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Prison-Yard America


Since September, a public-school district in Florida has been taking fingerprint scans at the entrance to schools as a way to monitor attendance. The scans are compared against a database of students to detect truants. As in most highly intrusive school policies, parents are thrown a bone of control by allowing them to request an “opt out” for their children. An opted-out student needs to pursue a teacher and go through a special sign-in every day. In terms of time, convenience, and avoidance of stigma, students have a strong incentive to comply quietly.

But the current scanner setup is not efficient enough; the location makes it “difficult to keep track of every student.” And so the district is experimenting with supplementary scanners on the school buses that almost every student uses.

The schools’ superintendent, Sandra Cook, acknowledges that the transition has not been easy. Why not? Have parents complained about the Orwellian violation of children’s privacy? Are they outraged by the state’s assumption that children’s fingerprints are state property unless objections are raised?

TV station WJHG explains, “One of the biggest challenges they’ve faced is where to put the devices on the buses. State safety codes require the aisles to be kept completely clear, so one of the ideas they’ve discussed is to put a laptop on one side of the steering wheel and the finger scan system on the other.” The discussion revolves, not around rights, but around technical issues.

The institutions and interactions of society are slowly coming to resemble a prison yard.A key and defining feature of America’s prison system is that the people being processed through it have no rights whatsoever that the authorities feel required to consider. Prisoners are caged like animals, removed from familial and other free exchanges, strip-searched at a guard’s whim, beaten with no legal recourse, and forced into a de facto “slave” labor.

In goose step with law enforcement, society at large moves gradually toward the zero-tolerance mass-processing of people who have no rights the authorities need to recognize. Travelers are physically molested and interrogated before being given the privilege of using tickets they’ve paid for. Children attending government schools pursuant to mandatory-attendance laws are fingerprinted as a condition of receiving the schooling or school-bus rides for which their parents are heavily taxed.

In society at large, people are said to surrender their natural rights when they agree to use “services,” such as air travel. That is, when you buy a plane ticket, you are deemed to be giving permission to have your body and property rummaged, to have your privacy stripped away, and to face the prospect of being arrested for such trivial noncompliance as asking a question.

In vain, people argue that the air-travel “service” is a usurpation of the free market by a government monopoly that demands all providers comply with government security. The arguments fall on deaf ears, because the people to whom they are addressed are the civil equivalents of prison guards.

Agents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are there to herd and process potential criminals. Their job is to elicit obedience; they do not listen, and they do not care, because either of those responses would be antithetical to their job description. This is true of all the agents used to process masses of people, from sports fans to grade-school children.

The effect on the prison population, whether it lives behind gray walls or walks the streets, is predictable. We obey without question; it becomes so habitual that, at some point, questions do not come to mind. In a St. Louis Today article, columnist Bill McClellan describes vacationing with a friend on a “small motor boat from the Georgia-Florida state line to Miami. We traveled on the Intracoastal Waterway, which is, for the most part, a series of saltwater rivers.”

In no hurry, the men cruised below the speed limit. Nevertheless, as they passed Jacksonville, “a northbound boat turned on flashing blue lights and cut over toward” them. “A young man and young woman wearing FWC (Fish and Wildlife Commission) jackets politely informed us that we had been speeding. ‘Your bow was out of the water,’ the young man said.”

The authorities did a safety check on the boat, including asking whether they had life jackets; both men were wearing jackets at the time.

Then a boat with four U.S. Customs and Border agents joined the FWC boat. A new agent asked “Do you mind if we look through your bags?”

For a moment, McClellan thought of saying “Our bow was out of the water. That hardly qualifies as probable cause.” He decided to say nothing, however, because

were [I] to assert my rights as a citizen, I would be raising red flags. The agents would assume I had something to hide. Maybe we’d be asked to pull ashore until they got a drug-sniffing dog.… So I stood there, feeling uncomfortable about my decision to say nothing, as the agent went through my bag. He looked inside my dopp kit. He looked in the pockets of my bag. He was meticulous. He was looking, I suppose, for a joint or a small container of pot.

When McClellan and his friend discussed the incident later, his friend said “he had felt no hesitation when the agent had asked about searching our bags. He suggested that his attitude probably reflected the fact that he travels a bit and is accustomed to authorities pawing through his things.” And so, the friend had learned to obey without question. He played his role as a “good” member of prison-yard America. As a reward, he did not get strip-searched or sniffed by police dogs.

Pro-Orwell in Pursuit of a Buck

Any criticism of prison-yard America meets a standard counter-argument — namely, that the critic is being paranoid; the “objectionable” policies have nothing to do with a desire to violate rights or to impose social control: Fans are searched at sporting events in order to prevent lawsuits being brought by anyone who is subsequently harmed by smuggled weapons. Air travelers are molested for their own good because it makes the sky safer to fly. Children are fingerprinted to increase the attendance that brings in a set amount of federal funds per child in school; this is money that schools claim to desperately need in order to educate your children.

Who could object to preventing lawsuits, providing safety, and educating children?

I do. Even accepting the argument for an innocuous motive at face-value, there is never a proper reason to violate the basic rights of peaceful human beings. Indeed, the innocuous-motive argument is more pernicious than the arguments of people who are clear-cut about their desire to convert American society into a prison yard. At least with them, you are not self-righteously confronted with arguments like the “good of the children.”

There is nothing innocuous about putting a gun to someone’s head and demanding “your money and your rights.” It does not matter if the demand is rendered politely, as the FWC agents did with McClellan. The politeness only lulls you into believing that you are still in the presence of civil society — that you are still participating in a reasonable process. You are not. They are the ones with guns; you are the one with no rights.

In the short-term, and pragmatically, the safest way to escape the wrath of the state may be to act as either McClellan or his friend did. Either quash the impulse to stand on your rights, or become so accustomed to totalitarian treatment that objecting does not even occur to you. In the long-term, however, such psychological accommodation results in daily life becoming a prison routine. The long-term has arrived.

Fingerprinting children as the “price” of receiving an education or a bus ride is not innocuous. The state may need to intimidate adults into becoming de facto prisoners; but, with children, the state has an opportunity to instill at an early age the same habits adopted by McClellan’s well-traveled friend. Children grow up with an unthinking obedience to searches and fingerprinting. These impositions cease to be travesties and become simply how things are. And so a generation of prisoners are raised without so much as the memory of freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).