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May-07-2012 12:43printcomments

A Modest Proposal... America's Penal Problem and The Vatican Solution

Give a man a spade and he'll plant a seed. Give him a horse and plow, and he'll plant a crop. Give him a tractor and he'll drive to the nearest liquor store
- Ancient Peace Corps rubric.

Prison bars

(SASKATCHEWAN) - I'm not saying we're the worst people in the world, but it sure looks like we're the most judgmental. America has more people per capita in jail than any other country, 750 cons for every 100,000 of our population. Compare that with the Japanese, who are apparently the best people in the world – 75 out of 100,000 Japanese are incarcerated, which means they're ten times better than we are. That's in peacetime, of course. In wartime, the Japanese tend to get nasty, ignoring the Geneva Convention, that sort of thing.

Prisons in the United States are so overcrowded that it has become a major national problem, especially in California, where apparently everybody seems to imitate Schwartzenegger (I never could spell that) in his worst bad-guy movie roles. Many prisons in California are forced to turn old gymnasia and classrooms into huge bunkhouses for inmates. That automatically means no more P.T., and what's even worse, no more school, which is probably okay with the cons, but it's a disappointment to George Bush the Younger, who didn't want any kids or millionaires left behind, and that should apply equally to prisoners.

But it's serious that even California can't afford its prison system any more.

And recently a Supreme Court ruling established that prisons that receive federal funds can not deny prisoners the accommodations necessary for religious practice. And that gives me the germ of an idea. Hold onto that thought – linking cons with religious practices. It raises the possibility of a solution to California's problem, which I'll get back to in a moment.

Since we can't afford prisons any more, drastic measures are obviously necessary. On May 23 of last year, the Supreme Court also ruled that California must alleviate overcrowding in the state's prisons by reducing the prisoner population by 30,000 over the next two years. Now isn't that like a bunch of superannuated lawyers – in one shot they say California must create in effect more church space, and in the next breath they say, never mind, just get rid of 30,000 cons. The Court didn't specify exactly how, but apart from drowning them like a bunch of kittens, that means that California will have to let them go, which will probably mean even more future prisoners, even if they're more religious than before.

Being America, the next natural solution is to let free enterprise take over, which has been sort of dormant since Enron, the Bush tax-cuts and TARP. In recent years, there has been much debate (and some limited action) over privatizing prisons. It sounds good, except if the prison companies are compensated on a per capita basis, there would immediately be a gaggle of entrepreneurial CEO's rolling out (CEO's always talk like that) programs (1) maximizing market share by innovative growth strategies, (2) implementing catalysts, (3) stimulating the head-winds and footprints, (4) providing guidance vis-a-vis the top line and the bottom line, and all the other CNBC platitudes. Geez, we'd end up with penal institutions becoming growth industries with the result that we'd have even more cons than we have now.

So I've come up with the perfect solution, suggested by the religious note above. It solves the acute prison population problem (PPP), saves the Department of Corrections billions (in fact it makes the DoC irrelevant and obsolete) and it will make all of us feel warm and fuzzy because God through his earthly emissaries will be running our penal institutions, or what's left of them. (I haven't even mentioned that it will win in Congress and the Senate, since it cozies up to the Republican notion of less government and more unbridled greed, so they won't block it, even if Obama likes it.)

My modest proposal is simply this: let's do the ultimate privatization by turning the whole mess over to the Vatican.

Think about it for a minute: the problem is basically a financial one, and the Roman Catholic Church has proven its financial acumen for centuries, and they've got the Vatican Bank with zillions of lira to prove it. Spirituality should play a part, and the Church is the biggie in that department also. And they have branch offices by way of the arch-diocese locations already in place all over the country, just like an established franchise system, which could run the proposed program.

Here's the way it would work. The entire penal system would be turned over to the Vatican. Immediately, the Pope would issue a Papal Bull, which by definition has a similar effect to a bull market, that it's a huge money-maker. According to this bull, Crime would be universally downgraded into Sin. Actually, the Holy See has already seen this one, because they have already indicated that in the case of criminal priests, sin will do as a designation instead of crime, because sin was invented by the Church and they've got its care and treatment down to a science. So now, there would be no more crime to deal with. Every con would be classified on a Sin/Indulgence scale, whereby he/she would compensate the Vatican accordingly, be shriven on the spot and released. In the time it takes to administer this program, my guess is about six months, we'd have no more crime, no more cons, no more problem, and the Vatican Bank would have doubled its deposits.

The Canadian government has already done some basic research and in fact implementation in the field of compensating victims of church crime (read sin). The Canadian protocol is somewhat like the following scale for determining a Sin/Indulgence ratio. Naturally, it should be fine-tuned by the senior actuarial specialists in the Vatican who know better, from long experience.

Suggested Sin/Indulgence Matrix:

1. Serial rapists/murderers: Pay $500,000, say three Pater Nosters (PN), and one Hail Mary (HM).

2. Current lifers and other three-time losers: $100,000, two P.N., one HM.

3. Manslaughter, extortion, major B. & E.: $50,000, One P.N., bathe in holy water (HW).

4. Minor felonies (10 – 20 years): $25,000, make priest's car payments for 36 months (PCP).

There is one apparent fallacy in this system, in that most cons will be unable to raise the price of being sprung. This can easily be accomodated within a system whereby the Vatican Bank will set up a subsidiary bonding company, VatBancorp, S.A., which can easily underwrite the most stoney-broke inmate. The penalties listed above will be considered the equivalent of bond totals, with the top bond, for example, being purchasable on say a 1% basis by the prisoner or his next of kin, legal counsel or common-law cell-mate (CLCM) while in semi-solitary.

Along with being awarded the top bond, for example, for the flat fee of $5,000, the former major criminal will agree to lifetime membership in the Holy Roman Catholic Church, with all the future rights, privileges and overhead costs thereto appertaining.

It's a win-win situation, and I'm damn sure after six months there'll be no more crime, only self-liquidating Sin, and no prison problem. The more dynamic arch-dioceses may well consider converting all property, plant and equipment – for example at Dannemora, Sing-Sing and San Quentin – into churches, or in the better locations, cathedrals.

Japan, eat your heart out.

From American Logo by Bill Annett


Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

At 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber.

You can write to Bill Annett at this address:

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