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.

Wherein lies the attraction of prison TV? Men in particular can watch it like the Home Shopping Network, with a bright and endless curiosity. With prison, there are always ultimate questions involved, of course, and ultimate destinations—the abyss of perdition, the great glass elevator of redemption—but more immediately thrilling to the couch potato, I think, is just the vastly bummed-out texture of prison life: the din of hard surfaces, hard voices, hard lights; the big dude hanging heavy forearms over the back of a chair as he tells his tale; the hellishly perfected torsos around the weights bench, where a scowling lifter struts like the creature in William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea; the cafeteria slop; the dismal, travestied politics; the top dog on the tier, who in passing plucks a baseball hat from somebody’s head and sets it conclusively on his own. Tickled, scarified, the unincarcerated viewer thanks his lucky stars and solemnly wonders after what fashion he might, if it came to it, do his own time.

And beyond that, Lockup is educational. The most instructive parts of the franchise are generally to be found in the shows subtitled Extended Stay. Whereas Lockup: Raw and Lockup: World Tour bounce from prison to prison, hectic compendia of horrors and enlightenments, Extended Stay digs in for months at a time in one location. Prisons are tiny totalitarian states, each with its own kinks and caprices, and the long-haul format gives Drachkovitch’s crew time to tease out the idiosyncrasies of a given facility—to taste, as it were, the time that is being done there. At Limon, for example, under the regime of Warden Travis Trani, two facts are notable. First, sex offenders are obliged to take their chances in the general population. Second, in the wake of an attack on a staff member, that population’s freedom of movement and association has been severely curtailed. Violence is down overall, but the policy has received predictably mixed notices. “When you separate dogs like that,” grumbles one inmate over a game of cards, “then they bark. But if you got ’em all together, everyone knows their place in the pack. They don’t get out of line.” “You been watching Dog Whisperer too much,” somebody responds. The inmate is unabashed: “Just like Dog Whisperer. For real. It’s true.”

Perennially enthralling, too, are the prisoners with whom it appears that nothing can be done—the literally incorrigible, or those who have been bashed into a pure state of defiance, beyond the last straw, beyond everything. “I am getting fucking tired of fucking with you,” complains Kevin Blanco, serving 13 years for attempted murder, to a guard at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. In solitary confinement, Blanco is a one-man band of disobedience, tossing around his bodily fluids, refusing to “cuff up,” and “taking hostage” the small spaces that are available to him—his “rec pen,” for example, with its shining clouds of razor wire and its lonely basketball hoop. Simply by declining to vacate this cage when asked, Blanco can trigger “standard extraction protocol,” and a team of guards gruntingly straps itself into vests and helmets. “Go get your goon squad,” he says. “Go get your gas, and c’mon.” “There’s not much more that we can do to him, as far as disciplinary sanctions,” concedes Sergeant Arturo Suazo.

Jerry Weir, a former member of NAMBLA with a scrunched, hobbity face, doing time at Limon for sexual exploitation of a child, seems more cooperative. “I’m gonna do,” he explains to a stoically attentive corrections officer, “whatever I have to do to let you help myself get what I want to help myself. Does that make sense?” “No,” the officer says. And pictures of children will keep finding their way into Weir’s cell. Busted. Back in the hole. “He’s not never gonna catch on,” predicts a sergeant. Kevin Blanco, meanwhile, having taken his rec pen hostage, is perched on top of that basketball hoop with an air of eremitic remoteness. All measures, all efforts, have failed. The pepper spray didn’t bother him; the tear gas was dispersed by a friendly breeze; three nonlethal shotgun rounds have caromed ineffectually off his ribcage. “I’ll come down,” he announces, “if you shoot me one more time.” Clang! goes a round into the hoop’s metal frame. “All right,” says Blanco. And down he comes.

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.
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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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