What to do about prisons?

Those of you who have been paying attention for a while will not be surprised to hear that I think big sometimes. I’m always looking at the big picture, trying to come up with big solutions for big problems. I rarely find a problem that I don’t think could be solved with some sort of co-op. But once in a while I come across something that blows my mind, and fills me with a sense of bafflement (if that is indeed a word).

Tonight, for school I was reading “One World, Ready or Not” by William Greider (a book that has drawn the ire of no less than Paul Krugman, who reportedly knows a thing or three about economics) and there was a really wild idea in there: A cooperative prison.

First of all, this gives me the heebyjeebies. It smacks of some Stalinist labor camp with a creepy veneer of ownership.

On the other hand, it is a more radical application of something that already exists in British Columbia: InsideArt is a cooperative of convicts and ex-cons who market their art through a virtual gallery. Through this co-op both groups make money. A portion of earnings for inmates goes to room and board helping them repay their debts to society while engaged in productive and therapeutic work. And of course, having legitimate income helps the transition out of prison.

Now, back to the main hare-brained scheme that has me writing tonight: The New Birth Project would replace the aging Lorton prison in Virginia with a cooperatively-owned prison with stakeholders that include community members, employees, and yes, prisoners. It would apparently pay for itself in a decade, due to its double nature as a power plant.

I’m really not sure what I think of it, but really, how much worse can it be than our current system?

This was part of a larger scheme to turn the District of Columbia into a laboratory for worker ownership, which was proposed by the Center for Economic and Social Justice. This was all based on the ideas of a fella named Louis Kelso, who is the inventor of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) which now includes more than 11,000 companies, with 11 million employees (mostly the employee ownership is a minority stake, but this is still a widespread phenomenon that could be easily expanded with the right funding.

Kelso also had another idea: that the Fed should get involved in making loans to employees to convert businesses toward employee ownership. I’m going to have to look into this guy a bit more…as soon as I run out of things to do. Until then, y’all are encouraged to do your own snooping.

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