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Captive audience.

Prisons have become one of our biggest money-makers lately, whether it's the latest blockbuster at the box office or the new cell blocks going up two towns over. Patrick McCormick wonders whether there's any escaping this American obsession.

LAST YEAR AMERICANS WENT TO THE MOVIES FIVE times to see folks wearing prison gray. We watched a soft-hearted Tom Hanks escort gentle giant Michael Clarke Duncan down The Green Mile. We were entertained by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence's comic send-up of a couple of likeable cons doing Life on the chain gang. In True Crime we cheered on Clint Eastwood as he raced to rescue Isaiah Washington from a date with the electric chair, and in Ernest Gaines' prize-winning A Lesson Before Dying we joined Don Cheadle on a heartbreaking errand of mercy to a man on death row. Then, in The Hurricane (my personal favorite) Denzel Washington's riveting performance as a boxer trapped in an impossible battle delivered a knockout punch that left us stunned and breathless.

What many of us may not have noticed about this recent crop of prison films, however, was that all five of them were about black men who had been wrongly incarcerated. Indeed, for the first time in the history of the movies, every film about American prisons last year told the story of an innocent man, and every one of those men was an African American.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised to see black men cast as convicts. The United States has spent the last three decades building the largest prison system in the world, and we've been steadily filling a growing percentage of the cells with African Americans. In the early 1930s, when Paul Muni was starring in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, blacks made up just over one fifth of all U.S. prison inmates. By the time Denzel Washington wowed us with his portrayal of Hurricane Carter last year, African Americans represented more than half of America's nearly 2 million prisoners. As criminologist Michael Tonry notes in his book Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America (Oxford, 1995), criminal behavior by blacks has not changed much since the mid-1970s, but punishment of African Americans has gotten increasingly more severe.

Indeed, over the past two decades the incarceration rate for blacks in this country has hovered between five and seven times that of whites and has been four times as high as that of blacks in South Africa. And even though African American use of illegal drugs is about the same as whites, blacks have been five times as likely to be jailed for drug offenses.

Nor should we be shocked by stories of black men wrongly convicted of serious crimes. Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project notes in The Race to Incarcerate (New Press, 1999) that African American defendants are three to four times as likely to get the death penalty, while Tonry reports that blacks charged with a broad range of offenses are more likely to be convicted than whites and that black convicts generally serve longer sentences than their white counterparts.

In spite of these facts, though, we're not used to seeing prison films about black men--and certainly not five movies about black men wrongly convicted of violent crimes. Generally, Hollywood films about cons have been thrillers about daring escapes or somber meditations on the cruelty of our punishments. In either case, the protagonists of these cinematic stories--whether daring heroes or hapless victims--have so far almost always been white. Movies about innocent black (or brown or yellow or red) men behind bars have been rare. Five in a single year is some kind of a record.

Prison breaks have been a big hit down at the Bijou for a long time. Since 1908, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo--the granddaddy of all escape epics--has been brought to the big screen 32 times. In 1932 Paul Muni was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the chain gang fugitive. In the `40s Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney played tough guys who went over the wall in Dark Passage (1947) and White Heat (1949).

Escaping cons were back on top at the box office in the early 1990s. Harrison Ford started things off with The Fugitive (1993); a year later, Tim Robbins tunneled to freedom in The Shawshank Redemption. Then in 1996 and 1997 Nicholas Cage became the king of escapees by breaking in and out of jail in The Rock, Con Air, and John Woo's Face/Off.

TWO THINGS ARE STRIKING ABOUT Hollywood s long-term love affair with escaping convicts. First, it's pretty ironic that escaping convicts are such popular heroes in a society that imprisons people at a rate six to 10 times that of other Western democracies. Or that, for two centuries, has left them there longer. Still, we Americans seem to get a heck of a rush out of watching somebody make a break for the wall.

Of course--and this would be my second point--we generally prefer our escapees to be white. From Muni to Cagney to Cage, American audiences have been tickled to see a slew of escaping white men cast as heroic Houdinis. Maybe it's the specter of Willie Horton, but for some reason the notion of black men breaking out of prison doesn't seem as exciting. Among all the prison dramas I could think of, only three portray escaping black men as heroes. Two of them--The Defiant Ones (1958), with Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, and its clone, Fled (1996), with Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin--were basically "buddy" films. And the third, U.S. Marshals (1998) with Wesley Snipes, was little more than a knock-off of The Fugitive.

NOR HAVE ALL PRISON FILMS BEEN escape flicks. Many, like Victor Hugo's novel-turned-movie Les Miserables--with 23 cinematic incarnations since 1909--focus on the brutality of prisons and the humanity of prisoners, raising uncomfortable questions about our society's appetite for punishment. In the Depression-era I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the unlucky hero is given 10 years of backbreaking labor for petty theft.

So, too, in Each Dawn I Die (1939) James Cagney plays an innocent man embittered and crippled by a merciless prison machine. In Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), real-life double murderer Robert Stroud (portrayed by Burt Lancaster) affects a strange, miraculous rehabilitation in spite of a calloused and indifferent corrections system.

The subtext of these films is the forgotten humanity of those we lock up, along with the failure of prisons to be anything more than holding cells engineered to constrain and punish. In 1973--the same year we saw Steve McQueen escape from Devil's Island in Papillon--a report of the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals noted that "the prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it. Their very nature ensures failure.... [B]ureaucratic management of large numbers of human beings [is] counterproductive to goals of positive behavior change and reintegration."

In the 27 years since the commission's report was released, the population of America's prisons and jails has more than sextupled, nearing the 2 million mark this year, with the majority of our inmates drafted from the inner-city ranks of the poor, illiterate, drug addicted, and mentally ill. Statistics from a Justice Department report released in April indicate that even though our imprisonment rate has declined slightly in the past year (for state and local facilities mainly), the U.S. imprisons one of every 147 citizens, on average. We are surpassed only by Russia, which incarcerates roughly one of every 146 citizens. The world's leading jailer, we have half a million more people behind bars than China; we have a quarter of all the planet's prisoners in our cells.

The annual bill for all these prisons is about $40 billion, making prisons the largest public works program in America. Keeping up with a prison population that grows by 50,000 to 80,000 a year further means that since 1980 we've been forced to construct about 1,000 new jails and prisons. For the next decade, at that rate, we would need to add another 1,000-bed facility every week.

There seems to be, quite literally, no end in sight, no escape for us or for those we incarcerate.

What does it mean, then, that Hollywood released five movies last year dealing with prisons, and that all of those movies portrayed prisoners as black and innocent? Is it possible that these films signal a growing unease with America's long-running love affair with imprisonment? Could it be that our sleeping consciences are being stirred by the cries of nearly 2 million souls behind bars?

Last year commentators as conservative as William Buckley and Reagan's former Attorney General Edwin Meese admitted that we may be locking up too many people, and the White House's drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey complained that we were building our own internal gulag in a futile attempt to arrest our way out of the drug problem.

Maybe, nearly 70 years after the release of l Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, we are beginning to ask ourselves again about the rightness of laws and places that leave no room for repentance or rehabilitation. And about what kinds of people we become when we build places like this and leave no cracks for air, or pity.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:McCORMICK, PATRICK
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
Words:1592
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