Wealth without work

Sept. 28-Oct.4, 2006
Wealth without work
By Frank Woolever/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) SUN illustraion
Prison work mirrors aspects of labor outside the walls

Daniel, an inmate at the Canaan Federal prison camp, was an exceptionally hard worker. His knowledge of landscaping, together with his initiative in suggesting projects for the prison grounds gave him recognition even up to the level of the prison warden. Still, he was receiving only a small hourly wage. Most of the inmates working in the landscaping detail were receiving 12 cents an hour, and I have no reason to doubt that it was his pay also.

On the outside this middle aged Midwestern male was a stockbroker. As an individual “day trader,” he did fine. However, when others asked him to handle their portfolios, he got into trouble. When one person requested his money back on short notice, he wasn’t able to produce it. While the judge sympathized with him, the sentence he imposed did not reflect this empathy. Instead of making a great amount of money on a daily, weekly, monthly basis, he was now working hard for virtual “peanuts.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of accumulating wealth without working for it might apply to certain individuals in the financial world, especially to those CEOs who are amassing large amounts of bonus money, in addition to their incredible salaries, without laboring for it. It did not apply to Daniel, nor to inmates in our correctional system of justice. Yet, many of them are knowledgeable of how Gandhi’s first principle affects their lives and the lives of their families. They are acutely aware of the tax cuts, favoring the upper class in our society. Contrasted with the immense wealth of a certain small percentage of society is the utter poverty of a sizable portion of citizens, including many in this prison camp. They are aware of our national wealth even though considerably diminished by the current preemptive war. They are aware of how many corporations grow rich because of war. At the same time they recognize that often meaningful hard work, including their own, receives little more than a pittance.

My salary working a landscape job was like many other inmates at 12 cents an hour. On my first work statement presented for my signature, I was told that I had worked 117 hours, which according to my calculations came to $14.04. It was then applied to my commissary/telephone fund. In my case the money meant very little. That was not the case for many of the inmates who had so little of their own. In addition, it seemed too bad that inmates were not able to send some financial support home to their families.

One of the books that I was reading while incarcerated quoted Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, on the question of how the greed of large corporations could exploit the poor, less educated societies. His response was that it has to do with the act of consuming. “To me, practicing mindfulness in the act of consuming is the basic act of social justice.” His message seems to be that as we become more thoughtful about what we consume, perhaps corporations will, in turn, become more socially aware. Perhaps!

Mindfulness in the act of consuming! Indeed, there was little of that mindfulness in the prison setting. My own observation of the waste of food both by the food service and the inmates themselves, the lack of any recycling or composting, the absence of any farm or vegetable gardens with so much land and labor available, caused me to protest to the administration within the first few weeks of my incarceration.

There were other environmental concerns, also. When I was assigned to landscaping, I learned from other inmates of the tremendous waste even in that department, which purchased far more equipment than was needed. For example, there were over 25 weed-whackers at $300 apiece available. This number was far more than could be used at one time. Likewise the prison acquired six additional new Chevrolet pick-up trucks at a time when that company was hurting, plus all types of mowing and earth digging equipment and a huge supply of tires. Inmates were aware and knowledgeable about the excess dollars spent for all these vehicles and equipment.

Gandhi envisioned this prime principle of wealth without work as an underlying cause of violence in a society. Indeed, he thought this to be the case with each of his seven principles. Even without making much money, in prison there was a sense that work, when well done and appreciated, was its own reward. Daniel was a consistent model of that ethic. The same could be said of mindfulness in the act of consuming, the point made by Thich Nhat Hahn. By being careful, thoughtful consumers, we gain a sense of satisfaction and reward in that personal action. Still the temptation to seek lots of wealth on the outside after prison or to accumulate lots of material things is modeled quite constantly in our culture. That helps to explain the amount of violence that flairs up in cities and villages outside of prison walls, and sometimes within, although it was not evident in this prison camp.

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