TV review-Louis Theroux’s visit to California’s San Quentin Prison
BBC 2 Monday 7th May 2012 10pm.
San Quentin prison, on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay, holding some of California toughest criminals, resembled a children’s kindergarten at times in this hour long documentary.
Theroux had gained partial access to this large prison holding more than 5,000 prisoners. However he was excluded from the ‘Condemned Unit’ or death row incarcerating some 600 inmates waiting to die by lethal injection, the largest such facility in the Western Hemisphere.
The prisoners interviewed included a transsexual called Debra who due for release, recounted how he had been in and out of prison for the last twenty years, a few months at a time for petty offences. Prison sounded like long term home.
This theme was taken up by another inmate who had been sentenced to an excess of 500 years by the US justice system. He had every thing he wanted in prison he claimed. A roof over his head and three meals a day.
Theroux visited the canteen to show himself eating with the prisoners. He made no observation of the fact that many were grossly over weight. Prisons in the past have trimmed the numbers by starving the inmates to death. Are the American authorities turning this on the head by practicing ‘death by chocolate’ instead?
[Indeed UK Moors Murderer Myra Hindley was allowed to chain smoke 60 cigarettes a day in her small cell. Did this hasten her end?]
The programme also interviewed a number of guards, but never explored the idea that San Quentin gave all of their lives a purpose. The notion of being unable’ to cope on the outside’ was given as justification for the failings of a correctional system that doesn’t correct.
The programme failed to mention that in the 1980’s the USA, under President Reagan, had a prison population of 200,000. A decision was also taken at that time not to have a nationwide healthcare system providing day care centres for the mentally ill. By 2010 there were 2.2 million behind bars with a further 5 million on parole or probation. The total is one in 31 adults of their resident population.
USA Prison population
The USA’s prison population has increased tenfold in less than a life time by sweeping up all those who were simply unable to fit in elsewhere in society.
Theroux did finally touch on the subject when on the final day of their visit they interviewed a prisoner in his own wire mesh cage in the exercise yard. The prisoner was positive that because he was so bad all the prison security was necessary. Theroux asked if he had ever considered he might just be mentally ill?
The man cut quite a pathetic figure in his tiny animal cage deemed as too dangerous to ever be released. While on the other side of the bars the film crew enjoyed the freedom to stop off for a coffee or whatever, on their way to the airport.