17 June, 2012

Watching MSNBC’s Lockup While Locked Up

First things first: I’m no fan of the show in any of its lurid incarnations, from Lockup: Raw to Lockup: Extended Stay to Lockup: Extreme Makeover Edition, even when I’ve made up their titles. (Don’t bother checking your channel guide for that last one.) Watching from my upper bunk as knuckleheads wage war against guards, as low-level innovators demonstrate how to prepare a meal in a garbage bag, or as idle minds while away their sentences with endless weight training sessions, isn’t something for which I need a TV. Unless I was curious about how much better or worse prisoners have it elsewhere, shows like this strike me as Bizarro World takes on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.Yet a lot of prisoners do watch them, my cellmate included.

Then again, perhaps saying “watch” is going a step too far. The Saturday evening mini-Lockup-marathons MSNBC airs do occupy my cellmate’s TV screen, but they’re only paid occasional attention when he looks up from whatever book he happens to be reading. If something catches his notice — that another, luckier prison population is permitted conjugal visits, say — he puts his headphones on to hear all about it. What he learns, or how he benefits from this knowledge once acquired, I never ask. He’s been locked up sixteen years, five longer than me. I can’t imagine the shows offer him much in the way of heretofore unknown convict know-how, only more of the same-old.

Still, there it is. The show flickers at me while I listen to my routine Saturday radio programming, and sometimes my eye gets drawn. Even without sound, it’s easy enough to figure out what’s happening on-screen. One of the things I most dislike about Lockup is its fixation on the worst. True, prison’s a nasty place, no matter if it’s in Indiana, Israel, or Iceland, but must viewers always be presented with the most dangerous, decrepit, and depressing features a given facility has to offer? I fully understand that the tedium that constitutes most of one’s time spent in prison is problematic for television producers, since there aren’t many vicarious thrills to be found in watching two men in an enclosed space entertain themselves with conversation or silent contemplation for hours on end. (Although, my cellmate frequently laughs about how hilarious our conversations might strike anyone privileged enough to hear them.) Just the same, I can’t help thinking of the many ways Lockup might be improved by training its lenses more on the behind-bars behavior that surprises than that which confirms the gruesome stuff viewers may already expect.

Every prison is different. Custody levels and the facilities’ ages play a large role in determining what sort of culture will propagate within the walls and fences. The prison in which I’ve been housed is relatively modern, with limited prisoner movement and security cameras like Fort Knox. It’s hardly the Thunderdome known as San Quentin. Gang activity either goes unnoticed or does not exist. Stabbings occur with less frequency than on your average Sunday morning in some Argentinian backwater. The only cell extractions guards have to perform are on the hoodlums already in segregation for bad behavior. So rare are these things at Crossroads, when they do chance to happen, they’re the only events one hears about for weeks. I dare say, this place is thoroughly under control. No wonder Lockup hasn’t come to Cameron, Missouri, yet. If they did, they would converge on the lower-security facility next door, where prisoners with lesser sentences rampage, killing time with fights and drugs until they are released to run rampant on the streets once more.

Funny, that. The public’s perception seems to be that violent criminals are the last prisoners authorities ought to consider setting free, yet the great majority of violent offenders have been shown, in study after study, to be the least likely to commit another crime after their release. I’m hardly advocating the systemic turning-loose of assaulters and murderers, merely erecting a scaffolding to support my own observation that, of all the people I have had the opportunity to analyze during my imprisonment, those who committed the heinous transgression of taking another’s life almost always did so in a moment of uncharacteristic derangement and are otherwise some of the sanest, most normal (though I hate that word) people here. This was a surprise for me that ranks among the biggest of all my years in this strange place.

This past weekend, my cellmate turned to me, as MSNBC broke for commercial, and posed a hypothetical: “Would you agree to be on this show,” he asked, “if they came here?” I didn’t have to think about it. Knowing my Lockup aversion, he was surprised when I said yes. But what better way to divert their lens from madness than to show them a prisoner who doesn’t have to flood his cell in a desperate bid for attention — he can sit quietly in his cell, writing, and earn notice in a productive way, a fulfilling way, a way that maybe can even influence others for the better? Not every convict is a crook, nor every prisoner a criminal. Lockup could do some good if they let these little secrets out.

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Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.