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.
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.

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.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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