Escape from Dannemora

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I’m going to say something that many libertarians don’t want to hear: prisons need discipline, and plenty of it.

I’m reflecting on the big news item of the past three weeks, the escape of two convicts from the maximum-security prison in Dannemora, New York, an institution that used to be feared as “Siberia.” They escaped because they were allowed to live in an “honor” block, work with and have sex with civilians, cook their own meals, wear civilian clothes, and enjoy a level of control and discipline that permitted them to acquire power tools and use them to cut holes in their cells and escape. Power tools. Used by men sent to prison for vicious murders, including, in one instance, the dismemberment of the murder victim. Tools freely used, and undetected.

What’s that noise? Is that a guy cutting his way out of prison, or is that just a guy cutting up some other prisoner? Whatever. Have a nice night.

It is one thing to debate about whom to send to prison. It is another thing to screw around with the lives of the people we decide to send there. Because, make no mistake about it, the first victims of convicts who are not controlled are other convicts. If you want the rapes, murders, tortures, and gang aggressions that happen routinely in American prisons to continue to happen, all you need to do is let the bad guys act in whatever way they want. If that’s your “libertarian” philosophy, it will have a big impact, because just one of those bad guys in a prison unit can be enough to ensure the victimization of everybody else.

When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside.

The late Nathan Kantrowitz made this point very powerfully in his exacting study of prison life, Close Control. I followed Nathan’s lead in my own book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison. I added that, in my judgment, the sorry state of American penology is the result of a vicious convergence of modern liberal and modern conservative ideas. The conservatives want to lock people up, and do it on the cheap. And it’s true, you can get a lot of non-discipline and non-control, very cheaply indeed. The liberals believe that convicts are somehow rehabilitated by being allowed to wear their own clothes, cook their own meals, and wander about the joint, victimizing anyone who’s weaker than they are. (Unnoticed by the conservatives, the liberals also ordained that those who run the prison system would get paid enough to give them 15 degrees at Harvard. They’re unionized, after all, and they’re the biggest sinkhole in many state budgets.)

Libertarians ought to be smarter. When there’s a good reason to send somebody to prison — and sometimes there is — you don’t have to give him a life sentence, but you do have to keep him safely inside, and safe from victimizing or being victimized by other prisoners.

In the short run, whoever is running the New York prison system needs to be fired, immediately. (I’m afraid that the fix is already in, and this will never happen.) In the middle run, real investigations of penology — not ideological declarations about penology, from any vantage point — need to be conducted, so that people can learn what the few good scholars, such as Nathan Kantrowitz, have already established. In the long run, Americans should stop making savage jokes about rape in prison and start considering the steps that are necessary to keep rape and murder, and by the same token, escape, from happening in their supposedly secure institutions.




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A Slave Narrative, and More

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12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



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Drugs and Hypocrisy

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Attorney General Eric Holder recently made news when he came out against mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Speaking to the American Bar Association, he went on to say that low-level offenders should be diverted to drug treatment and community service programs, rather than languish for years in prison. The outright release from prison of some elderly, nonviolent offenders, who presumably have been incarcerated for most of their adult lives merely because they sold or ingested substances deemed not suitable for ingestion by our rulers, was also mentioned by the AG.

The policy changes advocated by Holder are not simply long overdue. They are in fact far too timid. The War on Drugs, declared some 30 years ago, has devastated the lives of millions of individuals and families. Drug users and their families are not the only ones who have been hurt by this government campaign against individual choice and behavior. We all have suffered. By driving up the price of illegal drugs, this war has contributed directly to crime and violence in our society, as gangs and mafias vie for control of the lucrative trade, and users turn to crime to pay for their habits. Our constitutional rights have been eroded by increased surveillance, confiscation of property without due process, and other law enforcement abuses. Worst of all, we have allowed the state to dictate how we supposedly free men and women should behave in private.

About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this?

Inmates in federal prisons now number 219,000. The number of federal inmates has grown by almost 800% since 1980. Almost half of these prisoners are doing time for drug-related crimes. Has Holder recognized the sheer perversity of these figures? Not really. What bothers him is the fact that the federal prison system is operating at almost 40% above officially estimated capacity. Rising prison costs have led to less spending on cops and prosecutors and various government programs connected to the War on Drugs. It’s a resource issue for Holder, rather than a matter of recognizing that a fundamental injustice is being perpetrated by the state against its own citizens. The War on Drugs was lost the day it was declared, yet 30 years later we continue to accept the casualties it creates. The AG’s response is to tweak things a bit and hope for the best.

Most legislators on Capitol Hill have welcomed Holder’s initiative, but not one that I know of has taken the bold step of calling for an end to this unwinnable war. Moreover, federal action will not affect citizens being persecuted by the individual states. About 225,000 people are sitting in state prisons for drug offenses. According to the best studies available, 60% of them are nonviolent offenders. What sort of madness is this? What words are there to describe such iniquities in our so-called free republic?

One would love to see this president, any president, come out and speak the truth on this issue. Admit what any thinking person knows — that suppressing private drug use by adults is a hopeless endeavor, with bad outcomes abounding, and that furthermore it is no business of government even to attempt to do so. What really rankles with me is that the current occupant of the Oval Office, like his two predecessors, used illegal drugs in his youth. Obama at least has been rather forthright about his drug use. Clinton, you will recall, “didn’t inhale.” Bush, well known as a drunkard in his twenties and thirties, denied using illegal drugs, but was caught admitting marijuana use in a private conversation (he almost certainly used cocaine as well). But forthright or not, how does Barack sleep at night when tens of thousands of people who behaved just as he once did have been deprived of their liberty, had their lives ruined? What sort of man can become the leader of a nation and yet remain silent in the face of such injustice?




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