I read Holes recently, by Louis Sachar. It’s a classic book for teens, about a boy who is sentenced to a juvenile prison camp in Texas for apparently stealing a pair of sneakers. It turns out the camp is a scam; the overseer has a deal going with the local judge who sends her what is essentially free child labour, which she sets to work digging holes in the hope of uncovering buried treasure.
It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, based round a brilliant conceit.
And then I read this. Over the past seven years, children in Pennsylvania (USA) have been sentenced to terms in a juvenile detention centre for such heinous crimes as throwing a sandal or setting up a spoof MySpace page. It now looks like two local judges had a deal going with the co-owner of the private centre, who gave them $2.6 million in return for sentencing children the centre was then paid to detain.
The judges call that $2.6 million a ‘finder’s fee’.
Had these people read Holes? How did they get away with their deal for so long – didn’t any parents of the kids object? Didn’t anyone wonder why the judge’s rate of custodial sentencing went up from 4.5 to 26 percent right round the time the detention centre started operating? I find it hard to be even properly outraged at this story because I’m just so utterly gob-smacked.
I shouldn’t be, I know. Quite apart from the old truism about life imitating fiction, there’s that other truism that people will always exploit a system and exploit those least able to protect themselves – in this case, children.
There are many serious conclusions to be drawn here. No penal system should be so intent on locking up its citizens (and overwhelmingly citizens from marginalised social groups) that the manifestly disproportionate sentences in Pennsylvania could actually go unnoticed or be deemed acceptable. And no penal system, in particular one so oriented towards custodial sentencing, should be run for profit.
I don’t know where Louis Sachar got the idea for Holes from, but he turned it into a fabulous piece of entertainment that also has a lot of serious things to say about courage, loyalty, determination, and right finally winning out over wrong.
The judges and detention centre co-owner in Pennsylvania got a similar idea. But – if the allegations are true – they turned it into a scam which (although admittedly almost entertaining in its dreadful way) has things to say only about how ingeniously selfish some people can be, and how flawed the systems that let them get away with it.