David Mamet wrote, “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money,” in his 2001 film, “Heist.” To borrow, then, from that memorable line, I should like to remind everyone that no one wants to go to prison. That’s why they call it prison.
While I wouldn’t ever presume to be as talented a wordsmith as Mr. Mamet, I do feel obliged to take liberty with his work given the conflagration started by Illinois’ Republican Gov. George Ryan last Friday when he commuted all the sentences of his state’s death row inmates.
The fiery debate concerning capital punishment has been long burning in this nation, routinely stoked by findings of unjust application or significant improvements in genetic testing. Gov. Ryan’s decision to spare 167 prisoners, however, is the most incendiary move in recent times, and will hopefully facilitate the promulgation of significant systemic changes. Yet lost amidst the heated discussion concerning the incredible shift in Illinois is that those whose sentences were commuted were neither exonerated nor spared torture and punishment.
Instead, the population that formerly dwelled on death row will now be forced to grapple with the terrible realities presented by long-term incarceration in America. The Marriage of Figaro will not be blaring from public address speakers. If anything, Illinois’s formerly condemned should watch HBO’s “Oz” to get a better sense of what the remainder of their time will be, if they don’t know already: Years spent with angry men who have committed terrible, often violent crimes and are remanded in an infantilizing, rigid environment devoid of empathy and lacking rehabilitative power.
Surely, neither “The Shawshank Redemption” nor “Oz” – both fictional – can be taken as definitive and accurate portrayals of prison life. However, books like Ted Conover’s New Jack – in which Conover details his year working as a corrections officer at New York’s Sing Sing maximum-security facility – are more reliable accounts of life inside the United States’ criminal repositories. And Conover spares no detail as he recounts grizzly episodes of verbal and physical abuse, all reminding readers that the culture of incarceration rests on the bedrock of violence, immersed in a sea of abuse and fear.
The war on drugs and its asinine, ineffective, rigid sentencing guidelines may have bloated the prison system with non-violent drug offenders, yet the presence of this unlucky group of dime-bag-buyers should not obfuscate that prisons are still populated by those who have performed terrible acts of murder, rape, manslaughter, assault and kidnapping. Going to jail is not a vacation spent with the leisure set, playing cards and filling copious amounts of recreation time.
The dissemination of similar misinformation is rampant, however, among capital punishment’s ardent advocates. At the expense of truth, fervent death penalty proponents have ignored the bleak and horrific realities of imprisonment, instead painting time spent in jail as an unjustly benign consequence of illegality. To advance their goal, this group has designated state-sanctioned death as the only acceptable punishment for awful crimes, often invoking the Hammurabi notion of eye-for-an-eye justice. These attempts to advance their agenda are insultingly condescending and simple if not egregiously na