Do Not Pass Go. Fork Over $200.

When you build a private industry around a public service, astoundingly bad ideas soon become the only ideas the market is capable of having. This is because public services are different from the kind of service given at a McDonalds’—or even from your local cable company. They are part of vital infrastructure, and a robust society can only be built on a foundation of free and democratic access to such services without fear of exploitation.

It might shock you to learn this post isn’t about health care. story is not about health care—it’s about prisons.

Debit cards are increasingly popular, so why shouldn’t jail inmates have them. How about a get-out-of-jail prepaid debit card when they’re set free?

They can. (Does this strike anyone else as kind of strange/funny?)

Strange, MSN Money? Yes. Funny? No.

The story is a further sign of how our society is now actively turning our prison facilities and inmates into a potential revenue stream. Incarceration and the actions of the justice system should be a public service. It should exist to see to it that justice (whenever possible) is done, and that those who can be rehabilitated get the help they need to re-integrate into society.

A system like this is full of flaws.

  • It builds a private, profit-based monopoly whose market is literally captive.
  • Being profit motivated, it is structured find ways (surcharges, service fees, etc) to leech money off of taxpayer funds, as well as from people who genuinely don’t need any more leeching done to them.
  • It further underscores the importance of a debit/credit card to a person’s identity in modern society. Now, when children who grew up using pretend credit cards get busted for any number of possible infractions, they can rest assured that they will have a debit card waiting for them, full of their sub-minimum wage earnings—minus the registration, monitoring, fraud protection, and transaction fees.

Perhaps worst of all is that the range of services offered includes a “self-serve kiosk” that permits you to pay bail with a credit card in the event that you’re arrested—or allows your friends and/or family to pay your bail “from the comfort of their own home.”

Streamlining processes and making them easier to handle quickly is a good thing, yes. But putting somebody in a situation where they can swipe their credit card or face a night in lock-up puts them in a situation that immediately drives them into debt. And bear in mind that bail is not always paid by the guilty, meaning anybody stopped by the police can find themselves relying on the Visa or Mastercard to get them out of a jam.

Worst of all about that idea, however, is the fact that it suggests a revolving-door approach to the justice system. Systems like this are only profitable when they have a high flow of customers. Putting in bail kiosks is a blatant expression that in the future, the justice system will be the major cash cow of Wall Street.

Ask yourself this: Do you want to drive—even at the speed limit—past a police officer whose district is controlled not by public service, but by private industry? Do you want to walk down a street patrolled by a police officer whose office can only turn a profit if he meets his daily quota? The profit motive has no place in our judicial system.

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