Sunday 13 January 2008

Louis Theroux Behind Bars

At 2,193,798 the USA has the highest prison population in the world. Higher even than the 1,548,498 languishing in Chinese jails. Even if you look at imprisonment rates per 100,000, the USA stands at 737 as compared to an increasingly authoritarian Russia, whose figure is 615. Land of the Free it ain't. Perhaps first among the USA's archipelago of correctional institutions is San Quentin State Prison in California. It has been home to celebrity serial-killer (and celebrity serial-killer), Charles Manson; Wallace Fard Muhammed, the Nation of Islam founder; and Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy. It incarcerates some of America's worst criminals and has a pretty forbidding reputation, further "enhanced" by the presence of California's death row.

San Quentin is a sprawling and overcrowded site. Founded in 1852, its current inmate capacity is designed to hold 3,317 prisoners while the current population stands at 5,222. It employs 1,718 staff and sucks in $210 million a year. Californian state spending on education is lower than money allocated to its complex of prisons. Inmates tend to be divided among five gangs that operate roughly along racial lines, which can periodically erupt in outbursts of collective violence. For example, 45 were injured in a four-block confrontation between white and latino gangs in August, 2005. This is not untypical. Overall, the situation is exacerbated by the huge growth in numbers passing through the penal system. Official statistics record an increase from 59,484 in 1986 to 2006's 172,528! This can only fuel institutional and intra-inmate violence in the system.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it is one of the grimmest places within the borders of the United States, and that makes it ideal fodder for a Louis Theroux documentary. What is different about this programme is the absence of the doe-eyed send up treatment meted out to the likes of the loathsome Phelps clan and UFO cultists. It is serious and sombre, and by striking this mood the audience is able to peer over San Quentin's walls and get a beginning of an understanding of what it must be like to live within them.

Louis spends some time with the white separatist/supremacist Barbarian Brotherhood and they quickly introduce him to the rules of the game, which is simple: no contact with other races on pain of a severe beating. In return, according to 'Playboy' Nolan (a former gang member segregated for his own protection), the gang acts as an extended family, providing food, security, and drugs. In return they expect loyalty and obedience, and woe betide anyone who 'resigns'. Playboy's aware that leaving his gang has earned him a death sentence and one that will follow him beyond the jail. Another inmate kept in the so-called Alpine section (protective custody) tells Louis how he dropped out because he refused an order to stab his cellmate ... for borrowing a set of dominoes from a black prisoner. However, Louis believes gang culture is strong inside because its a way of creating camaraderie in a system designed to atomise its inmates. But its more than just that. Playboy tells us when he grew up on the streets the gang provided the acceptance and love denied him through more conventional means. For men in his position, the gang provides a reassuring presence in the traumatic transition from street to jail. Gang loyalty and culture is strengthened as a result.

Louis also speaks to Debra, a trans inmate due for release during filming. Talking to her and her partner Rob, they tell him how trans prisoners have become objects of lust in the absence of female company, and are much prized as cellmates. Chris, an openly gay prisoner, tells Louis how being out actually helps him to survive. By plucking his eyebrows, wearing a bit of make up, and acting effeminately he (and others like him) are seen as 'girls' by the general population of his wing and are more likely to avoid the threats facing straight inmates. Also, being in the closet and then getting found out is far more dangerous than being open from the start.

As a Louis Theroux show, it wouldn't be the done thing if he didn't seek out the most dangerous of the dangerous. He interviews David Silver, a man who will serve 521 years plus 11 life sentences(!) for the violent home invasion robberies he carried out. Unlike many, his crimes were not driven by drug dependency. He'd been in juvenile facilities from 11 until he reached 20, and was behind bars again when he was 22. Time inside meant his career prospects were always going to be a McJob life of low wages and long hours. So he turned to crime as a short cut to the lifestyle enjoyed by average Americans. He does accept responsibility for what he did and acknowledged he did know better. But now he's resigned himself to life behind bars, a life where the stress of a keeping a job, insecurity, and staying up to date with the rent don't apply. If an inmate can narrow their horizons and not think about the company of women, freedom of movement, etc, they can cease to be important and life can be pleasant enough.

Louis's interactions with the guards were quite interesting. Most seemed quite friendly and comfortable with the prisoners - it's hard to say whether this was a Potemkin-like display for the benefit of the BBC. If it was, Louis was certainly taken in by their "genuine warmth". One guard admitted how you can't help but build friendly rapport with people incarcerated for years, but it would nevertheless be wise to avoid friendship. Another spoke almost affectionately of Playboy, who he knew he would see again after his release because "they cannot function on the streets". He also believed inmates didn't want to learn skills they can use for the outside world, because prison provides free bed and board. "They're a somebody in prison, but a nobody on the streets" he concluded.

Louis Theroux should be thanked for exposing this harsh truth about institutionalisation and re-offending. When people are locked up and the key is thrown away, what possible incentive is there for prisoners to accept mainstream norms and abide by correctional rules? And what effect is surviving in such an environment likely to have on those who are released? Well, official statistics for California show 23,849 former inmates were readmitted to prison in 1986, and by 2006 this had shot up to 90,500. Prison as punishment in California's case is a marked failure.

It is silly to pretend crime will disappear with the building of socialism. In the context of very different social relationships, characterised by a progressive overcoming exploitation and alienation by empowering masses and masses of people, the material basis of crime will change. Crimes of property are likely to decline, as are numbers of violent offences, but there will remain the need to incarcerate those who pose a danger to the rest of the population. Peering into my rouge-tinted crystal ball, in a society that encourages human potential, prison life will be about rehabilitation. Where this is not possible, prisoners will be humanely treated and allowed to develop their potentialities as much as their situation allows. Now, such a vision of the socialist prison may seem hopelessly utopian from today's standpoint, but it is founded on principles that can be used for policy generation now. Chief among them would be measures aimed at reducing institutional violence and negating brutalisation, and wider policies attacking the material roots of crime. But all this is alien to the prevailing orthodoxy in Britain and the USA, where rehabilitation programmes are under attack and more prisons are being built. The hang 'em and flog 'em brigade are very much part of the problem. They have no solutions.


Seán said...

Great post. Rehabilitation is not an issue when a society is so violent. And I'm not talking about the prisoners' violence. The prison system mirrors in many ways the society.

This was indeed an excellent documentary and Theroux was on top form: he let his subjects speak. You're right, this was a serious and sombre film and when dealing with nut jobs, Theroux always feeds the rope to his victims. Here, as I said, he just let the prisoners explains their past and situtions. His questioning was spot on too.

Moment for me, however, was the scene with the ex-Nazi and his gay boyfriend, who was jewish! How fucked up was that scenario!

Amazing though, after all the indoctrination, people can sometimes see beyond they their ideological conditioning.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

hi phil, just to say I agree with what you say about crime & prison under socialism. Another point about the current criminal justice system is the high number of people with mental disorders in prison at the moment. I think Brian Caton described it as a warehouse for all societies ills.

Incidentally, I've put up two articles from the socialist on prisons where I advocate a socialist policy twoards them - what do you think

scott redding said...

Is there anywhere I can read more about prison situations under "actually existing socialism" ... here's one of the only things I can find on Cuba's prison system which cites: "productive work for full pay; clean, uncrowded facilities; excellent medical facilities; educational programs and conjugal visits"

"in the maximum security prisons I visited, I encountered very few murderers among the prisoners I selected at random for interviews. In US maximum security prisons, the proportion of murderers would have been much higher. It would not be surprising if Cuba in fact had a far, far lower crime rate than the United States because the population does not have a high level of transiency, which is often a concomitant of high crime rates. Also, private possession of firearms is probably rare in Cuba while it is pervasive in the United States. So is private possession of automobiles, which are often involved in crime here. Finally, traffic in drugs appears to be virtually unknown in Cuba."

Leftwing Criminologist said...

I've been trying to look at prisons in venezuela and the better sources I can find tend to human rights watch and amnesty international, although these have a narrow focus on prisoners rights and not on crime and criminal justice generally

Anonymous said...

Good post.

I think you give Theroux too much credit. I dont feel he really explored the issues in the prison, he just followed the best story. Its almost like him making a serious documentary is an accident coming from him wanting to make a watchable documentary. And if those guards were representative of the whole guard population, im a monkeys uncle. Or something like that. Got a post on it over at my blog if you care to take a look.

Also, i felt the most hopeful thing about the piece were the relationships that formed (relationships that plenty of people would find challenging to accept in the 'real' world) If that kind of personal transformation is possible in those kind of conditions... well its a good sign for politics with a big p.

steven rix said...

I never understood "violence" and in fact I've never experienced violent behaviors until I came to the USA. My 1st encounter with a US citizen was an experience that I will never forget because she was a pathological nutcase. That said I still continue to persuade myself there are good people out there, but there is something wrong actually with the system. For example the number of jailed people is far from the percentage of the racial disparity represented in the USA. Ipso facto there is an idea or a even a truth that all the people are not treated equally which is in perfect contradiction with my ideals and my education. Also I found out that many Americans from protestant descent put the blame on the catholic Irish, and they end up convincing themselves it is a genetic problem while they are blinded by religious concepts. Therefore there is an idea that our God is not the same, and then justice is not just. I believe that 6.5% of Americans will end up some day in jail. That's a lot compared to other international statistics, so there is something wrong with that and we cannot deny it.

First of all, I think that "violence" is inherent to people. You don't need to belong to a gang to be violent. When you are in a gang you are expected to be violent because these are the rules with their hierarchy. But even in a normal society, violence does exist. The guy in the US who will lose his house because he did not make his mortgage payment might put the blame of his wife and will punch her in the nose, or he will turn into drugs, if he cannot go back to the normal way of his life. Therefore there is an idea that capitalism in decline is the source of violence although the society expects them to straight themselves up; otherwise they will be sent to jail. In fact I would even advance safely that there is a correlation between economic achievements and violence, but the problem cannot be treated foremost if we cannot deal with the deviations of a society. It is a rather complicated issue because I am not a psychologist first, but the logical issue is self-evident: in a society when people are expected to achieve themselves through economic competences and performances (to make a living) I firmly believe that "corporations" and "financial entities" are excluded from the blame game. In fact we only deal with individualistic issues rather than treating the problem as a whole in the society. In the long run, the bright side of individualism may end up in jail because the government and its laws by association have a different approach on violence, and they'll tend to forget the whole picture that violence and crimes are intertwened with capitalism in ignoring not only the source of the conflict but also the expectations of their society. Maybe this is why people turn their back to socialism. For my part, I think that violence can be defused if you put people on a welfare system, but then again it may not be part of the solution because violence is unpredictable, and it is a complicated phenomena that cannot be solved in a few minutes: even people on welfare can be violent although I would expect a decrease in violence.

I've seen people going out of jail in the US and every time they go out they feel bitter and angry at the world, and they keep coming back to jail (recividism). The rehabilitation programs are extremely poor in the US, it depends on which state you live in. Usually you find more people in jail with less skills (another problem that should be taken into account with the deviations of our society) and learning something during jail time may be the key to rehabilitate them correctly so that they can find a job.

... etc

Foxessa said...

One of the reasons Cuba has fewer murderers in its prison system is that the gemeral population, unlike ours, is unarmed. Handguns in particular, are rare. Because Cuba is as dedicated in action as well as in word, to keeping the nation free of drug smuggling, you cannot smuggle in arms either.

Nor when you leave your National Service in the military can you easily scam your issued weapons back home, as happened so widely here during the Vietnam era.

Occasionally a murder will happen, but it is 'personal,' and done up close, often with a machete, which every household has several of, because, again, National Service has for so many generations included working in the cane fields. And because there is very little access to processed foods.

You need to kill your chickens by your own hand (both for dining and for religious rites), bring down your plantanos and cocos from the palms -- and cut them free and open too. So even urban households have machetes, and even an adolescent girl knows the rudiments at least for the kitchen, in how to handle one.

Love, C.

steven rix said...

Hi Foxessa;
People kill other people in many ways, they don't need a gun to kill somebody, but chances to kill somebody with a gun are more successful than killing somebody with a machete. We can blame the guns for the instantaneous death of someone, but the result in itself does not come from the gun but from the violent behavior of the crime perpetrator. In fact the judicial system ignores the root causes and it prefers to treat them once it is too late. Removing guns in the US is not the solution, because there are so many guns here that we do need a gun to feel protected (self-defense in accordance with our constitutional rights). If you remove guns, we may see a decrease in murders, but it won't take care of violent behaviors. The human being is a natural born killer, and he can even kill with its fists.

Phil said...

LC, I completely agree with both your articles. The right are very happy to use crime as a bludgeon to quell any kind of reasoned debate about punishment and rehabilitation, so it's important socialists are spot on about our policies. One thing that you didn't go into were issues around policing. Historically our organisation has always argued for the democratisation of the police, and since leaving my ultra-leftist days behind, it's a very reasonable demand to have. What we need to think through is how to integrate policing with the crime reduction strategies socialists have always favoured (i.e. poverty alleviation, job creation, community empowerment, etc.). Have you (or anyone else) got any thoughts on this?

Phil said...

I think you're being overly pessimistic about human beings, Politiques. Humans are not natural born killers. We are sentient thinking and feeling beings, which means we have as much potential to inflict harm as we have to do good deeds. Capitalism may well be a twisted social system that screws people up, but even so the vast majority would baulk at committing physically violent acts. I forget the research now (ha! there go my pretensions to being a serious, rigorous academic), but one study presented evidence that suggested the majority of US combatants in WWII wilfully missed or shot to injure rather than shoot to kill enemy soldiers.

On capitalism and psychological disorders, A Bit Like Lenin has posted on this issue recently. It's also worth noting that much of the anti-psychiatry movement that grew up in the sixties was in opposition to individualising mental pathologies, and abstracting patients outside of their social context. Speaking from a position of relative ignorance, I suspect some of the hostility directed toward psychoanalysis can be attributed to its emphasis on the role of the social in the formation of our psyches.

steven rix said...

Hi Phil BC;
I truthfully think I am not being pessimistic, and my conclusion is not based on personal observations either. I'd rather think i was not clear enough in my writing which is one of my worse habits when you cannot express in your mother tongue, but then again English is such a wonderful language.
First of all, the human being is a "natural born killer" for a simple reason: killing is not a social skill, you don't have to learn it to be able to kill somebody, it belongs to your instincts, or your "rational" choice/decisions to do that. I chose to put the word rational into parenthesis because it is not always rational with pathological cases. In essence killing belongs to nature, it may be a natural act, right? We don't have to forget the anthropologists whose conclusions are based on rational observations in a society. There are many ancient societies whose killing actions were characterized by a natural phenomena (IE ritual sacrifices or cannibalism to cite only a few ones that come to my mind). Now in our western society, that reached a sufficient critical level of thinking, since the biblical holy writings, we learned that killing is not right ("Thou shall not kill") and punishement always prevails to whoever kills anyone, although most of them never get caught. The penitentiary system is the cage to isolate somebody from the society that does not share this behavior because the society failed to prevent these actions and because the human being is not necessarly good. This is why for this particular case that "violence" is inherent. It belongs to anyone but people sometimes in their life make the wrong decisions. But then again it is not something that you can categorize as a whole since a society with laws can attribute different circumstances to an event. Sometimes people have to kill to survive (self-defense) which means for this case that killing is the ultimate refuge to defend your life against somebody else. So killing represents something bad although sometimes it turns out to be for the best. But then again it's wrong and I always attributed this behavior to "violence", therefore "violence" is inherent in ourselves, and you cannot remove it from the society except by putting people in jail, in other words any society preaching the good always failed at some point.

Maybe I'm being a moral psychologist or a moral philosopher. Nietzsche at one point in his life said he was the 1st philosopher to be a great psychologist, which is absurd. One can trace the connections between philosophers and psychologists to the greeks. Lots of philosophers were obsessed with human psychology with people like Lock or Shoppenhauer, but the subjects were pushed apart from another in the XXth century, but in my eyes Nietzsche deserve some profound thoughts since he gave us a psycho-analysis of morals and religions, way before people like Freud, in a naturalistic way. This is what I am trying to emulate sometimes in biological terms rather than religious terms. "If you want to talk about morality, don't talk about its devine concepts but talk about human motivations that underline it". We need to explain morality, instead of justifying it.

steven rix said...

It's also worth noting that much of the anti-psychiatry movement that grew up in the sixties was in opposition to individualising mental pathologies, and abstracting patients outside of their social context. Speaking from a position of relative ignorance, I suspect some of the hostility directed toward psychoanalysis can be attributed to its emphasis on the role of the social in the formation of our psyches
Excellent point. This is why I never judged anyone because I never know the external factors.
I also cannot deny that an individual is a simple product of a society. For example I was reading on the BBC website that during the next 20 years the number of people with a nevrosis in the UK was going to grow and it would reach around 50% of the population. At this point we have to ask ourselves if there is something wrong in our society and searching the causes (any society) or if this statistical fact is determined by the precision of our research tools.
For my part, and I may be wrong, I think that any society has its own social disease. Shopoholism for example is a disease of our society with credit-cards: the human being feels depressed then he has to spend money that it does not have, then it goes on a rampage charging the credit-cards, and he feels even more depressed, then he has to spend more so that he can release the depression.
There is also an enigma with capitalism and it is harder to decipher because you have to replace the original contexts of justice, but I came to the following conclusion right now: justice in the US is not just, the poor does not escape from this reality while the wealthiest (corporate criminals et al) will always get out most of the time. In other words, the "pursuit of happiness" through accumulation of wealth may push people to act the wrong way. One of the most crucial examples I found was this pharmaceutical company in the US that was developing a painkiller medication to make people more addicted physically so that they can enlarge their profit margins.
I think it is a big issue that would deserve not a fine but some jail terms because we are talking about a huge amount of the US population being addicted to this medication (I believe it's called oxxysummfin). But justice is blind, because it tolerates perfectly in a capitalist system that in order to make it yourself you have to crush other people. This is what I call the deviations of a society; it is a very interesting subject, but I don't know anybody who worked on this subject, so I just can contribute with my modest thoughts. The socialists have one point, but I'm pretty sure we'll find other social diseases in a socialist society. Once again there is no perfect society when we compare them statistically, and people often reason first in terms of money without looking at other bright things.

... etc

Keep enlightening us please.

steven rix said...

I remember watching a documentary called "the most hated family in America" and I just realized that it had been done by Louis Theroux.

Anonymous said...

my girlfriends just told me that she thinks he should change his name to 'louis therouxy'.she thinks it sounds well caberet and coupled with his recent subject matter, he could vastly increase the camper side of his audience.

personally i see him as i see most wooly liberal journalists - helpful to give us info for articles,blog posts and pub conversation...but ultimatley wankers with silly hair.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend the following book

James Gilligan MD writes about violence in prisons is so harrowing and disturbing it is up there with a horror book. I got really bad nightmares after reading it but it would not stop me recommending it.

I think Louis Theroux was top of jhis game with the recent documentary. He does it the way he does it - he doesn't claim to be sociologist or anything. I like his humanity and how he uses it to expose others lost humanity.

What would prison or rehabilitation look like under socialism - well who knows really. I am a criminal justice social worker working with the police currently and I can see lots of good initiatives the problems are they are not the norm and people's attitudes really do stink. But I can also vouch that there are people in our community who I really don't think should be there and the would be better in a secure unit or something other than our communities. I know it sounds harsh but there are some weird nasty people out there. Anyway don't have much time to post much more and will take time to read left criminologist stuff.

Anonymous said...

MyspaceTV have just launched the BBC Worlwide channel and you can watch the latest episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends for free.  There's loads more on there as well - The Mighty Boosh, Top Gear, The Royle Family, plus Sci-Fi, Drama... (etc)

Check it out here:


Anonymous said...

---Louis's third? ---fourth run
on the prison theme?

Certainly, as the police state
surveillance grid undeniably encompasses us, the Tavistock Institute/BBC predictive programming is NOT the marvel of
subtlety it once was.

Anyway, time for Theroux to get
beyond the Harry Potter pose
(---and accent?). Time to leave
the elite, propaganda arm BBC.
Time to turn the cameras on the
'Big Boys' ---the 'hidden masters'
of Globalism.

Time for---


We can see it now! Louis chatting
up Eveleyn de Rothchild, Ted Turner
and David Rockefeller---

"SO, is cancer the new pimples?
---should we start thinking of
Beria and Himmler as 'pver zealous'? ---was MAO the Martha
Stewart of social engineering?"

-------------------CAN'T WAIT!