Hopelessly hooked on jail


WHATEVER the problem, the solution is now obvious: jail.

You have heard the following statistic: The United States now has more people locked up than the country that used to hold the world record but whose name eludes me, probably the late Soviet Union or the South Africa of apartheid days.

What about China? It is never listed as a contender, possibly because China does not have jails. It has re-education centers.

The Chinese do not want them called jails, and we humor the Chinese in this. It is good business, and as President Coolidge observed, "The business of America is business."

Presidents Bush and Clinton have both insisted that this Coolidgean wisdom be engraved on the skull of every State Department employee assigned to the China division.

If they referred to re-education centers as "jails," the dirt-cheap garments Americans now buy at the Dirt-Cheap Mart might be denied us by an offended China.

The Chinese, as is well known (as Radio Moscow used to say in the old days before issuing some utterly doubtable fact), are sticklers for good manners. Call a spade anything but a manually operated excavating-technology implement, and China may no longer invite you to share its dirt-cheap threads.

If China is not a contender, the United States seems sure to become the jail champion of the world at any moment.

American prisons are bulging. More and better prisons are on drawing boards all over the country.

Prison construction seems to be the last government activity of which Americans still heartily approve despite the monumental costs. Economists constantly point out that keeping someone in prison costs more than a Harvard education.

This may be true, but it ignores Harvard's reluctance, demonstrated just the other day, to grant its blessings to persons with felonious histories. It also ignores the law-abiding taxpayer's temptation to ask why, if the government is handing out Harvard educations, preference should go to crooks.

The taxpayer is simply not going to sit still for felons being sentenced to Harvard educations. He is ready and even eager, however, to see his famous taxpayer's dollar devoted to the newest thing in cellblocks.

Here is where a little common sense can be applied to cutting the cost of government. As Gov. George E. Pataki has finally noticed in New York, top-drawer space needed to warehouse our nastiest customers is being wasted on small fry.

At present a great deal of expensive cell space is occupied by offenders who can't even be described as underworld bush-leaguers. These are the ho-hum drug dealers and users locked up because former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller years ago decided that jail would solve the drug problem.

It would be inviting the Furies to say that history has proved Rockefeller wrong. Embalming fluid is the only cure for people truly wedded to discredited ideas. Believers in supply-side economics will enter Eternity insisting that President Reagan's decision to cut taxes and raise spending had nothing to do with creating his legacy of the trillion-dollar deficit.

In the same way, believers in the jail solution to the drug problem will insist that the iron doors continue to clang.

Very well, but should they be the very best iron doors that the taxpayer's dollar can buy? Is maximum security vital to teach the corner peddler a lesson he won't forget?

Obviously, the answer is to build a small, cheaper, lower-security drug jail. Small, cheap, minimal-security -- those are the specifications for many of the problems we hope to solve with jail.

Soon, obviously, the public is going to insist that people be jailed for smoking. All well and good, but does it make economic sense to waste a magnificently punitive institution like Attica even on the most hardened, incorrigible smoker?

The solution: smoke jail. A few pine shacks and a wire fence.

Next problem: people's use of insensitive speech that hurts other people's feelings. Solution: insensitivity jail where offenders can do some low-budget brooding on how bad it would hurt their own feelings to be called "jailbirds."

Next problem: the cruel lampooning of decent earth-loving people just because they want to stamp out fur coats, sugar and fatty foods. Solution: Joke jail. And next . . .

Well . . . maybe re-education centers.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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