Many of my penpals ask, in their first letter, “What’s it really like in there?” So much of what society believes about prison they’ve learned from movies and TV. Shawshank Redemption, Orange is the New Black, 60 Days In, and so on. I know that MY mental image of prison, growing up, was the jail cell on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride — where the pirates are behind bars in an old, mildewy and moldy cell, while the guard dog holds the key in its mouth, just out of reach. I believed that prisoners ate bread and water for every meal. It’s what my dad told me when I was a kid. Somehow, I was much quicker to figure out Santa Claus.
There are several popular prison blogs written by people who have never stepped inside a jail or prison — not even as a visitor. This seems so unusual. I hope to paint a more authentic picture of what prison is really like, and to allow you to live vicariously through my stories.
People often ask me about “Orange is the New Black.” Sadly, I have never watched the show — when I was arrested, Netflix was still mailing actual DVDs. However, I feel a key component often missing from prison shows is humor and lightheartedness. If Orange is the New Black incorporates this into the show, they’re one step ahead of the game. In prison, funny things happen on a daily basis. We tell jokes, we goof around, we play practical jokes, we laugh. A guy might be serving a life sentence, but he still is able to laugh just as hard as you might, while watching the movie Ted 2. Laughter is a key to survival in prison. I’ve often thought that a mockumentary, in the style of “The Office”, would be very entertaining and realistic. (NBC executives: if you’re out there, I have a wealth of material for the pilot episode.)
I CAN comment on “60 Days In”. I watched the first two seasons. For those not familiar with the show, several innocent people agree to spend 60 days in a county jail, masquerading as real inmates. The camera crew tells everyone, even the guards at the jail, that they’re filming a show about first-timers in jail. Since the guards don’t even know that the civilians aren’t real inmates, they’re given no special treatment. The stated purpose of the show was for the undercover “inmates” to teach the Sheriff how the jail can be improved. This part is fishy. If you really wanted intel, you’d put an undercover officer in there, minus the TV cameras. Let’s be honest: the real purpose of the show was entertainment (and probably for the jail to get a healthy paycheck from A and E).
For the most part, I found the show very realistic. The fights, the arguments over the most petty issues, the drama, the mental health problems, the crowded living situation, spouses not answering phone calls, or arguing on the phone, the bullies, the bartering — it was all quite authentic. But the interference of the producers and cameras was a huge drawback. If people think they’re going to be on TV, of course they’re going to show off for the cameras. A new season just began. Will the inmates ever learn? Maybe not. Undercover Boss has been around eight years, and people still don’t catch on when a creepy looking guy with a wig and a fake mustache comes to your place of employment, with cameras in tow. (Spoiler Alert: He’s the freaking CEO!!)
A show I really like is called “24 to Life”. It’s documentary style, and each episode follows two people, each convicted of a crime, in their last 24 hours of freedom before they have to turn themselves in and begin their sentences. You don’t learn their crimes until the end, but for an hour you watch their final day unfold, as they have difficult conversations with their kids or spouses, eat a fancy final meal, have sex for the last time, and so on. It humanizes the criminal and helps you see how it’s not just the inmate who is affected by incarceration, but also their family and friends. Prison can completely destroy lives, destroy entire families. I highly recommend this show, online or on A and E. It’s the most authentic prison reality show ever produced. You’ll never again think of prisoners in quite the same way.