“What dark chapters from real life could be dragged up from the records of the prison! What romantic histories have ingloriously closed there! What vain repentances, made too late, what shame, what sorrow, what vain regret! No dark shadow that can be cast on life would be lacking.”
—“Number 1500,” from Life in Sing Sing by Number 1500 (1904)
I went to jail for the first time when I was eight years old. Not that I was some sort of turbo-charged Dennis the Menace or anything: My mom simply escorted my brothers and me to an “open house” at our neighborhood police station when I was that age back in 1968. The officer in charge led us through the entire booking process (it took a week for the fingerprinting ink to wash off) and capped the tour by locking us inside an empty holding cell. I was small, so the barred room seemed spacious enough, but the anxiety I felt when our guide briefly left us behind was far more indelible than any ink. If his mildly sadistic intention was to frighten me out of ever landing in that cell for real, it worked.
Such dubious police p.r. tactics seem unlikely today, when anything short of a surreptitiously videotaped beatdown is considered effective community relations. I’d also like to think that the culturally debilitating reliance on incarceration that’s come to characterize our society in the intervening years has made the prospect of locking people up as a lark that much more distasteful, but all evidence suggests otherwise. Americans seem more receptive than ever to the entertainment value of prison.
Direct experience with a jail cell is hardly a necessity at this point anyway. Through sheer force of repetition, the books, movies, and television shows that use prison as their milieu (if not their subject) have made the reading and viewing public intimately familiar with the conditions of imprisonment. In a singular feat of imaginative engineering, these works have given even those of us with a remote chance of serving time an active set of preconceptions about life behind bars.
This pop-cultural saturation raises any number of philosophical issues. Does the appeal of prison lore lie in its power to illuminate the more disquieting aspects of our penal system that would otherwise remain hidden? Perhaps it’s more that we require a complex metaphorical framework to better understand the nature of freedom—or, worse, that popular depictions of prison furnish a safe, convenient means of participating in that age-old human pastime of watching desperate people tear each other to pieces. Or maybe it’s simply an elaborate way of telling ourselves: There but for the grace of God and the criminal justice system go I. It’s revealing that the medium-hopping prison meta-genre addresses all these impulses and more. There are plenty of people for whom the idea of incarceration as a spectator event holds no appeal whatsoever, of course, not least those for whom the prospect of doing real time is a daily concern. (More about them later.) Fortunately, for those folks there’s a rich vein of prison literature designed to serve a higher purpose. Much of it falls into the illumination category mentioned above, and all but the most exploitative pulp fiction—increasingly a thing of the past—engages to some degree in education, if not outright moral instruction.
This strain of pen lit is at least as old as Plato and at least as new as two books published this year: Bandits & Bibles: Convict Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (Akashic Books), a collection of first-person narratives from various rogues and reformers compiled by criminal justice professor Larry E. Sullivan; and Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (Routledge), a lively example of the socio-political exposé common to the genre, edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright. These are but two of the most recent examples; others include Inner Lives (New York University Press), a batch of profiles of African American women convicts by law professor Paula C. Johnson published this April, and Ted Conover’s Pulitzer finalist Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House), a brooding memoir of the journalist author’s stint as a corrections officer in New York’s storied slammer.
Sullivan, a passionate historian of the prison reform movement with a refreshingly no-bullshit prose style, provides a useful context for nonfiction prison literature in his introduction to Bandits & Bibles. Such works have existed in the United States, he notes, since the turn of the eighteenth century—virtually from the country’s inception. With a few exceptions, these early writings were the work of literate but otherwise unremarkable convicts “who [felt] a need to pass the time or to express themselves” and “live in letters and escape from the obscurity to which the law had condemned [them].” Consequently, many of the works excerpted in Bandits & Bibles possess a punk bravado that remains a staple of convict lit well into the present day (Cf. 1993’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, in which reformed O. G. Sanyika Shakur describes his erstwhile thuggish ways and stretch in maximum security with obvious relish, if not teary nostalgia).
What enables these convict authors to transcend dull braggadocio is their skill at bringing penitentiary “culture shock”—as Sullivan puts it—to vivid life. These men (for there are no women writers in Bandits & Bibles; Judith A. Scheffler’s Wall Tappings, a 2002 anthology of women convict writings dating back to the second century A.D., is a relevant corrective) exhibit keen observational skills, an often surprising capacity for loyalty and compassion, and something present-day convicts are rarely given credit for possessing, let alone the opportunity to express: a poignant self-awareness.
Even a truculent blowhard like W.A. Coffey, a lawyer and convict whose 1823 book Inside Out; or An Interior View of the New York State Prison is full of misanthropic estimations of his fellow inmates, reveals an understanding of their motivations that would do Freud proud:
The precepts of morality graduate, greatly, according to the contraction or expansion of the human mind. Thus, you see a man whose uncultivated mind, in his infantile years, was familiar with scenes of depravity and wickedness, viewing their subsequent repetition, with neither astonishment nor horror.
Jerry McCauley, the author and eponymous robber of Transformed; or, The History of a River Thief, Briefly Told (1876), displays a critic’s acumen rather than an amateur psychoanalyst’s diagnostic skill in his reflection upon entering the gates of Sing Sing: “… the first thing that attracted my attention was the sentence over the door: ‘The way of transgressors is hard.’… It is a well-worn proverb in all the haunts of vice, and one confirmed by daily experience. And how strange it is that, knowing so well that the way is hard, the transgressors will still go in it.” (Too bad some forward-thinking judge didn’t assign McCauley a think piece instead of hard labor.) But perhaps the most poetic and bracingly insightful of the prisoner scribes excerpted here is a man unknown by name, the author of the 1904 Life in Sing Sing by Number 1500. In a wrenching passage that rings as true now as it did a century ago, he deftly captures the slow, numbing process of dehumanization endemic to prison life, even in the face of the relatively civil treatment afforded to convicts sent “up the river”:
But it must be remembered that all of these luxuries and many more, as long as they do not include liberty, are only an amelioration of little hardships—not an improvement of condition…. On the contrary, any punishment you inflict upon him after he has experienced the lock step can not greatly signify; for in that one act you have inflicted the punishment beside which all others are only trifles. For this reason men do not mind severe discipline nor appreciate mild treatment. Of course they can be dealt with so as to be irritated beyond endurance, but only by spasmodic and uncertain authority. A rigid control is met halfway, and with indifference.
Sullivan is a reformer at heart, and threaded throughout Bandits is the notion that prison is a place in which the bad can recognize their errors and—in the parlance of the day—“square it.” This was no more considered the purpose of prison in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than it is now, though; as Sullivan notes, “The majority of convict commentaries… are replete with criticisms on the ill effects of prison life and on the concept of prison as a ‘school for crime.’” But he also concedes that some early nineteenth-century prisoners “found their own salvation from within, whether through literature, philosophy, or God.” As Andrew L. George, author of the 1895 memoir The Texas Convict, puts it, “My ideas about reform are short and simple—the reform must start with the man himself. It must be attended by a change of heart; he must desire to be a better man.”
Incredible as it now seems, such salvation became the province of U.S. governmental and social institutions by the mid twentieth century, when prison reform began to be perceived as a moral obligation and became something of a cause célèbre, particularly during the radicalized sixties. During that time, the “civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and other social movements politicized prisoners and brought the concepts of equal justice and human rights home to the general populace.” But the rehabilitation movement was pathetically short-lived: eroded, unsurprisingly, by a weak economy and a burgeoning, politically expedient preoccupation with public safety, it began to wane by the late seventies. Today, as a sweeping phenomenon, prison reform is largely a thing of the past.
But not entirely. In addition to privately funded prison reform organizations, which work overtime to take up the slack left by draconian prison policies enacted in the eighties and nineties (mandatory sentencing and the abolishment of parole for certain offenses, longer sentences for nonviolent offenders, “no frills” penitentiaries), the spirit of rehabilitation lingers in books like Prison Nation. Eschewing, in large part, the morality lessons central to convict literature, this collection by prisoners’ rights activists Herivel and Wright takes a socio-historical approach that’s fueled by reformist zeal.
The book assembles an impressive roster of talent, from policy wonks (Judith Green, John Midgley) to hard-working journos (Ken Silverstein, Anne-Marie Cusac) to high-profile lifers like Adrian Lomax and the ubiquitous Mumia Abu-Jamal. (Noam Chomsky is also here, but his promisingly titled “Drug Policy as Social Control” is less a cohesive argument than a rambling accumulation of banal observations and half-baked proposals that any grad student would think twice about floating.) Many of the contributors also write regularly for Prison Legal News, a magazine that Wright—currently a convict serving time in Washington state for an undisclosed crime—co-founded in 1990.
The book’s varied topics range from racism (Paul Street’s “Color Bind,” an indictment of so-called “tough on crime” drug policies that overwhelmingly affect African American communities) to the roots of criminal behavior (“Capital Crimes,” George Winslow’s careful dissection of how runaway corporate crime creates an atmosphere of lawlessness in the U.S.) to the hidden effects of prison as a cultural phenomenon (Joelle Fraser’s standout “An American Seduction,” which exposes the true cost a small California prison town pays to make “the systematic incapacitation of despairing human beings” its primary business). There are also gut-wrenching descriptions of sadistic corrections officers, official indifference to prisoner rape, dodgy food and medical care, and rampant ineptitude in the private prison industry.
Indeed, Prison Nation is a veritable encyclopedia of abuse, corruption, and neglect, brimming with horrific accounts and shocking statistics as maddening as a decade’s worth of Harper’s Indexes (or at least an issue of The National Review). Nevertheless, it’s as necessary as it is difficult to endure, and the fact that it is—along with Bandits & Bibles, Inner Lives, and their kin—anything but a Barnes & Noble top-seller hardly matters. These books take it as a given that the conditions of imprisonment and the systemic measures that dictate those conditions can and should be scrutinized and improved. In that sense, the ideal of prison reform and the much-beleaguered notion that convicts are as human as the rest of us (and vice versa) are kept very much alive.
But who is paying attention? Where do those of us unlikely to scour the nonfiction shelves or uninclined to make it all the way through Prison Nation’s catalog of despair get our prison fix?
Some of that need is met by novels and short stories, naturally. Writers as disparate as Chester Himes (whose stirring novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry is based on his own experiences in prison, and initially appeared in bowdlerized form as Cast the First Stone in 1952), John Cheever (the New Yorker scribe par excellence who took a more purely speculative but no less affecting foray into penitentiary literature with 1977’s Falconer), and, more recently, Richard Flanagan (author of the accaimed 2001 Gould’s Book of Fish, which takes place largely in a Tasmanian penal colony hellhole) have used fiction as a means of evaluating the human cost of imprisonment. More gratuitous than their nonfiction counterparts but often just as savvy, these works deftly combine mass appeal with social conscience.
The master of this vein of pen lit is Edward Bunker, an ex-convict and the author of numerous short stories and half a dozen novels including The Animal Factory (1977) and Little Boy Blue (1981). Bunker’s blend of hard-boiled violence, understated poignancy, and pitiless self-scrutiny—all of which surface in his 1972 debut, No Beast So Fierce, a sobering investigation of one ex-con’s experience of recidivism—have inspired contemporary writers like Eddie Little (Another Day in Paradise, 1998) and Jimmy Lerner (You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish, 2002), both of whom capture something of Bunker’s stinging prose but little of his insight.
Less insightful still, and all but unconcerned with the harsh realities of prison life except as a lurid story device, horror titan Stephen King’s prison tales “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (from 1982’s Different Seasons) and six-part 1997 serial novel The Green Mile focus instead on shaky metaphysics and—like the title says—redemption. Both books, it almost goes without saying, were adapted into successful mainstream films, and their made-for-Hollywood sentimentality, giddy preoccupation with brutality, and near-absence of social inquiry provide a direct link to the primary purveyors of prison lore in American culture, movies, and television.
Like their literary analogues, prison films are almost as old as their medium and break down into nearly identical niches, albeit with a higher degree of melodramatic fervor and in something like reverse proportion; for every documentary like Liz Garbus’s 1998 The Farm: Angola USA, a painful and complex account of life in Louisiana’s notorious work farm, there are several swaggering anti-establishment allegories like Cool Hand Luke (1967) or cathartic weepies such as The Visit (2001). Even a pair of Edward Bunker’s novels have been turned into feature films (1978’s Straight Time, taken from No Beast So Fierce, and The Animal Factory, from 2000), and Bunker himself has virtually abandoned fiction for a career as a Hollywood screenwriter and character actor.
What such films do better than their literary counterparts (if better is the word) is reveal the peculiar form of escapism that drives the genre. That prison is nobody’s idea of a good time—least of all anyone who’s ever been there—seems a ridiculously safe assumption, yet at the heart of most prison films and many prison books is one of the most richly revealing fantasies in Western culture: that incarceration is a state in which inner liberation is achieved through the absence of external freedom. This odd contradiction even surfaces to a degree in Bandits & Bibles, where Sullivan states, “Not many criminals have considered prison life conducive to the enrichment of the soul” within a hundred pages of adulating the “great prison writers, most of whom were incarcerated for political or religious reasons, [who] transcended their circumstances and have entered the literary canon.”
No one could be faulted for wanting something good to come out of tossing people in the pen, but in the end this idealism amounts to a misguided hero worship that abstracts the humanity of convicts even as it idealizes their antisocial qualities. Cable network Showtime indulges in this idle idolatry with the publicity for Street Time, a drama series chronicling the American parole system that happens to have been created by an ex-con named Richard Stratton. A founder of the now defunct Prison Life magazine and a director-screenwriter, Stratton was paroled in 1990 after serving eight years of a twenty-five-year sentence for importing marijuana—a point that Showtime’s press releases never fail to raise.
Such cachet underscores how prison cinema makes it easy to conceal a voyeuristic fascination with the violence and degradation of penitentiary life behind a mask of concern. There’s little question that, even among those who care about civil rights and humane treatment of convicts, the prison genre—books as well as films, the well-intentioned in addition to the exploitative—makes it easy to indulge in concern that’s devoid of action. Despite the best efforts of editors like Sullivan, Herivel, and Wright and writers like Bunker and even Shakur, the temptation to expect the genre to reward us in all the wrong ways is overwhelming. Flip through any prison-related book and it doesn’t take long for most of us to start sniffing out the gruesome details. Beyond an understandable human capacity for morbid curiosity, this may simply reflect surrender in the face of the sweeping anti-criminal, anti-convict legislature of the post-reform years—what Sullivan calls the “ongoing battle with the prison system.” In pen lit, such resignation takes the form of an enervating type of pragmatism: Among the best-reviewed prison books published in the last five years is Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards’s Behind Bars: Surviving Prison (Alpha Books, 2002), a sort of user’s guide to incarceration that covers such topics as prison food, convict slang, and, inevitably, “sex in the slammer.”
In movies and TV, there’s no better example of this lowest-common-denominator complacency than HBO’s recently defunct cellblock series, Oz. Beginning in 1997, Oz—which aired its sixth and final season earlier this year—provided what Americans have come to expect from the prison genre in convenient weekly doses. Hardcore devotees tuned in religiously to watch the prisoners and staff of the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility (“Oz” for short) deceive, dismember, slash, sodomize, and not infrequently romance each other, and occasionally take time out from the mayhem to grapple with a weighty ethical issue or two. Oz amplified the conventions of the prison genre to a level only possible in a series format, mounting its complex plot lines and sensory violations in excruciatingly piecemeal fashion. More often than not, trying to retain one’s moral bearings amid the chaos was a disorienting, repugnantly seductive experience.
Some of Oz’s staunchest fans had a difficult time admitting that such kicks were what kept them coming back for more; even the show’s more vocal detractors weren’t immune to its visceral jolts. Given the gravity of its subject matter, supporters were inclined to uneasily bestow social importance (to say nothing of artistic legitimacy) on the series, typically resorting to labels like “gritty” and “realistic.” (Precisely how many TV critics and p.r. flacks were in a position to know what constitutes reality behind bars remains a mystery.)
Oz creator and co-executive producer Tom Fontana was just as eager to point to the show’s instructive potential. When I interviewed him in 2000, just prior to Oz’s fourth season, he drew a connection between the desperate isolation of imprisonment and “anybody who is trapped in any element of their lives, whether it be in a job they hate or a marriage they hate or whatever. The questions there are the same questions we ask on the outside. They’re just not quite as intense.”
Whether anyone who has never done hard time can know the questions prisoners ask themselves is open to debate. More intriguing is how this idealistic empathy reveals the lengths to which many works in the genre will go to press incarceration into metaphorical service as “the world in small” (to borrow Fontana’s phrase). In conjunction with the latent reformist bent of much pen lit, this notion is at the heart of Oz’s appeal. Yet it also reveals a troubling irony specific to prison cinema: In order to allow us to identify with the moral struggles of the men and women serving time, these films must make prison seem alluring.
To achieve this goal, many prison flicks embody a distinctly utopian-dystopian milieu. Screenwriter-director Frank Darabont’s versions of King’s The Green Mile (1999) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) both rely on a mixture of repellent brutality and crackpot mysticism to arrive at their epiphanies of redemptive affirmation. Even more blatant is Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998), which goes so far as to suggest that the most entrenched and virulent forms of racist pathology can evaporate in the warm glow of prison-yard camaraderie.
Fontana’s Oswald prison, and particularly the experimental Emerald City compound in which the bulk of his series was set, represented the most perversely ideal penitentiary community of all. Here, the restrictive rules of social conduct had been happily abandoned: sex was available on demand without messy emotional entanglements (the occasional long-term affair notwithstanding); antisocial and violent impulses went unrepressed and were regularly rewarded; and latent powers of manipulation and exploitation were expressed without fear of sanction. Prison, as Oz and to a lesser degree its contemporaries portrayed it, is a kind of twisted self-actualization paradise with three hots and a cot.
To his credit, Fontana captured a certain immediacy missing from other prison dramas by refusing to play to easy notions of atonement. For the most part, he contrived scenarios that were both timely and informative, yet that eschewed sacrificing his characters’ dimension in favor of heavy-handed message-mongering. But while his show excelled at capturing the depleting aspects of imprisonment with unflinching accuracy, it overlooked another crucial element. As Barry Holman, coordinator for the prison-watchdog group the Coalition for Federal Sentencing Reform, noted in 2000, “One thing that Oz obviously doesn’t present is that there’s a spectrum of prison life.” Instead, he maintains, it reinforces the accepted wisdom “that all prisons are the same. That they’re all very violent, that everyone there is either going to be sexually abused or is going to be a sexual abuser while they’re incarcerated, and that everyone who’s there—from the prisoners to the guards to the administrators—is nasty.”
If prison dramas are preoccupied with nastiness, they’re downright obsessed with homosexual rape. As Conover notes in Newjack, “The rape of the white middle-class inmate is… such a fixture of how middle-class America thinks about prison that people who hear I worked in Sing Sing always bring it up within a few minutes—if they dare bring it up at all.” The frequency of rape in U.S. prisons is a hotly debated topic; official figures cited by Conover and others indicate that it is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, while a Human Rights Watch report excerpted in Prison Nation suggests that incidents are merely underreported or officially ignored (statistics indicate that there were as many as 140,000 cases in 1996 alone). In any case, films like Shawshank, American History X, and particularly Oz—where rape was a plot staple from the very first episode—routinely depict acts of sexual abuse without addressing its tacit acceptance by prison administrators.
Holman’s assessment of Oz has more far-reaching implications as well. The one-dimensionality he describes is perhaps the most troubling aspect of pen flicks, because no matter the intention, they ultimately serve the same purpose as alarmist politicians who exploit the public’s fear and legislators who enact restrictive policies based in part on the ensuing atmosphere of panic. Such narrowness is unfortunate, particularly when less heralded works like Steve Buscemi’s adaptation of The Animal Factory encompass the range missing from Oz and its ilk. This study of the feelings a hardened con has for a prison newcomer features characters that are neither selfless nor awash in redemptive goodwill, yet manage to display emotions that aren’t entirely rooted in manipulative desire. They are, in short, recognizably human. For this type of approach to become more prevalent, prison films need to characterize incarceration as part of both a larger social structure and an identifiable emotional landscape—something most of them have been unable or reluctant to do. As criminology professor Howard Zehr writes in 1996’s Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences, “We seldom understand crime as it is actually experienced: as a violation of real people by real people.” He could just as easily be referring to our inherited misconception of the nature of incarceration.
Still, few of us watch films or TV to be educated about the true conditions of our penal institutions or the intricacies of our criminal justice policy, and few prison dramas bill themselves as social realism. Garbus’s documentary notwithstanding, how watchable would prison realism be, anyway? British artist Darren Almond’s 1997 museum piece H.M.P. Pentonville provides a clue: a real-time video feed shot from inside a North London penitentiary cell, this continuous static shot is interrupted only by the ambient noises of prison routine—clanking bars, shuffling feet, the occasional distant voice. The presentation makes its viewers the cell’s temporary occupants, and the experience is transcendent only in its capacity for stultifying tedium.
Given that, what’s the harm in books and movies that entice and inform us by making daily survival seem, at least for the duration it takes to read or watch them, fiercely tangible—particularly since that sensation is distinctly missing for most of us on “the outside”?
For starters, the fact that this stuff has its origins in cold, hard data. Roughly two million Americans currently reside in jail or prison cells, with recent studies projecting that number at over nine million by 2020. Our prisons’ nonviolent-offender population has tripled over the last thirty years, while drug-related admissions have increased eightfold. Of that number, African American women represent the fastest-growing segment. Finally, drug policy legislation has made prison terms so ubiquitous among poor and working-class minorities that the prospect of doing time has become a fact of their daily lives. And on and on.
More than an inducement of guilt or argument that the prison genre is inherently pornographic, these numbers underscore the gulf between the cultural holocaust of runaway imprisonment and the ways in which we capitulate to the notion that it is inevitable by perceiving incarceration as fodder for personal enrichment or cheap entertainment. And while it’s true that many genres make artistic hay out of the pain and suffering of others, most—like horror films or war literature—do so at a historical or imaginative remove.
Maybe my expectations are just too high; no war novel ever stopped a war, after all, and umpteen Godzilla movies appear to have had little effect on nuclear proliferation. But you may be surprised to learn that at least one prison movie did improve the lives of a whole sector of American convicts: The convincingly grim depiction of the Southern chain-gang system in Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, based on Robert E. Burns’s 1932 memoir, helped spark national outrage when it was released that same year, and chain gangs were abolished by federal edict five years later. Sadly, its effect didn’t last—chain gangs resurged in the South in the mid-nineties after regional politicians began arguing that prisons had subsequently become country clubs for “vacationing” criminals.
It’s tempting to see such boneheaded hyperbole as the inevitable outcome of the way criminals and convicts are portrayed in movies, TV shows, and, to a lesser degree, books. Whether or not there’s an actual link, the fact that we’re past the era in which a work of popular culture can help dissolve repressive policies instead of shore them up is dispiriting. It may be unfair to expect the prison genre to galvanize as well as enlighten and entertain, but demanding no more of it than vicarious thrills and quaint myths of personal fulfillment does little for the millions languishing in real cells. In that case, we’d do well to remember these words by Number 1500: “It doesn’t matter what you do for a prisoner—so long as you do not release him from bondage, you haven’t done anything.”