I caught Prison Nation on TV this past Sunday. National Geo branching out into the human condition, which PrisNat tells us could be better. Providing two hours of riveting human misery not to mention some staggering figures (e.g. of the 700,000 prisoners released every year, more than 2/3s are back within three years)and thoughts for the 2007 Thanksgiving weekend. For example, if your mind happens to roam toward our guys in Iraq during the holiday season(regardless of how preemptively, alas!, they got there)all 200,000 strong, think about the 2.2 million prisoners risking their lives daily behind prison walls in the US with no chance of a medal and not even a decent butterball to nibble on. These penned in guys and gals may not be heroes, but despite their tattoos, their addictions, their ID numbers, they're still human beings.
But I digress. Let me say at the outset in keeping with full disclosure that one of the folks responsible for this powerful documentary happens to be someone I know quite well, in fact my co-writer on a couple of books. That the New York Times selected Prison Nation as a Sunday TV highlight only increased my interest. And, as it turned out, the Times was right. Besides, I was still able to catch the 4th quarter of the Pats/Eagles football game. A great double bill!
What I was most struck by in this dark portrait of incarceration in our country were the prison faces. The youngish ones newly arrived inside, twitchy and all-eyes while trying to be invisible. "Makes me a natural target," as one of them says. Already counting the days till he gets out, if he's lucky enough to survive. The old timers rock hard with their hooded eyes and prison shuffle down to a T. Like Albert, a Crips capo draped in tattoos, who stares into the camera and says, "I'm a big observer. I like to target them." When Albert eyeballs you and matter-of-factly mutters about some uncooperative newbie ("I choke him for ten or twelve seconds. He'll come around"), you think probably so. But all the while you're wondering how come this guy is giving such damning testimony against himself. The same thing I wondered when I first read Chaucer's Pardoner's Prologue. How come this guy is telling me (not to mention his fellow pilgrims) what a crook-fraud-hypocrite he really is?
The most astonishing scene in Prison Nation? Actually, it's not the riots, the bloodstained fecal-smeared cells, the warden's wall full of homemade fetishly-gleaming shanks confiscated from inmates with a grudge. For me, it was Albert agreeing to meet with the family of their son's killer who wanted to forgive him. And when they do meet, Albert, who earlier had told us "I can't have no conscience in the streets. It'd get me killed," now says after seeing them: "I felt my knees were going to buckle. I felt like I was going to melt." Although I'd no more trust him than I would the Pardoner, for one brief moment there I did.
US prisons, dope-ridden, dangerously overcrowded and ready to explode, are clearly a dysfunctional system. The amazing fact is that all of the many heads of correctional departments interviewed for this provocative documentary agree that it is. But we get what we pay for according to Michael Jacobson, a former Commissioner of Corrections in New York, who warns that many inmates come out of prison much worse than they went in. Well honestly, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, can't we do better?