The Lite Side

Judge Uses Dell Model for Sentencing

- 2003.01.21

An innovative approach to sentencing has led to charges of cruel and unusual punishment in the small manufacturing town in Sandusky, Ohio. Municipal court judge Harvey Birnbaust has been sentencing criminals convicted of various misdemeanors to sentences involving the repair and refurbishment of late model Dell computers.

"I figure if Dell can use prison labor to disassemble old computers, I can use prison labor to refurbish them," said Birnbaust in a recent interview. The judge even has a penalty schedule worked out: Spraying graffiti is punished by having to sign up for Passport services using false identities - each and every time you're asked - during an install of Windows XP. Stealing a car buys you the opportunity to upgrade a Windows-98 equipped Dell Inspiration to Windows XP Home Edition - after installing and removing Windows Me.

"You have to retain all of the bookmarks and documents or the deal's off," joked Birnbaust in a recent interview. "Wiping the drive adds to your sentence."

Chances are the judge isn't laughing now - he's too busy defending himself from charges of cruel and unusual punishment brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We consider the penalties he's assigned far beyond the definition of cruel and unusual punishment," stated Larby Neufeld of the ACLU. "For instance, no one would say you could punish a prisoner by shoving burning wood splints under their fingernails, and I'm sure we'd all agree that wrestling with multiple installs of Windows is more painful than that."

For his part, the judge is not worried about the legal challenges. He points out that several of his sentences have led to gainful employment for the convicted. When asked for examples, he directed us to the 800 number for Dell support.

Calls to Dell support could not be completed until we purchased a brand new Dell Confabulation and returned it for repair.

According to "Monty" (name changed to protect privacy), many Dell employees object to the use of prison labor. "We work hard to keep these jobs, and he [Dell CEO Michael Dell] just gives our work to the prisoners. Between you and me," he confided, "we're considerin' forming a union to represent the fair treatment of our oppressed prison brother workers. If you know what I mean."

None of this seems to deter Dell from pursuing every savings it can to undercut the competition.

The next step beyond low-cost prison labor is "negative cost" student labor. "Negative cost student labor is where schools pay for the privilege of repairing old computers as a training exercise," according to Neufeld. "Instead of paying $1 per computer to get it disassembled, Dell will now make $25 each time one of its computers is repaired. If we could charge the schools shipping to participate, we would. As it is, though, they're just breaking even."

"Now that's clever," says Birnbaust. "Wish I'd thought of that for our payment of court-appointed attorneys."

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