Moving Pictures March 2010

Prison Porn

MSNBC’s Lockup documentary series, about life behind bars, is exploitative and debasing, and as poignant a show as can be found on TV.
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Jacob Hekter

A few tips for the newly incarcerated: tattoo ink can be mixed up from the soot of burned baby oil. Look out for the bacteria in the home brew (it is, after all, just rotted fruit). Should a guard confiscate your headphones during a cell shakedown, seek the earliest opportunity to throw a cup of urine on him. Something to read during heroin withdrawal? Try Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And if, for your own safety, you desire to be placed in Administrative Segregation, you might consider ratting out the leader of a white-supremacist gang.

I should say that my observations are not derived from experience. Unless watching television counts as experience, which I don’t think it does. Yet. At any rate, I’ve never been to prison. These jewels of inmate savvy were gleaned, rather, during the many edifying hours I have spent in front of MSNBC’s Lockup, the documentary franchise that since 2000 has been sending its film crews scuttling through the penal facilities of America, and lately the world. Lockup was followed by Lockup: Raw, then by Lockup: Extended Stay and Lockup: World Tour—if you want to know about conjugal visits in San Quentin, racial politics at Wabash Valley, or what a Serbian execution chamber looks like, executive producer Rasha Drachkovitch and his team have got the goods.

“Due to mature subject matter,” the emphatic deep-sea voice warns at the start of each episode, “viewer discretion is advised.” And indeed the subject matter is very mature—has been maturing, one might say, since the book of Genesis. Discretion, on the other hand—well, we’re way past that. Drachkovitch’s cameras get everywhere, into everything, fully licensed by the Age of Access, and we go with them. Here are the convicts plotting their plots, flooding their cells, doing their chin-ups, chiseling away at their shivs and shanks; here is the dead-eyed felon, and here the tittering psychopath. Here is Fleece Johnson, a woolly-hatted veteran of Kentucky State Penitentiary, gravely recalling the good old days: “In this prison, booty was more important than food. Booty. A man’s butt. I’m serious! Booty, havin’ some booty, was more important than drinkin’ water, man.”

Sensational? Sort of exploitative? Intermittently debasing? Check, check, and check again. But Lockup keeps going, into unexpected zones of sympathy and catharsis. Here too is Leon Benson, doing 60 years for murder and locked down 23 hours a day in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, reciting through the meal slot, or “pieflap,” in his cell door his rewrite of Macbeth: “You read my eyes like parables … The sky has the residues of sunlight, but it’s fading away like butter on corn bread.” The words resound metallically. Down the hallway, through another pieflap, a fellow participant in Wabash’s “Shakespeare in the SHU” program voices his appreciation: “I really like the metaphor you use. ‘You read my eyes like parables.’ Right? Man, that’s almost something like Shakespeare himself would write.” Chris “Pain” Lashbrook (eight years at Limon Correctional Facility, in Colorado, for auto theft and burglary), a pale behemoth with injury in his eyes and tattoos spidering up from his neckline, sits across the table from his primary abuser, the chief architect of his ruin. “The slaps and kicks turned into punches and head butts, broken nose, cigarettes being put out on me … From the age of 7 to 11, I probably felt every piece of physical abuse a kid can feel.” But he loves his father, and the two men are talking, very softly, about playing guitar. “I’ve been getting into the Foo Fighters, stuff like that,” says Lashbrook Sr. “Still playing the Coldplay?” his son asks. “Yep, still doin’ some Coldplay.”

Hands up, who can tell me where reality TV first entered the universe? Was it with Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (dinner-party guests trapped in a room), or the Stanford Prison Experiment? Lockup has its elements of reality-ness: no Big Brother housemate, after all, was ever so poked and prodded and surveilled as your average convict.

It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained.

So wrote Jeremy Bentham in 1787, about his planned “Panopticon”—a temple of correction, circular in design, whose inmates would be exposed to an unsleeping scrutiny. The thing was never built, thank God, but as the Lockup cameras sniff out the grimmest intimacies of prison life, and rush toward its flash points, it seems proper to ask ourselves what, in this case, “the purpose” might be.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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