Politics & Other Mistakes: There’s a nicer word for that

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The Maine Department of Corrections has discovered a solution for all the state’s problems.

(Please note: This solution would only appear credible to very stupid people. Probably just a coincidence that the department tried it out on legislators.)

Al DiamonFor many months, prison-reform advocates have been calling for an end to solitary confinement. In February, the Legislature’s Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety heard hours of testimony about how this practice has been abused, causing mental and physical harm to inmates whose behavior didn’t appear to merit such treatment. A series of stories in the Bangor Daily News detailed one particularly egregious case of using the practice to sadistic excess.

So, you can imagine how surprised committee members were when Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty (repeat winner of the ironic last name award) told them his department “does not currently use the practice of solitary confinement.”

Legislators – who had just heard horror stories from dozens of people, many with recent, first-hand experiences with solitary – expressed a bit of skepticism, but Liberty was quick to double down on his claim. “No one’s trying to be deceptive,” he insisted. “No one’s trying to shell-game anything.”

In reality, someone is trying to be deceptive. As public criticism of the practice of solitary confinement as cruel and unnecessary punishment persisted, department leaders decided to do something about it.

They changed its name.

At the Maine State Prison, what was once called solitary is now termed “administrative control.” At the Maine Correctional Facility, they call it “segregation.” And at the fancifully named Long Creek Youth Development Center (much nicer than calling it reform school), it’s politely referred to as “room confinement.”

All of these newly christened practices differ from solitary in ways that no one who isn’t employed by the Department of Corrections could discern. But Liberty maintained these nominal upgrades bear no relation to solitary. “We walked away from that a long time ago,” he said.

This sort of creative problem solving shouldn’t be confined to improving our prisons. The rest of state government could benefit from innovative efforts to willfully refuse to actually address serious problems.

Take, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services, which has been plagued by reports that it repeatedly failed to protect abused children to the point where several of them ended up dead.

Such an ugly word, “dead.” Puts everyone involved in a bad light. It would be so much nicer if those kids were henceforth considered enrolled in “Permanent Day (and Night) Care.”

The Department of Labor could avoid lots of hassles if its phone system dealt with all calls about unemployment compensation checks that never arrived by advising angry callers to “Press 1 to Blame the Postal Service” or “Press 2 to Blame the Internet.”

At the Department of Education, controversies over mask mandates could be blunted if everyone just pretended “Every Day is Halloween.” Teaching critical race theory would be far more acceptable if schools featured a video of Johnny Knoxville explaining why “White Guys Have Always Been Jackasses.”

The office of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills is already employing this diverting practice by answering all criticisms with a press release that reads, “I’m sending everybody a check for 500 bucks, so whatever your problem is, suck it up.”

One more note on prisons: Reformers are now calling for correctional systems to eliminate such prejudicial terms as “inmate,” “convict,” and “prisoner” and replace them with “resident.”

It’s not just bureaucrats who practice primitive word magic.

P.J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022

From the introduction to O’Rourke’s 1987 book “Republican Party Reptile” comes this bit of wisdom that has long inspired me:

“People who worry themselves sick over sexism in language and think the government sneaks into their houses at night and puts atomic waste in the kitchen dispose-all cannot be expected to have a sense of humor. And they don’t. Radicals and liberals and such want all jokes to have a ‘meaning,’ to ‘make a point.’ But laughter is involuntary and points are not.”

Rest in peace, Reptile.

Got a good word for me? Email it to [email protected].