40 Years Later, the Cruelty of Papillon is a Reality in U.S. Prisons

Two generations after the famous film about solitary confinement first appeared, it's still relevant to the deplorable treatment of inmates in America's prisons today.
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Columbia Pictures

Forty years ago today, the movie Papillon first appeared on American screens. Based upon the semi-autobiographical novel by Henri Charriere, the film chronicled the desperate life of a condemned prisoner, played memorably by Steve McQueen, who was sent (for the crime of murder, for which he was framed) to hard labor at the infamous French Guiana penal colony known as Devil's Island. There were scenes of brutality, there were scenes of compassion, but the heart of the film were McQueen's scenes in solitary confinement on the island in the middle of nowhere. Here's the trailer:

Although it was based on a bestselling book, and although the book had received rave reviews, the film did not earn universal praise when it appeared (and still seems hokey at times today). McQueen and his co-star, Dustin Hoffman, sought and received a king's ransom for their roles—the film was the most expensive of its time. A contemporaneous Los Angeles Times reviewer complained of "problems of emphasis and tone." And even the director himself, Franklin J. Schaffner, of Patton fame, conceded that he "had to take certain liberties with" the book to "construct a viable film."

If you saw the film when it first appeared, or saw it for the first time 20 years ago on television, no doubt one of your first reactions was to note the dated nature of the content. Thank goodness, you might have said decades ago, this inhumane treatment of prisoners, this sadistic approach to punishment, happened in another time (the 1930s) and in another place (colonial France). It could never happen here!, you might even have said as recently as 10 years ago if you stumbled across a replay of the film late one night.

But not today. Today if you watch Papillon—for the first or the 100th time—you are immediately struck by the similarities between the way French colonial authorities mistreated prisoners a century ago and the way U.S. authorities, on both the state and federal level, mistreat inmates in our own time. In fact, tragically, you can make a reasonable argument that American prisoners today in many respects are treated worse than were the prisoners highlighted in the movie. What a long, strange descent into brutality it's been.

The Movie

The film starts off with a scene in France in which an official explains to a group of assembled prisoners that they are to be sent to the penal colony, the "property of the penal administration of French Guiana," never to return. "As for France," the official says, "the nation has disposed of you. France has rid herself of you altogether. Forget France." And then Papillion (McQueen) and Louis Dega (Hoffman) and hundreds of other convicts are sent packing in a crowded ship for the 15-day journey across the Atlantic from Marseilles. 

On the trip, Dega seeks and receives protection from Papillon and they become friends. When Papillon thwarts an attempt on Dega's life during transport, he is restrained in the same four-point restraints that prison officials (in both federal and facilities) use today on inmates who have acted out—McQueen's character is shackled on his stomach by his ankles with his hands behind his back and forced to eat out of a bowl with his face like a dog. This happens today at the federal prison in Florence, Colorado, for example, even to inmates who have been diagnosed as mentally ill.

When the prisoners arrive on the island, they are collected together in a large compound and given a speech by the prison director. "First attempts at escape add two years in solitary to existing sentences," he tells the men. "Second attempts add five more. Of course, more serious offenses are dealt with in this fashion." And then we see the blade of a guillotine come down. "Make the best of what we offer you," the prison chief concludes, "and you will suffer less than you deserve."

Immediately, Papillon and Dega make plans to escape. They fail (over and over again, which is the point of the movie) but somehow only McQueen's character is ever sent to solitary confinement. When he arrives, the prison chief gives him a speech that no prison official would or could publicly give today—political correctness being what it is even within the nation's prison systems—but which nonetheless distills the essence of what America's use of solitary confinement is intended to achieve in our own time. From the movie:

The rule here is total silence. We make no pretense of rehabilitation here. We're not priests, we're processors. A meatpacker processes live animals into edible ones. We process dangerous men into harmless ones. This we accomplish by breaking you. Breaking you physically, spiritually, and here. Strange things happen to the head here.

While in solitary, Dega arranges to send Papillon a coconut with his daily rations to fortify his friend during isolation. The guards find out and increase the harshness of Papillon's confinement to coerce him to reveal who was sending him the extra food. He is put on half rations, forced to eat bugs, and his cell is enmeshed in darkness. McQueen's character refuses to snitch, but these scenes from inside his cell are iconic for their depiction of what isolation does even to the strongest-willed person. Here's one snippet from this part of the movie:

Note that Papillon is not sentenced to a lifetime of solitary confinement for his escape attempt—or even for receiving contraband while in such confinement. Note also that even the French authorities on Devil's Island in the 1930s evidently did not contemplate a lifetime of solitary confinement (even though they contemplated killing prisoners with that guillotine). Note even the similar uses of euphemisms to mask the brutality of the practice. In the movie, French authorities used the word "reclusion" to describe the grim place where Papillon is held in confinement. Today, in America, we blandly call such solitary confinement "administrative segregation."

Real Life

Even if we acknowledge that many of the most disturbing facts in Charriere's book could never fully be substantiated, and even if we concede that the movie script then took liberties from the book, it's fascinating to compare what sort of prisoner mistreatment occurred in Guiana in the 1930s, what sort of prisoner abuse Hollywood was willing to show (as fact or fiction) to the American people in 1973, and what sort of abuse and mistreatment occurs in real prisons today.

Pick a state, any state, and you will find prisoners who are being treated as poorly, or worse, than were the prisoners depicted on Devil's Island. It happens to the old and the young. To people of all colors and genders. To the mentally sound and the mentally ill. To murderers and those convicted of lesser crimes. It happens today in New York and in Wisconsin. It happens today in California and in Mississippi and in Louisiana and in Pennsylvania and in Florida and in Texas and in Alabama and in North Carolina and in South Carolina and in Missouri. It happens today in our federal prisons, as unaccountable a fiefdom as any that existed in French Guiana during the real Papillon's time.  

Yes, it's true that a reform movement has gained traction in these and other states where solitary confinement has been abused over the past decades. It's true that the nation's judges and legislators and even prison officials are beginning to comprehend the scope of the problem; the legal, moral and ethical dimensions of it. But the Obama Administration has demonstrated little more than callous disregard for this issuethis limited audit notwithstanding—and even those states that have moved to restrict solitary confinement aren't moving nearly fast enough to help those who continue to be abused and mistreated. 

For example, in Colorado, as I wrote last month, state officials placed Sam Mandez into solitary confinement when he was just 18 years old. Not because he had tried to escape or because he was violent with his guards. But for petty offenses. Sixteen years later, he is still in confinement, made mentally ill by the isolation, and yet still without the proper medical attention the Constitution requires him to receive. What made moviegoers grimace in 1973 when they saw McQueen mistreated in that cell hardly makes them take notice today.

In New Mexico last week, for example, a 73-year-old grandmother sued state officials after she was placed in solitary confinement for five weeks without proper medication. She is not alone. As chronicled last month in a detailed report by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and ACLU, New Mexico's prison officials have demonstrated a pattern of abuse of prisoners in solitary confinement over the past few years while shielding those practices from public view or accountability. From the New Mexico report:

Last year, a jury awarded former prisoner Stephen Slevin $22 million after he was confined in a tiny padded cell in the Dona Ana County Detention Center for almost two years without a trial. During his time in solitary confinement, Slevin developed bedsores and fungus. His toenails grew so long they curled under his toes. Denied dental care, he was even forced to extract his own teeth [Which is exactly what McQueen did in his solitary scene in Papillon]. Slevin entered solitary confinement with an existing mental illness that was made significantly worse due to isolation and lack of medical care. His pleas for help were ignored, and he never had an opportunity to see a judge.

Here is a before-and-after photograph of Slevin:

ACLU

Is this face not the face of Steve McQueen in that scene from the movie? And yet isn't Slevin's true story worse than anything Henri Charriere ever experienced in captivity or dreamed up when he wrote Papillon? "Captivity has a most powerful effect upon the memory," wrote The Atlantic's Edward Weeks when he reviewed Charriere's book upon its publication in 1969. "Prisoners who have been sentenced to solitary confinement depend on their memory to keep them sane, and memory often rewards them by storing away every last detail of what they have endured." Jury award or no, imagine the life Slevin now must lead.

Is It Getting Better?

It's impossible to say that we treat prisoners better or worse today than we did in 1973, because it's impossible to generalize about such an unwieldy system. It is fair to say instead, though, that prison officials do some things much better and some things much worse than their predecessors did when Papillon first appeared. Some inmates are treated better than they would have been then, and others are treated more poorly. But such comparisons miss the point: We should always strive to do better, to be more humane and dignified, to round off as best we can the sharp edges of crime and punishment. We should never go backward as a society, as a civilization, and yet there is overwhelming evidence that we have.

There are many justifications for America's stubborn refusal to rise above the inhumane treatment we see in our prisons today but really only two basic explanations for it. Either we know that we are mistreating inmates in this fashion and don't care to remedy the matter because we've dehumanized prisoners as criminals unworthy of compassion or even basic human respect, or we don't fully know the extent to which we are mistreating our prisoners and are content to leave it that way, with official cruelty out of sight and out of mind, allowing us to outsource our morality to prison guards and bureaucrats who ultimately answer to no one.

Either way, what is happening today in our prisons is simply not good enough for an enlightened nation that prides itself on a rule of law and preaches the notion that human life has value and dignity. What was a blend of fact and fiction in 1973 is full-on fact today. Our prisons today are despotic places, of unspeakable cruelty, where wretched people are left to linger in conditions unfit for animals, let alone human beings.  I'd like to see someone brave in Hollywood today tackle the issue of prison cruelty, but I won't hold my breath. It didn't exactly sell in 1973—with McQueen and Hoffman, no less—and it's even less likely to sell today. Just not enough happy endings, I guess.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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