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IN THE ARENA

The Prison Rodeo at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison) is a controversial event. Is it an opportunity for the prisoners to be more than invisible bodies and maligned felons, or is is gladiatorial and the worst of capitalist exploitation? I veer toward the latter but I’m not inclined to yell too loudly at those that err toward the former. Indeed, as Lee Cowan find out for CBS, even prisoners hold conflicting views.

I’m posting this here because I think in 8-minutes Cowan is about as fair as fair can be on this topic.

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Articles on Prison Photography about Angola, the prison I contend is the most photographed in the United States.

My own visit: The Visual Culture of Angola Prison

From this in 1926, to this in the 21st century.

Today, March 11th 2009, marks the twentieth anniversary of the first COPS episode. Producer, John Langley, and his cohorts celebrated the when the first show of the twentieth season aired at the back end of last year. Allow me to reflect also.

At overcrowded jails, like this one in Marion County, IN, inmates must sleep in portable containers. Credit: Inside America, Jail

At overcrowded jails, like this one in Marion County, IN, inmates must sleep in portable containers. Credit: Inside American Jail

This is not really a day of celebration. Personally, I loathe the show. It is lazy, cheap and exploitative. In that regard, it paved the way for all the reality TV on the box today. Off my soap box.

It is worth noting that the 1988 television writers strike gave rise to COPS airing on screens. A desperate Fox Channel signed up after Langley had tried and failed pedaling the format for over six years. Lucky for him. But he was no slouch and worked the opportunity when it arose. Langley struggled early in his career. My guess is his PhD in Aesthetics took his thinking outside of the rote and predictable circles of Hollywoodthink. But TVland came round eventually and Langley has since distinguished himself as a true pioneer of America’s most-loved lowbrow art form.

Inmates in this Utah jail aren't digging an escape tunnel. They're learning to garden. Credit: Inside America, Jail

Inmates in this Utah jail aren't digging an escape tunnel. They're learning to garden. Credit: Inside American Jail

Three years ago, Langley Productions introduced a spin off show that went off the streets and into the jails. Inside American Jail has ventured into sites of incarceration across the nation including the circus-like Maricopa County Tent City. The show won high ratings when the Las Vegas County Sheriff detained O.J.Simpson.

A sign at a Maricopa County jail reads "Vacancy." The rates are good but the atmosphere is lacking. Credit: Inside America, Jail

A sign at a Maricopa County jail reads "Vacancy." The rates are good but the atmosphere is lacking. Credit: Inside American Jail

In many cases the TV cameras show the true harsh realities of institution after institution with stretched resources warehousing troubled folk with few opportunities for rehabilitation. This doesn’t stop them from hamming up the quirks of jail time as evidenced by the promotional images and campy captions (shown within this article) drawn from the show’s website.

Mmm-mmm-good. An Iowa State Penitentiary inmate shows us what lunch in jail looks like. Credit: Inside America, Jail

Mmm-mmm-good. An Iowa State Penitentiary inmate shows us what lunch in jail looks like. Credit: Inside American Jail

With most debates, nothing is cut and dried and an insightful article in the New York Times shows a vaguely compassionate point of view from Langley – who, let’s be honest has made his fortune of the back of America’s criminal justice exploits.

Having seen America’s prison population soar to more than 2.2 million, and with widespread prison overcrowding in California, Mr. Langley says he now believes the nation should be reconsidering which crimes should be punishable by imprisonment. “A lot of our attention is dedicated to arresting people who have drug problems,” he said, “when the real solution may be to rehabilitate them.”

And for your viewing pleasure here’s the ridiculous promo for Inside American Jail

This interview allows Langley to describe where Inside American Jail fits into the larger television ecosystem.

Morgan Spurlock is a decent guy. I’d like to have a beer with him. He lays it out straight. Prisons & jails are boring and hopeless. He knows this because he spent 30 days in a county jail just outside of Richmond, Virginia.

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Spurlock nails it. “One of the most surprising things about prison is that you are pretty much left on your own. all you can do is kinda suck it up and fall into a pattern. I’m gonna get up, gonna eat, gonna play cards, gonna watch TV, gonna do some push ups, do some sits ups, write a letter, read a book….”

He continues, “People will be in their rooms or down here – just hanging out, you know, on the phones. The punishment is the monotony. This is it. You don’t have to think. You’re in jail. There is no thinking involved. And you’re feeding the machine. And you feel like that … you don’t feel like a person in a lot of ways.”

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Spurlock elaborates “I haven’t seen a tree in over two week;, I haven’t seen one blade of grass; I haven’t breathed fresh air. It gets to you being in here … it really does. I see people like George and Randy who keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again. What is the system doing for these guys? They’re stuck! I see this cycle that were putting people in and punishing people for problems we could be helping them with. And the prisons and jails are just becoming a dumping ground. It really is a place that feels hopeless.”

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Spurlock even challenged his sanity by agreeing to a 72 hours stretch in solitary confinement. Spurlock couldn’t comprehend how Randy (mentioned earlier) spent a year in solitary.

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Great series. Great episode. Sobering reality. Spend 45 minutes of your life and witness the monotonous and expensive warehousing of society’s misfits.

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