Americans don’t want to talk about prisons. But “ooh, ‘Lock-up America’ is on – let’s watch!”
U.S. incarceration rates are staggering: we now house 760 inmates for every 100,000 people; 7.1 million Americans are currently under lock and key. For too many years we’ve tried to win the War on Drugs by incarcerating our way out of it, and now here in California there are 300 parolees for every 1000 residents. And still the only way Californians (or anyone else, for that matter) seem able to digest America’s prison problem is by watching the same old clichés onscreen – what I call the “three Rs” of rape, riots, and rotten food.
While this is hopefully changing, given the magnitude of the problem, discussions about prison reform, parolee success stories, and effective overcrowding solutions still require dramatization to be heard. Even with the three Rs, something salacious like a guy sticking something up his butt would have to be there to actually hold an audience. I call this “The Shawshank Exemption:” if reform isn’t glamorized by Hollywood it won’t draw national attention.
Now I know state budgets aren’t sexy, but the fiscal insanity of California spending $9.6 billion on prisons versus $5.7 billion on higher education in 2011 only to see its prison system still under the rule of a federally appointed receiver ‘cause an inmate a week was dying from negligence…well there’s your drama right there.
The Shawshank Redemption is a good movie, don’t get me wrong. The Shawshank Exemption simply notes that people would rather watch a film about prison than talk about how to fix one: after all, it’s more exciting to see “those people” digging under a fence or gettin’ stabbed. But first of all, at the rate we’re going, inmates are no longer “those people:” they’re your neighbors, friends, and dumb cousins. Secondly, my own home state and the one to which I paid my debt to society, California, shells out $8,667 per student every year but $50,000 per inmate. How’s that for exciting? There are some incredibly stupid examples of where that money goes, too: it ain’t to medical care that keeps inmates from spreading a worsened problem throughout the system. If we inmates had seen that level of taxpayer funding I wouldn’t have watched a man die of spinal meningitis right before my eyes.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in finding against the state of California, wrote that “Just as a prisoner may starve if not fed, he or she may suffer or die if not provided adequate medical care.” A prison system that fails to provide care is “incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in a civilized society.” Now isn’t that dramatic enough, considering we all at least know someone who knows someone in prison?
Well, no, because readers and viewers have been trained to tune out reality in favor of “hyper-reality” (made more “real” by cable TV content providers and filmmakers) and they’re fed custody themed entertainment via standard issue delivery vehicles only. On any given night I can find 8-13 “behind bars” or incarceration-themed shows on at once, and each has hundreds of thousands of viewers. Fox hopes “Alcatraz” will generate the same following as “Prison Break,” while Mazda and Audi use prison to advertise their automotive advances. Millions of Americans DVR “Lockup,” “Lockdown,” “Hard Time,” and “Gangland” – there’s even an annual RedBull-sponsored basketball competition on Alcatraz itself.
The point of everything I write about prison here and in my book, Where Excuses Go to Die, is to defy the three R’s and The Shawshank Exemption both. I aim to provide something different, yet entertaining enough to capture attention to refocus it on the problem at hand. Besides, there’s so much to work with here! With things like attorneys calling CA’s solitary confinement practices “torture” and asking the U.N. to intervene on behalf of inmates, there’s material galore. Let’s start making it work for us.