products are

helping to realize these

objectives: electrified fences,


jail-management software,

remote-controlled stun belts

that shock escape-minded cons

into piss-soaked submission

while also doubling as arbitrary

torture devices.


The burgeoning prison population

fairly cries out for such


innovations; over a million and

a half US citizens now live

behind bars, and with

well-trained state and federal

PAC-money trollers obediently

determined to pass legislation

that makes life less legal and

punishment more severe, that

number promises to rise

dramatically. With such electric

growth in store, it's no longer

just the stun belt manufacturers

of the world who view prison as

a way to jump-start the bottom

line; mainstream companies like

Digital, Panasonic, and AT&T

are all seeking a piece of the

profits too. Sony is pushing its

video equipment at industry

trade shows with the catchy

slogan, "Nothing Escapes Us."

Pacific Bell is contracting with

the California Department of

Corrections to install

high-speed video networks for

remote arraignments and other

prison business, and

implementing lucrative telephone

information systems that charge

callers for their inquiries

about jail visiting hours and

other information.


In contrast to the vigorous

efforts these companies make to

promote the emancipating

qualities of their consumer

products (see, for example,

Sony's new "Freedom of Music"

commercial), their attitude

toward their carceral endeavors

is pointedly hush-hush. In fact,

almost all of the corporate

answering machines I spoke with

claimed a convincing ignorance

of the prison-targeted products

their companies are marketing;

public-relations prudence

dictates this code of silence,

of course, but given the tenor

of the times such discretion is

unfounded. Indeed, as much as

the public demands vengeance

against law-deriding

degenerates, it resents the

cushy, better-than-welfare

"punishment" the state metes

out. Disembowel a hard-working

taxpayer for the change in his

pockets and you're rewarded with

three squares, a rent-free room,

cable TV, and the occasional

poetry class? Where's the

vengeance in that equation?



Anything that makes hard time

harder is sure to get

Hammurabi's modern acolytes

frothing happily; Pacific Bell

and AT&T should proudly

announce the fact that their

inmate calling systems provide

unprecedented control in

monitoring (and prohibiting)

convict communication with the

outside world; Sony should

enthusiastically trumpet the

news that its "Nothing Escapes

Us" security products

safety-proof the world from




Of course, this concept is

problematic in that some of the

new jailhouse gadgetry has the

potential to make life behind

bars even crueler than the law

permits - prisoners wind up dead

because of the new technology.

According to an inmate at

Pelican Bay, a killing recently

occurred there after the

institution's guards

deliberately left open three

levels of the prison's automatic

"crash gates," which are

operated remotely from a central

control unit, so that one con

could get to his enemy - an

inmate whom guards apparently

didn't like much either. Only

one of the crash gates is ever

supposed to be open at once; a

staff person at prison-watchdog

group California Prison Focus

says this incident is just

another example of how Pelican

Bay's hi-tech infrastructure

makes it easy for the

administration to manipulate

prisoners into doing its dirty



Are such allegations true?


No one can really say for sure;

for all their interior

surveillance, prisons are

remarkably isolated from the

world beyond their walls. But

with the costs of such secrecy

rising - California will spend

approximately $35 million in

1997 defending itself against

inmate lawsuits alleging a

variety of administrative

misdeeds - the public is

demanding more accountability.

Indeed, a new openness is

permeating the penitentiary

landscape: The state Senate

recently passed a bill that will

restore full media access to

prisoners; a federal judge just

ruled that reporters and the

public have the right to view

executions in their entirety -

from the moment a condemned

person is strapped into any

"apparatus of death" until the

soul-snuffing finale. (This on

the heels of a Kevorkian-style

lethal injection at San Quentin

where the more picturesque

aspects of the killing were

censored by a strategic




Our appetite for virtuous

voyeurism makes the next step

obvious, if not efficacious:

Connect all those surveillance

cameras to cable or the Web.

It's unlikely that such

third-party monitoring will

actually inspire prisoners and

guards to behave any better,

but in the event of

lawsuit-conducive shenanigans,

we'd at least have a relatively

objective record of what

happened. And, of course, a new

revenue source to temper

escalating prison budgets. The

public's tired of paying the

billions it takes to keep our

streets safe from murderers,

poor people, and potheads, but a

sizable audience would eagerly

pay to see World's Funniest

Execution Outtakes - "See how

the flames shot out of his

nostrils!" - or place bets on

Corcoran-style parimutuel

gladiator matches.

courtesy of St. Huck

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