In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

The Prison Business

Death row in the Southern Nevada Women's Correctional Center, in North Las Vegas, has only one inmate when I visit: Priscilla Ford, a seventy-five-year-old black woman found guilty of having deliberately run over twenty-nine pedestrians twenty-four years ago in Reno, killing seven, as she drove her Lincoln at full speed.

Be careful, the state's director of prisons told me. She is sick. Very sick. Emphysema. Can't get up or talk to you.

But in fact, that's not how it is. She is tired, of course. Short of breath. Wearing a dirty jogging suit. Shaggy gray hair, with a bald spot at the back of her skull. She is standing up, pretty straight. Welcomes me gravely into her tiny cell, plastered with photos of Prince William, Lady Di, President Bush, Pope John Paul II, Mel Gibson. A book on children's education near her bed. The Da Vinci Code and a Bible on a shelf. A television set. A sign that says God First. Family photos she doesn't appear in, except by means of a rough and clumsy paste-up.

"I hope my girlfriends didn't scare you too much," she begins, alluding to the hundred or so women, almost all of them black, in the "segregation" section you need to go through to get to her cell—genuine raging beasts, all dressed in the same brightly colored jumpers, and shouting behind their bars that they haven't done anything, that they can't bear it anymore, that they want to be allowed to exercise, that they screw visitors, that I should go to hell.

Then, shaken by strange bursts of laughter, a hiccup of sorts, that double her over every time, cut off her breath, and make me think that the expert psychiatric opinion given at her trial that she was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia wasn't completely without foundation, Priscilla continues, "I was wrong to confess. I didn't do anything. I was charged because I had a terrible lawyer who couldn't convince the jury that I'm the reincarnation of Christ himself. The real guilty one, here she is [she shows me a photo pinned upside down, all by itself on a gold-painted cork board]: she's the real guilty one. She's my sister. She's still on the run, and that's why there are still crimes being committed in Reno."

And then, finally, in response to my questions about the ordeal it must be to wake up every morning for twenty years and tell yourself that this could be the last day, she makes a remark whose sudden brilliance settles in three sentences the debate on the merits of the network of private prisons that this penitentiary had belonged to since its creation, as against the "normal" public system that it has just joined in the past few days, after a controversy that inflamed passions throughout the state: "For me, there's a before and an after. Before, I was living like a dog, no one cared about me, but the advantage was that they no longer thought about executing me. Today the food is better, the cell is cleaner, but I think they're going to come looking for me …"

In a few words she expressed the core idea.

Priscilla Ford is cut off from everything, and, in the twenty years since she was condemned, has received almost no visits.

But she has summarized one of the crucial issues that divide the country today, about which the Nobel Prize—winning economist Joseph Stiglitz talked with me at length in New York—she is expressing the advantages and inconveniences of the privatization of American prisons as I had been able to glimpse them myself, in a visit that preceded my meeting with her.

The positive side: An apathy in the behavior of the prison guards, which I imagine is an offspring of this culture of private enterprise that was the rule until last month. A certain casualness, almost freedom, in the way the prisoners (except, of course, the ones in the segregation sector) walk around in the hallways, talking, pausing if they want, and in the way they are dressed. Mini stereo systems in some cells, and sometimes television sets; beauty parlors with posters of different hairstyles, just as in provincial hair salons; even the color on the walls of the common rooms—pink or mauve or blue—whose affected cheerfulness could be that of a kindergarten. Behind all this you can imagine the shareholders of Corrections Corporation of America, which had run the prison, coolly calculating that feeding and entertaining the human animal, loosening the bit a little, offering a less sinister environment than the punitive cells of a state prison, is an affordable way—less costly, at any rate, than armies of prison guards—to keep a prisoner quiet and tame.

The negative side: The abandonment, when the state resigns and the law of profit reigns, of any kind of reform project. These outcast men—or in this case women—whom the body politic, and thus the community of citizens, may forget to punish, but with whom, at the same time, they have utterly lost contact. This is the height of abandonment, the most absolute dereliction. Bodies are fed but morally beaten; souls are suspended and literally lost in the bright shadows of these sweetish dungeons. Snuffing of human light; residual subhumanity; fundamentally, the completion of the gesture of exclusion and elimination that began at Rikers Island, that I sensed yet again at Alcatraz, but that finds here, in this withdrawal of public authority, in this programmed indifference of the community to its delinquents and monsters, probably its most complete form.

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