Prisoner's Dilemma: Should a Chicago Alderman Relish His Opposition to Felony Franks?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Marilia Duffles Writer, The Economist, Financial Times, and The American Spectator

Leave it to a Wall Street Journal story this week about a Chicago alderman's opposition to Jimmy Andrews' Felony Franks -- a hot dog joint that hires felons and sports a logo of hot dogs behind bars, the object of the alleged objection -- to get my buns in gear and let the benighted in on a well kept secret. I am hoping Mr. Alderman himself will see the light.

But first, some background on a dark subject.

At a ceremony in an open airport hangar recently, I noticed the federal penitentiary was a carry-on's throw away. Those thin vertical slits like strips of duct tape on a building -- a prisoner's only windows to the world -- were directly in eyeshot of festivities and the platform where dignitaries gave speeches.

The second I realized this happy accident, I mentioned to someone I was talking to that it's nice to know that at least these prisoners have something to look at. "No, they deserve to suffer," he retorted.

Last year, at a black-tie dinner in New York City, I sat next to someone who dripped with disdain at the suggestion that perhaps empty airplanes -- of airlines or aircraft manufacturers -- could also be enlisted for the charitable transportation of the families of prisoners who live in other states as is done for gravely ill children and their parents who are unable to afford flights to faraway hospitals. A significant number of prisoners don't serve time in their own state but rather in out-of-state federal prisons determined by an insensitive Uncle Sam. A severe hardship for these unfortunate souls whose only solace is seeing their families who typically tend to fall on the lower rung of the economic scale and can't afford air travel.

With messages embodied in measures like the "three strikes and you're out" sentencing guidelines cloaked in the white veil of wise policy, I can't say people are entirely to blame. And I could go on with other anecdotes but, 'nuf said.

Sadly, most people do feel that hard-core criminals are evil by nature. As if good and evil are the two opposing forces acting as gears in our brain that turn us into either good or bad boys and girls.

Let me be clear here, I'm not talking about the Bernie Madoffs of the world. And lest the hordes come commenting with condemnation: Yes, I agree that people who harm others and society as a whole should be removed from society and those who cannot be rehabilitated should be incarcerated forever, like Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson.

Just as I explained to the guy at the airport event, we all come into this world as sweet and innocent little creatures. Have you ever held a baby? They know nothing. That precious mass inside their soft little skulls is more or less a tabula rasa, wiring itself according to genetically best-laid plans -- nature -- that often go awry. This is even before nurture has a go at shaping the brain.

Nature and nurture. The crux of the brain matter that blows away the ill-conceived notion of good versus evil ... and also the backbone of the seminal work of Jonathan Pincus, a practicing neurologist and professor in Washington, D.C.

Several years ago, I was permitted to attend his grand-rounds at Lorton, a former federal penitentiary in Virginia. It was excruciating to watch him -- with hallmark compassionate insight -- neurologically examine an attractive young black prisoner who committed violent acts. He didn't pass with flying colors, and he spoke of his childhood. Severe beatings with a broom, heinous sexual abuse, and other assorted horrors not fit for gentle readers.

But, please, allow your mind to take you to a similarly hellish abyss -- say, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, whose main character Kurtz was modeled after the monstrous Belgian King Leopold -- the terrifying likes of which you can also get a gruesome glimpse of in Frederick Douglass' diary of his slave days. All so mind-bogglingly cruel that one can only hope these humans went into shock in order to numb and insulate them somehow.

I suspect most did. And many died. But going into shock doesn't override excruciating physical pain. And neither, much less and in point of fact, does it immunize a human against the subsequently haunting mental pain and the concomitant destruction of the mind.

Indeed, this is "the horror that so deformed the inner man," as Dr. Pincus states in Base Instincts, a book he wrote that posits a theory most faithful to medical science as to why people commit violent crimes. It's based on his examinations of hundreds of serial killers and violent criminals that reveal a common confluence of three etiological factors that befall these unfortunate souls: neurological damage to the brain, abuse during childhood and mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia, depression and so on).

It's neither nature nor nurture but both. The luck of the genetic draw and the luck of the roulette wheel called life. More to the point, it's neither evil nor good.

For African-Americans, who not coincidentally represent the highest number of those behind bars in the United States, the serially inherited baggage from the days of Frederick Douglass also figures in as nurture in perpetuity. You need look no further than the fact that black male slaves also suffered humiliation at the hands of their white masters -- and before the very eyes of their family -- so crushing it stripped them of the dignity they held not just as humans but as family providers.

Those who've managed to overcome this luckily encountered a gentler roulette wheel -- and/or a more favorable roll of the genetic dice -- are generally gainfully employed and able to forge a happy family life. The black fathers or husbands who can't support their family and who wreak a disastrous life were unable to unload this heavy baggage becoming stuck on a conveyor belt of unemployment, drug abuse, poverty, crime and, case in point, incarceration.

Now back to Chicago where the acting out of this very same psychosocial baggage was illustrated as recently as the fatal beating of the 16-year-old Derrion Albert. An endemic problem that should have benefited from Pincus' research long before Obama and the secretary of education started scrambling for a solution in recent weeks. A preventive measure is required here -- enlightened rehabilitation that takes Pincus's work into account -- that lightens the baggage before it becomes too heavy for the individual or society to carry.

Which brings me back to the beginning. Why is a politician interfering with Jimmy Andrews' efforts to extend a helping hand to society? I called him today and asked him why he happens to be thus enlightened. What makes him see the link? Sporting that dual-toned voice expressing the kindness of heart and hardness of spirit required to simultaneously touch lives and fight city hall, he said: "I've been in business all my life and hired many guys who disappeared on the job with my delivery trucks to be discovered days later high as a kite."

Some committed other crimes, too, and some received rehabilitation. Jimmy hired them back; a few have been with him for as long as 8.5 years and one is today a manager and owner of his condo. You know, a productive member of the economy, an upstanding citizen of his world. These people would otherwise be behind bars but for the rehabilitative opportunity someone's hellacious humanity has given them.

The sort that Douglass no doubt felt when in 1893 the Haitian government appointed him as their delegate to none other than ... The Chicago's World Fair. Are you taking note, Chicago pols? Then please keep reading: Not surprising that roughly 75% of those applying for a job at Felony Franks are black. This is not just a reflection of the fact that 1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent) are in prison but that it is almost impossible for a felon to be hired.

You'd think an alderman would be understanding. According to Wikipedia, "between 1974 and 2009, a total of 30 Chicago aldermen have been indicted and convicted of federal crimes such as bribery, extortion, embezzlement, mail fraud and income tax evasion."

To paraphrase another Chicagoan, President Obama said during his campaign: Our country needs to get creative, we need to create not just fill jobs for people.

So, I say to Bob Fioretti and the hordes of others pols and non pols who've roared their unenlightened outrage: Get with the non-government program. Those cute little hot dogs behind bars represent jobs. Jobs created not by local, state or federal government but by one Jimmy Andrews. And they're certainly easier on the eyes than the symbolic-of-social-ills graffiti that no doubt featured on the blighted dump that Jimmy transformed into this enterprized zone.

As only Jimmy could state with conviction: "Better the hot dogs than real people behind bars".