The college I attended, and that my eldest attends now, is so puny that instead of class reunions, current students and alumni gather to celebrate the anniversary of the school. The 45th is coming up in February. The school was founded with the objective of fostering life-long learning and educational offerings for alumni have always been part of the package. A series of mini-courses are slated for the next reunion. The event is actually called “The Renewal” but that is too airy fairy for my taste and definitely not worth losing weight for. Because of our involvement with the Aleph Foundation which matches pen-pals with Jewish inmates we decide to present, as a family, a session called “Prison-Real and Imagined” to challenge the images of prison as portrayed in film and television. One of our three pen-pals has shared some very cogent thoughts and additionally provided contributions from two other inmates. My personal frame of reference is limited to the visiting room at Tehachapi and the accounts of my three pen-pals. I also watch the MSNBC series Lock Up and National Geographic's Lockdown which are filmed in actual prisons. These reality shows tend to distort the amount of violence and mental illness endemic at any given institution. My understanding is that the most pernicious and typical malady of prison life is boredom but that doesn't make for very good TV.
Years ago I visited the Woman's Prison in Frontera. This is a state facility, and while the recent series about women in prison, Orange is the New Black, is set in a federal institution it seems accurate in some ways. The savagery of staff and inmates is way over the top but the depiction of inmates being completely stripped of personal freedom feels authentic. Another show, Rectify, is about a death row prisoner who is released. There are harrowing prison flashbacks but the show is brilliant in the depiction of the post prison experience of a man who was convicted as a teenager and released into the world in middle age. The show affirms what I believe to be true of most prisons. Rehabilitation is a hollow buzz word and what actually transpires is the polar opposite.
Almost every depiction of prison focuses on brutality but watching The Shawshank Redemption and then Labor Day with Kate Winslett and Josh Brolin, I notice another literary device. What is referred to as the “magical negro,” proffering sage wisdom and miracles for the benefit of white characters has become a stock character in American films. Shawshank has Morgan Freeman in the “magical negro” role although in Steven King's book, the character was Irish. Both Shawshank and Labor Day idealize inmates and these protagonists are portrayed as “magical convicts.” The Tim Robbins character in Shawshank lobbies for a library, dispenses financial advice and teaches a young inmate to read. The escaped convict played by Josh Brolin in Labor Day rescues the chronically depressed and agoraphobic Kate Winslett by completely repairing her decrepit house and cooking up a storm. The action takes place over a weekend but in the coda, decades later, Winslett's son has opened a successful bakery after being inspired by the “magical convict's” expert assembly of a peach pie.
My objective in proposing the little course is to shed some light on the genuine prison experience by debunking the depiction in popular culture. Inmates are evil monsters or pure and innocent. Guards are power hungry sadists. But, many shows and films actually do get some things right. The reality shows are exploitative and sensational but laudable for showing inmates who well represent a cross section of society. Orange is the New Black, despite more than a little gratuitous lesbian sex, does explore the experience of losing every freedom that one takes for granted. Rectify paints a vivid picture of how ill prepared most inmates are to return to the free world.
The prison mileau is an excellent backdrop for exploring themes of brutality, isolation and retribution. These are indeed components of the prison experience but facile metaphors perhaps distract us from facing the truth that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And, the recidivism rate is over 40%. All of the shows and films I mention are good entertainment but it is important to pause and take in that much of what is realistic is real. That there a million and half unique individuals incarcerated in America and many of those who are released are predestined to return. Indeed, prison is a goldmine of literary fodder but this entertainment should also remind us about the real human beings who languish in our prisons.