06 July, 2008

Those Were the Days... or Not

The inmates here, they miss how prison used to be, back when the reins were looser and a man could "do real time." The blind corners and open-front cells of the decrepit, turn-of-the-last-century institutions still have their hearts. It pains them that they can no longer revel in the unchecked anarchy of open yards, the permissiveness of bygone wardens, and on and on — a litany of reasons then was so much better than now. Via television, they vicariously relive the glory days of danger, with shows like Prison Break, and take heart in knowing there are other, rougher prisons elsewhere, such as San Quentin and Stateville, as evidenced by MSNBC's pride and joy, Lockup. Places like those, inmates and staff maintain a precarious stalemate, and it makes the career criminals here salivate.

Stories abound of life at "The Walls," the sprawling relic once dubbed Missouri State Penitentiary but now, thankfully, abandoned. Inmates who have been in the system long enough usually know the place all too well. Conditions were appalling. In the winter, toilets in the cells would ice over, at night; in the summer, pieces of the crumbling building itself were thrown through windows to catch a breeze. Except in the communal shower room, hot water was unavailable. Mice and cockroaches reigned.

But, to hear many of its erstwhile residents' nostalgic accounts, one might be tempted to believe none of these things mattered. For many, aquariums and console TVs in some cells, stray cats as adopted pets, endless drugs and hooch, and the insignificant threat of a single night in the Hole for fighting made an idyllic parallel to whatever gladiatorial existence they'd been living in the free world; prison was literally a home away from home.

"This ain't prison," comes the tired lament, "it's day care." Of course, they're right to note the differences. Prison reform, arguably begun in earnest (but undeniably first felt) in the early 1980s, introduced a completely different dynamic to how prisoners were dealt with and how the facilities were run. The most notable change was evident in the shift from active reform efforts, which have been proven time and time again to work, to human warehousing. Vocational training and self-help programs were too expensive, which meant they were expendable under new incarceration standards. This, combined with an inrush of nonviolent POWs from America's ill-fated, ill-conceived War on Drugs, brought varying degrees of success to the measures being employed to exact control over the once-uncontrollable inmate populations. The comparatively docile prisoners acted as a statistical buffer on the reformers' charts and tables, nicely watering down those violent statistics.

In the comparative calm, the ever-wakeful gears of the great bureaucratic machine continued to spin, however. Docility was not enough. Absolute order had yet to be imposed, so the focus shifted to a higher magnification. More than ever, uniformity has become the prime concern. All property is governed by strict limits, down to the number of rolls of toilet paper or bottles of vitamins a prisoner is allowed to keep on hand. Personal clothing may only be worn in certain places, at certain times a day, and is itself limited to a handful of articles. There even exists a multiple-page list that dictates explicitly what may be placed where, within one's cell, and in what condition it must be. Movement outside of the housing units is closely observed and regimented.

Micromanagement is the new way. Hardened convicts (labeled "offenders" in the modern industry jargon) have witnessed the end of an age. Unfortunately for them, and for the society to which many will eventually return, this new way is no better than the old.