Voices from the Inside Out: Criminal priorities

November 19, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

We live in a country which has the ability to ensure that people don’t need to go hungry or homeless if a bit of effort were paid towards solving those problems. Ironically some solutions can be found in the most unlikely places.


Recently, in a Midwestern prison, hundreds of pounds of organically grown vegetables and fruits were allowed to simply rot within the facility’s kitchen, ending up on the compost pile rather than served to the prisoners or donated to community food shelves. This seems to be a universal practice within prisons that have prisoner-worked farms and gardens.

Often those prison gardens and farms are antiquated, and even more labor-intensive than a community farm. Why use modern equipment and practices when you have a ready labor force that is not allowed to unionize and who no one truly cares about if they get hurt? Many of those entities may barely meet the minimal state or federal regulations for safety and cleanliness.

Despite all of that, the prisoners who work those gardens or farms take a distinct pride in the product they produce and to see it wasted and allowed to rot, due to mismanagement by kitchen staff and lack of oversight by the administration, is thought by many to be criminal, especially since these same facilities are constantly lobbying state legislatures to relegate more and more taxpayer dollars to fund their enterprises.

The U.S. can build prisons in a record amount of time, or create immigration detention centers without much thought, yet it cannot find ways to house or feed its homeless population. In fact, if it weren’t for the generosity of nonprofit organizations many more people would starve, or die, because of the lack of empathy from the majority of corporate America and federal, state and local governments.

In several states and local communities, legislation and ordinances are being pursued which, if approved, would criminalize being poor and homeless with penalties that range from incarceration to substantial fines. The laws are defined by terms, often equated with public safety, but each has a familiar purpose—to find ways to remove the homeless population out of sight, out of mind—especially from business districts.


The global COVID pandemic exacerbated the problem by highlighting the economic and social disparities existing in this country. As the News and Letters 2020-2021 Perspectives noted, “The staggering inequality, with billionaires not just jet-setting but rocketing to space, while even before the pandemic 40% of U.S. households had expenses bigger than income” (N&L, Sept.-Oct. 2021).

At the height of the pandemic the U.S. saw record numbers of not only poor and people of color, but middle-class Americans of all colors having to use food banks which were seeking donations and products to meet the demand. As noted in the Perspectives “one out of five Black families face food insecurity,” and yet despite these shortages, many state governments not only support, but seem to thrive on the amount of food that they waste in their prisons and other state-run agencies.

The problem is the lack of accountability in all levels of the prison industrial complex. States require layers of accountability from their prisoners, but not from themselves. That is a travesty.

Millions of dollars could be spent in that same Midwestern state to add onto a prison health services unit so that geriatric patients can have a “minimum custody experience,” and the only solution that can be found for dealing with the homeless is to lock them up or fine them, and extort from them money they don’t have, or extort money from taxpayers to lock up individuals whose only crime is that they are poor and homeless in the U.S.

Here’s a novel idea: rather than house geriatric prisoners in a new multimillion-dollar prison unit, or the homeless in county jails, let’s lock up the idiot politicians who come up with these proposals. Maybe then we’ll see real reforms take place.

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