1.23.2006

The Promise of Government Development: Hiding Behind a Leaky Dike

A few weeks ago, the Press and Sun Bulletin of Broome County announced that the State of New York was considering opening a facility to hold sex offenders in Pharsalia, in Chenango County (northeast of Broome County); Pharsalia already holds a smaller facility that would be upgraded to hold 500 offenders. The headline, predictably, screamed "1,000 New Jobs" though the paper did express some reservations:

1) The high concentration of sex offenders being brought to Pharsalia might be dangerous to the community if there was a break.
2) Studies show that prison workers spread out their earnings far beyond the local area (they often commute long distances, for example) possibly negating much of the benefit to the Pharsalia area.
3) The current population of mental health patients might be endangered by the new inmates.
4) The fact that the Governor's plan to confine sex offenders after their sentences are finished (the purpose of the Pharsalia plan) is being challenged in court means that the jobs might have no security.

These complaints are legitimate fears, but there is one that I think has been ignored by the Press and remains unknown to the general public: the problem of relying upon government for employment. A look at the list of the top 10 employers in Broome County finds that 5 are public entities; in a similar list for Chenango County has 6 of the top 10 in the public sphere. Camp Pharsalia would certainly join that list.

Public sphere work is, of course, necessary: we need schools, roads, fire departments and ambulance squads. I would never support the radical Libertarian idea of complete privatization of society, in fact, I support more social spheres coming under the control of local communities. However, the key word here is "local." The jobs that too often come under the rubric of "public" having nothing to do with local control: big prisons, big university centers, big water reservoirs, big building projects and big parks. The jobs do not create wealth, they just move tax money around.

More importantly than the fact that tax dollars are not created, but simply shifted, is that these jobs have the tendency to hamstring local power. Just as the expansion of Wal-Mart into our community siphons our ability to control our destiny and sends that power to Bentonville, AK, these big projects too often put our communities directly into the service and orbit of New York City. Some of this is inevitable, after all NYC is one of the world's great metropolises, but it is not necessary that we simply give them the control of our lives. What if they decide to send their children elsewhere (or to keep them at home)? Or if inner-city prisons enter fashion? What is the state government no longer needs Camp Pharsalia? When we give over to big bureaucracy, we have no control of our destinies. We have more than enough examples to show that they often care little for the fate of our communities down in that mighty City and up in Albany.

In my discussion of the parallels between Buffalo and New Orleans, I spoke of how the people of both places suffered because they placed their trust and well-being in distant masters who, it turned out, had little care for those same people. In Buffalo, the great corporations who owned the factories and the federal government, authorities whose centers of power lay far away, betrayed the city. With New Orleans, it was blind trust in the dike-building Army Corps of the Engineers and the Federal Bureaucracy that that destroyed them. Too often, the promise of centralization leads us down the path of subservience and, ultimately, ruin. Who has respect for the servant that grovels before him? To the community that does literally anything to bring him there, especially if there are a thousand other places willing to do the same tomorrow?

Why should the people of Pharsalia turn down the Governor's offer to build the new prison center? Because they would become a colony of New York City, not a community standing on its own ground. They would give up all pretence of local government and live under Gubernatorial Fiat. To take him up on his offer would risk building their community behind a leaky dike that can crumble at the whim of a distant politician or a faceless bureaucracy.
-Posted by Jesse

11 comments:

Phil said...

Criticizing the state's development of Camp Pharsalia because it is an unstable producer of jobs for the region is somewhat akin to criticizing the Nazis because of the relatively poor design of their Volkswagen!

This is the newest frontier of government infringement on citizens' rights. The people to be confined in the proposed facility at Pharsalia have been convicted of their crimes, sentenced in open court and served their entire sentence. Their continued incarceration is not for what they have done, they are being confined for what they might do.

Just as the United States has abandoned its commitment to many bedrock principles in its fight in the so-called "War on Terror", the threat of sexual abuse has spurred seemingly rational people to trample the freedoms that protect us all.

Add preventive detention to warrantless wiretaps, secret CIA torture prisons and the rest of the gulag prison apparatus being created in 21st century America. We are a better people than this.

Jesse said...

Phil, I agree very strongly with what you are saying here. Our society of late has become so fearful. We are afraid of slips and falls, of kidnappers, of gays "infecting" our children, and of a thousand other relatively unimportant threats while at the same time the things that really threaten our well being like this erosion of our human rights and dignities, the assault of pollution and the dehumanizing effect of Corporate America are ignored.

Today, here in the New York, sexual offenders have become the new bogeymen. I am not trying to make light of the pain they have caused or the terrible nature of their crimes, only to point out that they have become the new "welfare moms" or "heroin addicts" or whatever other force is out there to scare us. These people are still humans and deserve to be treated with dignity that this status affords. This is not because they have "earned" it or shown it to their victims, but because we are humane, moral beings and we hope for reform and look for the best in other humans. This doesn't mean we let down our watch, but only that we punish people for the crimes they have committed, not the ones they might commit.

For the sake of this blog being about Upstate New York and its communities, and the desire to be brief and to the point in my post, I avoided writing about these atrocities. However, this comment is a good point to make my thoughts heard.

Jacob Javits said...

"1) The high concentration of sex offenders being brought to Pharsalia might be dangerous to the community if there was a break."

this is utter nonsense when the second point we have here is: 'the prison workers spend money outside of the area/town/camp they live and work.'

This also makes it sound like there will be roving gangs of sex offenders ready to break out of the camp to sex up upstate villages just because of the inflated size of the current community.

Jacob Javits said...

I misread that, the second point is referring to people who work at the facility not to the illegaly incarcerated.

Phil said...

Jesse:

Thanks for your response. I agree that sexual offenders have become a new bogeyman, the concensus being that they can never be rehabilitated, hence need to be locked up forever.

It is a difficult question, how do we protect society, as well as the rights of the accused? Throwing out settled constitutional protections because we can't figure out a better answer is unacceptable.

As to the rest of your post, I also agree with the underlying premise. An overreliance on government jobs can leave a region stagnant and vulnerable to economic downturns that reduce tax revenues.

As for Camp Pharsalia, 15 years ago I was a VISTA volunteer in the state prison system and did some work to recruit volunteers to help at several prisons upstate. What I learned was that prisoners were working to get transferred downstate and employees were working to get transferred upstate--each group trying to get closer to home.

As for the economic ripple effect, NY State DOCS has no problem filling positions--they have
lists of civil service folks waiting. They also have no shortage of employees looking to get out of the NYC area and work upstate. Employees are known to travel long distances to get to work if they have to, so there is generally not a large influx of new residents in adjacent towns. The Norwich and Binghamton areas will see some impact, but not a lot.

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Jesse said...

To comment a bit more on the effect of prisons on Upstate life (I'll get back to human rights in a minute), I think that we often forget the poisonous effect that a large prison has on a small community.

Certainly, it creates jobs (though no tax revenue) which often pay relatively well. However, often times these are small, predominately white communities wose residents have little experience with peoples of color. To make their primary, daily even, exposure be the most violent sector of the black, hispanic and white communities only promotes racism in these towns and villages. Racism among so many members of the community spills over into their family and friends.

In addition, the prison is an inherently violent, oppressive place. Spending eight hours a day in such an area for years upon years must have a corrupting effect on the guard's mind (much less the incarcerated people). Is this the type of poison we willingly want to bring into our communities? Are we will to accept any job?

Jesse said...

Regarding the rights of sex offenders there is much discussion that deserves to be had but does not appear in our mainstream media. I believe that it is a gross violation of basic human rights to incarcerate a person beyond the term given by the open court of law. It is not up to the Governor or the Mental Health Bureaucrats to become judges, they have their own jobs.

There is obviously no simple answer to the problem of crime, any crime in fact, but especially sexual offenses. No one doubts that "kiddie touchers" as they're reffered to in some circles, should be kept from ever harming another child. Yet, not every criminal is a cut and dry case and not every criminal is the worst case. When we create mandatory sentences for anything, we treat every case as if it were the worst and we remove the humanity from the system.

I think it is time that once again allow judges and juries, the human beings who examine each case individually, to make their decisions. If a sexual offender is mentally unstable, then he or she should be sent to a mental institution. If the offender is an offender of the grossest kind, life of incarceration is our society's punishment. If judges are not giving out fair and adequate sentences, then we have a problem with our judiciary. Give the judges the option of what level of "list" to put the offender on and what level of post-confinement control to place upon them.

I am fearful of hard and fast rules, iron-clad demands that remove humanity's ability to understand the subtleties of each case. I also fear the concentration of power in the hands of centralized authorities, especially Executives and their faceless bureaucracies.

JJ Jetplane said...

Yet just send 'em to a mental institution, and send the poor to a workhouse from the british industrial revolution.

Guy said...

This was not about sex-offenders!
Why are'nt you guys talking about the problem, that the Upstae economy can not be fixed by prisons and college towns and that distant leaders can not be expected to do something different.

Jesse said...

Guy- I think that was the heart of the original article that I wrote above. The questions about sex offenders are related and are apparently of vital importance as well. Since no-one asked about the Upstate economy, I responded to the questions asked. That said, I think that there is a relationship between the culture of fear created through bogeymen like the sex offenders and the growing trends towards centralization ("Protect me oh wise and powerful State!") in all sectors of our society. Everything is connected to everything else in the universe.