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Criminal Assets
By Jean Hay

Did you hear the one about the Chinese official who was arrested in New York for attempting to peddle body parts of executed criminals to a company that arranges organ transplants? No, this isn’t the first line of a bad joke. It really happened. And the appropriate people were outraged. After all, the guy had breached several of our supposed societal sensibilities, not to mention the law.

The buying and selling of transplantable organs is bad. These precious life-giving commodities are supposed to be freely given, and freely received. Shipping and handling are usually the only charges incurred (except, of course, for the surgeon, hospital, lab work-ups, etc.).

The concept of prison officials in a foreign country attempting to profit from the results of their country’s liberal death penalty hit the another sensitive spot. For some reason, visions of vultures comes to mind.

But there is a third extreme, one even more horrific, which may have been committed in this case.

The official arrested was reportedly a prosecutor, either former or current (accounts vary), in his native China. As such, he held the very position responsible for putting people behind bars in the first place.

Listen up people and don’t be surprised – This is what happens whenever the profit motive enters the criminal justice system. Justice goes out the window. Even revenge becomes irrelevant. Money is a powerful motivator.

If the organs of healthy prisoners are a marketable commodity, then how and under whose authority those healthy persons become prisoners in the first place becomes absolutely critical. In a repressive country such as China, could people be arrested, tried, convicted, and be sentenced to death, not because of any crime they may have committed, but because they were non-smokers and had nice, healthy pink lungs worth big bucks? Isn’t that what that arrest a few weeks ago is all about?

But if I were you, I wouldn’t get too complacent and self-righteous about this. That’s because we have the makings of this very problem in our back yard already.

Jim Hightower, in his book, "There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos," points out that the newest way U.S. industries have figured out to pay Third World wages is to hire prisoners. They get this labor for minimum wage (or less – AT&T and Honda were paying around $2 an hour), they provide no health care, no pensions, no paid vacations, and the prisoners "darn sure won’t be joining some pesky union." On top of that, every product made behind prison walls carries that prized "Made in USA" label.

What obscure companies are employing these captive workers? You may have heard of some of them – JC Penney, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, IBM, Texas Instruments, Dell computer. San Quentin inmates do data entry for Chevron, Macy’s and BankAmerica.

And organized labor thought it only had NAFTA and GATT to worry about.

Hightower said the prison programs are the next best things to having slaves – "maybe better, since the company doesn’t even have to feed and house them."

According to Hightower, "prisoners typically get to keep only 20 percent of the paycheck, with the state government grabbing the rest." Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson has promoted the program to corporate executives with a brochure proclaiming, "A willing workforce waits."

An estimated 60 percent of the nation’s prison population is made up of non-violent drug offenders, many behind bars as a result of minor offenses, high minimum sentences, and our overzealous war on drugs. At what point will we cross the line from finding something productive for a passive group of prisoners to do, to guaranteeing a captive, cheap workforce for corporate America? Have we crossed that line already? It sure sounds that way in Wisconsin.

Speaking of drugs, The Nation in its March 9, 1998 edition has a chilling article, "The Drug War’s Hidden Economic Agenda," detailing how police departments across the country have diverted resources away from serious crime and into drug busts, specifically to take advantage of the civil forfeiture law. What’s that, you ask? It’s a law Congress passed in 1984 that funnels drug money and "drug related" assets directly into the police agencies that seize them.

"This amendment offered law enforcement a new source of income, limited only by the energy police and prosecutors were willing to put into seizing assets," The Nation article states. Cars, bars, homes and restaurants have all been forfeited on grounds that they served as sites for drug deals, marijuana cultivation or other drug crimes, according to The Nation.

Serves those druggies right to have their assets seized, you say? Would you feel that way if your brand new sport utility vehicle was seized because your son was stopped for running a light and the cops found a joint under the seat that neither you nor he knew anything about? Would you count your blessings if the cops simply took the car, but decided not to arrest your son? Can’t happen, you say?

According to The Nation, there is no constitutional requirement under this forfeiture law that the owner of the assets know anything about any illegal activities. In fact, forfeiture may occur even if the owner was acquitted of all drug charges.

"In other words," The Nation says, "if you are either related to a drug dealer or mistaken for one, you may find yourself legally dispossessed of your property without effective recourse."

Worse still, the forfeiture of drug assets and acquittals may be related. The Nation quotes a Boston Globe story that said in eastern Massachusetts reporters found that agreements to forfeit $10,000 or more bought elimination or reduction of trafficking charges in nearly three out of four cases. Result? More poor druggies end up in jail than do rich druggies.

At the root of the problem, and the reason for the zealousness on the part of police departments and prosecutors all over the country, is that the cops get to keep the assets, or the proceeds from the sale of the assets.

"Agencies that can finance themselves through asset seizures need not justify their activities through any regular budgetary process," The Nation story by Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen points out. "The consequence is an extraordinary degree of police secrecy and freedom from legislative oversight….Worse, by linking police budgets to drug-law enforcement, forfeiture laws induce police and prosecutors to neglect other, often more pressing crime problems."

Remarkably, the U.S. Supreme Court has been upholding these seizures, on grounds that I don’t quite understand. This is happening today, all over the United States of America. In fact, it is happening in Bangor, Maine.

I live just up the block from the Bangor Police Department. Several times a day a snazzy black Firebird outfitted with blue lights goes by, on its way to yet another D.A.R.E. program in a local school. Lettering on all sides of the car notifies the world that car was seized in a drug raid.

I know the message supposedly sent by this public display of a cool car to impressionable kids is that crime doesn’t pay. I suspect the message actually delivered is that, if you’re smarter than the guy who used to own the car and don’t get caught like him, you too can buy rad cars and live high on drug money.

I am not opposed to job training in prisons. With a high rate of illiteracy (more than half the inmates, according to one report), reading programs would be a good place to start. I am also not opposed to inmates being kept busy doing productive work. Prison gardens come to mind – fresh air, fresh produce, better nutrition, maybe even the surplus going to food banks around the state.

But I think we as a society should think long and hard at the reason for our criminal justice system. Isn’t it to protect society from harm, and to send a message that crime doesn’t pay?

We cross a dangerous line of governmental tyranny when police and prosecutors, with legislative and judicial backing, ask not what criminals have done against society, but what people they designate as criminals – and their assets – can do to pad their own pockets, or those of their employers or corporate friends.

© March 1998 by Jean Hay, Bangor, Maine.
---- This column appeared in the March 1998 Aroostook Democrat.

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