Monday, May 3, 2010

Garnish and Pay for Stay

Today I wrote a Web page on wage garnishment for a law firm's website, and as part of my preparation I looked up the word "garnishment" in Black's Law Dictionary.

Black's is the old standard bearer among legal dictionaries, a stuffed repository of long-established information about what lawyers call "black letter law" - i.e., statements so widely held that they are as settled as such things can ever be.

As my eyes scanned quickly down the page looking for "garnishment," I happened to read the first entry for "garnish" on the way, Quite to my surprise, it was a criminal, not civil, usage of the word. According to Black's, in English law, garnish is "money paid by a prisoner to his fellow-prisoners on his entrance into prison."

Paid to fellow prisoners, not the state? Or to private contractors hired by the state? Or to one of the state's subdivisions, such as a county?

No, the definition says the money is paid to fellow prisoners!

Superficially, this sounds somewhat like modern notions of "pay for stay," under which some jurisdictions seek to charge prisoners a certain dollar amount per day for jail stays. But the state or one of its subdivisions assesses and handles that money, not other inmates.

What archaic conception of the circumstances of incarceration lurks here, embedded in the definition of the word "garnish"?

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