By SAM BROMER
Hello, massive and fervent column audience: I know you’re probably all here expecting me to talk about something fun, like the politics of feline hook-up culture or the secret world of Insane Clown Posse slash fiction. Today, though, I decided to take a relatively brief diversion into a topic that’s, well, a wee bit serious. So tune in next week if you’re looking for something smile- rather than frown inducing. With that out of the way …
In the middle of the 18th century, Charles Dickens visited the United States, and while in Philadelphia, encountered the Eastern State Penitentiary. Dickens was shocked and appalled by the conditions of a prison known for its focus on rehabilitation. Horrified particularly by the torture of solitary confinement, he reflected:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers… I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
While conditions have certainly improved since the middle of the 19th century, Dickens’ statement is a profound indictment of our modern penal system’s immorality, and of our unwillingness to improve it. Once verdicts are handed down — or, as in 97 percent of cases, plea bargains are reached — the American prisoner is whisked off into a system that is incredibly difficult to imagine, let alone reform. Our difficulty doing so is what makes imprisonment a “secret punishment.” Desensitized to statistics and data, and at a physical remove from the visceral experience of daily prison life, we struggle to empathize with those whose humanity is withheld, whose experience of time is as a form of punishment.
To be sure, numbers are an important recourse when confronted with something with the magnitude of the American prison system — and they are profoundly alarming.
The US only has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Over 2 million people are imprisoned in U.S. prisons and jails at the federal, state and local level. That’s almost as many as Russia and China combined. Imprisonment rates are particularly grim: The U.S. imprisons 698 people out of every 100,000. The British are 20 percent as likely to be locked up, while Norwegians are just one-tenth as likely. It makes more sense to compare us to Rwanda, which can at least point to its need to punish the perpetrators of its 1994 genocide for its rate of 492 prisoners per 100,000.
But, as you probably just realized, numbers often have a way of getting in the way of understanding, rather than guiding it. The human experience, in general but especially in prison, is too complex and too powerful to be reduced to this level of abstraction — at least if we want to convince a public to thirst for real change.
So, there are a few alternative ways to learn about prison and prisoners. One, which I don’t recommend, is to go to jail. Another, for those of us who, by virtue of our Ivy League lives, lack direct experiences, is to turn to film, documentary and television to comprehend the depth of the tragedy. For this reason, turning a critical eye to the representation of prison life in our entertainment and media has never been more essential.
Countless films have attempted to shed light on the experience of prison, with varying degrees of success. Whether the protagonist-prisoner is drawn in a sympathetic light — as in the staple of the genre, The Shawshank Redemption — or a more sinister one — as with Dead Man Walking, where Susan Sarandon plays murderer-rapist Sean Penn’s nun BFF to the sound of Eddie Vedder crooning — there is almost always an impassioned appeal to the viewer’s shared humanity in the face of cold, rational and dispassionate state violence.
But, competing for airspace in the American imagination is the mass hysteria of the Reagan era. A decade after the beginning of the War on Drugs, terror about rising cocaine usage led to the introduction of draconian sentencing laws on the federal and state level.
These laws, along with the criminalization of drug use and possession, have contributed to rising incarceration rates to this day. In this era, the cocaine overdose death of Len Bias, a first-team All-American college basketball forward who was selected as the second overall pick in the 1986 draft, was imprinted into the popular imagination. His death ushered in “dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs,” including mandatory minimum sentences and the legal treatment of one gram of crack in the same way as 100 grams of cocaine, according to author Dan Baum. Stories can alter the course of history, and not always for the better.
Here’s one reason to be (a little) optimistic, though: This week, President Obama appeared on “Fixing the System,” the most recent episode of HBO and Vice’s documentary series. After a brief interview with Vice founder and former recipient of David Carr’s ire Shane Smith, the President sat down with a group of nonviolent drug offenders to hear their stories. It’s a small gesture that won’t fill the painful chasm the penal system has left in the lives of so many Americans, but, just maybe, it is a sign of a larger shift at play. For, the more we confront the experiences of those we’ve caged away, the closer we inch to dragging ourselves out of this mess.