Short Story: “Prison Break”

How would you go about imprisoning a corporation? (This sequence started in the story, “Logical Conclusion“)

“Prison Break”
Part 3 of a series
by P. Orin Zack
(9/6/2007)

Edward Reese was livid. “What do you mean, I can’t replace Barney? He was the one responsible for the company’s grand theft conviction!”

Claire Fuller looked pained at the overweight 62-year-old CEO’s protestations. “I’m sorry, Mr. Reese, but locking in your executive staff for the next three years is one of the terms of Fremont-Wayfarer’s sentence. As the company’s parole officer, I’m responsible for seeing that all of the conditions levied by the court are met. No exceptions.”

The lodging and food services conglomerate’s high-profile trial had broken new ground in jurisprudence, and its behavior under the terms directed by Judge Clary was being given a great deal of press coverage. Ever since the Supreme Court confirmed the conferral of complete citizenship to corporations in the SandHill Realty decision, both the popular press and the blogosphere were heady with this new way to reign in corporate greed. This was the test case, the first imprisonment of a legal fiction.

“It’s just not fair. A corporation exists to make a profit. How can we do that if we’re hamstrung with all of these requirements? Forced unionization? What gives the court the right to–.”

“What gives the court the right?” A serious-looking man in work clothes stood astride the conference room’s open doorway. “What gave you and your fellow slime the right to steal money from your own employees?” He glanced away in disgust. Then more calmly, he added, “Good afternoon, Ms. Fuller,” before taking a seat at the long table.

Reese shook his head indignantly. “Who is that, and what is he doing at a meeting of the Board of Directors?”

She stepped to the table. “This is Alizondo Klee, Mr. Reese. He’s here to represent the people who work for your travesty of a corporation.”

Klee smiled. “Have you ever actually spoken to any of the thousands of men and women who’s honest sweat in the farms, processing plants, restaurants and motels pads your wallet? It’s easy to ignore people without a voice, without a seat at the table, isn’t it, Mr. Reese? So, on behalf of all of those people – on behalf of Fremont-Wayfarer’s newly unionized workforce – I thank you for running this business so dishonestly that the court saw fit to give us that voice, and this seat at your table.”

Reese winced at the man’s proffered hand, but did not shake it. While he walked to the far side of the table and took a seat, two other people entered, both of whom he knew.

One was Nestor Bouvior, a long time friend and golfing buddy, whose real estate empire made getting prime real estate for motels that much easier. He was also the Chairman of the Board of Directors, or was, until Judge Clary reformulated it. Now, he was just there for continuity, and to answer probing questions.

The last to enter was Norman Wells, and although his official capacity with the Securities and Exchange Commission normally limited him to matters of stock issuance and so forth, under the court’s direction, he also represented the interests of any other oversight bodies that affected the operation of the conglomerate. Reese was not especially pleased to have him here, because Claire Fuller was the acting Chair, which meant he had no discretion to look the other way. Then again, maybe this was how he was being punished for enabling the executives of Fremont-Wayfarer to steal all that money from the employees’ self-insurance fund.

“Since everyone is here,” Fuller said from her seat at the head of the table, “I’ll call the meeting to order. Mr. Reese, I understand you have a proposal for the Board to consider.”

He glanced nervously at Klee, then composed himself. “I’m sure you can all understand the position this sentence places the business in. Our reputation, such as it was, has been tarnished by all of the press coverage. The vacancy rate at our hotels and motels has skyrocketed, and even the people who do choose to stay in our rooms have been eating elsewhere. We’re bleeding red ink.”

Bouvior nodded. “I know you well enough by now, Edward, to see where this is going. Only you’re not permitted to introduce new products for three years. That must mean you’ve come up with a work-around.”

Claire Fuller’s eyebrows rose. “What is your solution to this situation, then, Mr. Reese?”

The embattled CEO stood up, and slowly paced. “According to my legal department, the prohibition against introducing new products must be interpreted according to what a business does. Am I correct in this?”

Fuller nodded. “You are.”

“Good. What Fremont-Wayfarer offers to the public are lodging and meals. We accept that we cannot rename our inns or restaurants, and we cannot open new chains, either. But we should be able to change our image. After all, the business does suffer from a bit of an image problem at present. Am I still within the rules?”

“Go on.”

He grinned. “So here’s what we would like to do. We find that we are in a unique position, as the first, and so far, the only corporation to be convicted and given the equivalent of a prison sentence.”

She looked doubtful. “It’s more like probation.”

“Regardless. Well, as the old saying goes, if the world hands you lemons, make lemonade. So we intend to turn our corporate incarceration into a selling point. In fact, we’re even willing to run public service announcements, explaining what a corporate sentence is all about.”

Klee frowned. “Spare us the sales pitch. How would you implement this?”

“In a number of ways. The concept is to make coming to our restaurant like visiting a dear friend or relative who has been unfairly convicted and sentenced to a term in prison. We would redecorate the facilities, have new menus printed up, and issue new uniforms to the staff.”

“New uniforms? How exactly would you be dressing your employees?”

“Just as you might expect them to be. The wait-staff would have orange jumpsuits, management would be dressed like guards, and kitchen help would get prison service staff outfits. Think Disneyland for cons.”

Klee gaped. “Disneyland for cons? You expect your company’s employees, free citizens of this country, to dress up as convicts? Are you crazy? They’ll never put up with that.”

He shrugged. “If we do nothing, we’d have to close the stores. Then they could dress any way they want on the unemployment lines. It’s your choice, really.”

“As the worker’s union representative on this board, I am telling you right now that what you have suggested would not be accepted willingly. If you go through with this, over our objections, you will most likely be facing a strike vote. In your current situation, I do not think that would be conducive to any sort of positive press coverage.”

Reese glared at him menacingly.

“Of course, this is just an advisory opinion,” Klee added. “You do not have to abide by it, any more than citizens wearing those orange jumpsuits in a real prison have to abide by the rules. In both cases, however, there are consequences.”

Nestor Bouvior cleared his throat. “May I intercede?”

Fuller nodded.

“As the former chairman of the board, I have helped Mr. Reese guide his company through heavy waters before. Admittedly, not all of that guidance would pass muster in the current political environment. But, in retrospect, I believe that most of the proposals which the CEO has brought to our attention worked out handsomely, even those which, at first, seemed to go against good judgment, or in one case, even common sense.”

Reese stiffened.

“That being said, I do think that his scheme has merit. In fact, I can even imagine getting positive publicity from the threat of strikes, because it would demonstrate that the voice of the workers was, in fact, being heard, and that the behavior of Fremont-Wayfarer was being actively monitored.”

Parole Officer Fuller shook her head in disbelief. “I think I understand now how this company fell into such dire straits. Twisted logic like that is an occupational hazard in my line of work, but I am appalled at the mendacity implicit in your thinking.” She took a few calming breaths. “Mr. Klee, please bring this proposal before the union. I want this plan to be understood by the rank and file before any decision is made. That way, even if it is withdrawn, they will have a better idea of what they should expect from management.”

Klee nodded. “Of course.”

Reese smiled. “At least you’re willing to consider it. Good. If we proceed with this plan, we can also see about re-dressing the hotels and motels in keeping with the theme.”

Norman Wells, who had watched quietly to this point, clapped his palms on the table. “If you do, there are some other considerations which must also be considered. Not the least of them being the issue of appropriating the distinctive uniforms designed for the prison system. Having people dressed as prisoners is one thing, but managers in guard uniforms can be interpreted as impersonating a government employee.”

“All right,” Reese accepted grudgingly. “Then we can create our own uniforms. As long as the idea gets across, it would still work.”

“You can also save some time and money in redoing the motels.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I had the misfortune to have stayed at one when my car broke down. Charming rooms. Real homey, in fact, if your idea of home is a prison cell.”

THE END

[Afterward: the story continued in “Turnabout“.]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack

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