Everyone should spend time behind bars – if only to appreciate their freedom
Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30
Having done time behind bars last year on account of Owen Keegan's nasty and disastrous parking regime while county manager in Dun Laoghaire, I've had a special interest in the Garth Brooks affair: working out how much Mr Keegan and his planning department has now cost the city of Dublin.
The more temperate estimates appear to be around €50m.
On a related topic, I can't help feel that on account of my modest campaign to highlight the absurdity of jailing people for being caught in a queue in the post office, I should take some of the credit for the fact that the numbers of people sent to prison for non-payment of court-ordered fines has been decreasing. Last weekend just five people were banged up under this heading, a significant decrease on a year ago.
I did my stir in Wheatfield last September for refusing to pay a parking fine (with expenses, €145) I'd picked up in Dun Laoghaire three years earlier. A warden loitered near my car until the meter clicked past the grace period, then slapped a ticket on my windscreen. I came around the corner one minute later and a man in the vicinity told me the warden had just scuttled up a nearby laneway.
I made my stand on principle, for several reasons: my unpaid extra minute cost the council approximately three cents, which I was quite prepared to pay, but Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council declines to make provision for retrospective payment of parking charges; the meters are invariably all out of sync, so it's impossible for wardens to be so precise; nobody should be fined because they've been delayed. Et cetera.
I spent about 90 minutes behind bars along with two lads in for drunk and disorderly – banged up in a cell about the size of a bus shelter, with bars at the front like in the movies.
We had a few laughs but not enough to allow me overlook that, for the first time in my life, I was in a locked room for which another man had the key.
The drive up in the squad car had been pleasant enough. The arresting garda told me about his night classes in theology as though we were sitting together by accident on an aeroplane. He confided that he could handcuff me if he wanted but he trusted me not to make a run for it. The officers who processed me in Wheatfield were polite and matter-of-fact. All in all, I had an interesting day out, and provoked an avalanche of publicity for the campaign to save Dun Laoghaire from the lethal clutches of its local authority.
I got a call recently from a friend asking if I'd advise his girlfriend who'd ignored a few hundred euro worth of parking fines and now faced seven days in default unless she paid up. I gave her both sides: on the one hand she was likely to be released in a few hours and would save herself the guts of a grand; on the other, it's not a small thing to be locked up – there's a certain psychic outlay in finding yourself a prisoner of the State. I sent her an article I'd written in which I described being weighed, measured, having my mugshot taken. For her, the mugshot swung it – she decided to pay up.
Being imprisoned for non-payment of a parking fine involves no other legal consequences. I was told numerous times by amateur advisers that if I went to jail I'd never be allowed into the US again. I've been there twice since my day in Wheatfield and nobody ever mentioned it.
But there's something about being processed in a prison that alters your sense of your relationship with the State. It makes you aware that the everyday freedoms you take for granted are circumscribed by a potential for compulsion and force – allegedly in the name of your fellow citizen. What did it for me was observing one of the wardens going through my overnight bag and flicking through a book I'd brought along. I watched him open the book and take out and read my arrest warrant, which I'd folded and put inside as a bookmark. I understood that he would have the right to read it even if it was a love letter. I was, at that moment, a man without prerogatives, with what I'd assumed to be freedoms exposed as mere concessions from my fellow citizens.
Going to jail is something I believe every citizen should do at least once in a lifetime, if only to obtain a perspective on the full scope of what being a citizen entails. Falling foul of state stupidity and unreason can be a badge of honour, if only in your own eyes. But most of all I feel that the experience gave myself the full run of my citizenship: I know now where my liberty begins and ends.
As for Mr Keegan, let me see. For the purposes of the calculation, let's vacate the argument concerning the three cents, and go instead with the bigger figure of €145, which has me spending one hour in jail for every €100 I denied the public purse. Approaching the Garth Brooks deficit in the same spirit means that, let's see . . . €50m divided by 100 is 500,000 (hours) . . . divided by 24 is 20,000-odd days . . . divided by 365 is . . . ok – rounded down for good behaviour – 57 years!