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Behind Bars

Tuesday, April 2, 2002 by

I’ll readily confess that my sole reason for viewing¬†Behind Bars¬†was the salient and not entirely inconsequential fact that I’m currently employed in a prison.

The one word that comes closest to describing my feelings about this is “unnerving”. It is eerie to eavesdrop on conversations that are being shouted from cellblock window to cellblock window. It is strange to see men being locked up on a Friday night as you leave for home in the knowledge that it will be Monday morning before they are allowed outside their Victorian accommodation again and it is downright bizarre to know that your every move, your every telephone conversation and your every e-mail is being heavily and continuously monitored.

Beneath the cheery bonhomie and the strangely subdued atmosphere, there is a very different world from the one portrayed by Messrs Godber, Fletcher and MacKay. It takes less than five minutes to realise that the “them and us” vibe you’re picking up is a way of life, an indigenous culture. The language of cons and screws is chiselled into stone and practices, processes and protocols, such as they are, are utterly immutable.

However, trust the Americans to exponentially magnify things. I’m not slighting the United States, though. Having lived there for the best part of three years, I love America – after all, look at Michael Jackson. Name me any other country in the entire world where a poor, black boy could grow up to be a rich, white woman. And when it comes to the area of penal establishments, America is indeed the bitch of the world. Bigger, badder and closer to hell than you can possibly imagine, America houses some of the most violent men on the face of the planet in conditions that are closer to Bedlam than Slade. So, this chilling documentary on the worlds’ costliest (and most violent) prison riot provided us with a unique insight and overview into not only the build up, the riot itself and the aftermath but also the event from the perspective of both guards and prisoners who had endured it.

This was a captivating, shocking and, thankfully, unique tale well told – never has the phrase the lunatics have taken over the asylum been more apposite. However, the explanation of the build up to the event itself and its attendant causes was almost as horrifying and incredulous. It seems inconceivable that such a catalogue of errors was allowed to build up but the filmmakers’ fully conveyed this with a succinct frankness. This was underlined when former guards (sorry, correctional officers) relayed their experiences to camera. For 36 hours in 1980, inmates took control of New Mexico Penitentiary. The result of this barbaric mayhem was over $200 million worth of damage (still the benchmark for prison rioters the world over) and 34 dead inmates.

Despite the overall subject matter being extremely dark, this documentary was bathed in light throughout, save for a few grainy cuts to exaggerate certain episodes in the mayhem. These cuts were astringently out of place and perhaps the only flaw in the show. It was incongruous to hear former guards and cons relay their experiences while the sun shone brightly in the sky. The star of the show was the prison psychologist; here was a man unafraid to call it like it was. His chilling description of the sequence of events started off by moving a block of inmates (the prisons’ solitary cases – the worst of the worst) into share an already overcrowded dormitory with low-grade prisoners was fearful and moving. Here was a harbinger of doom, a man who prophesied apocalyptic atrocities. This was conveyed not in the language of a professional psychologist but in the words of a man who had witnessed hell on earth. This was then underlined by a former inmate who told of all day drinking parties by dangerous and psychotic inmates, drunk on home made beer, indulging in gang rapes of the weak. The former inmate described how he’d been offered a “piece” after seven or eight men had had their way. “The smell of faeces was strong, man” he remembered, visibly moved and shocked on recalling his memories.

A guard who was held hostage during this demented madness was in tears as he remembered how a crazed inmate held a severed head in front of his face and taunted him, and two colleagues, of how they would be next. Unable to take the terrifying scene in, he remembered asking one of his colleagues “What was that? What was he holding?” – the cut to a mug shot of the decapitated prisoner was profoundly moving. But the level of barbarity rose; tales of prisoners forming self-styled execution squads and heading to the wing of the jail where the protected prisoners were held then committing a truly terrifying killing spree were beyond chilling. This was evil incarnate. The black and white pictures of some of the dead inmates were like something from a Sam Raimi movie – blow torches being taken to heads, ratchets to batter skulls et cetera. The two former prisoners who were involved in this were stunningly unapologetic. This was inevitable, just the natural evolution of the situation they claimed. Both showed utterly no remorse – clearly, these guys had found closure and weren’t going to lose a moment’s sleep over what had occurred 20 years ago.

Yet amidst all this horror, this carnage, this madness, there was a comic moment. Describing how the inmates’ leaders came out to face the media with a list of demands, a former guard harked back to the brutal conditions the inmates lived in and then informed us that their first demand was for – wait for it – a pool table. Even the guard managed a wry smile. Another (minor) fault of the programme was the failure to cross-examine one guard who blithely skimmed over the brutality he inflicted. He was given a degree of latitude not afforded to some of the former cons. That, however, is a minor quibble. The photography was verdant and informative, the pace tight, the narrative focussed and direct. This was a good instance of documentary but never excellent. All that was really missing was Johnny Cash on the soundtrack. Hell, even the Man In Black wouldn’t have played here.

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