I Don’t Really Know Anything About Prison
Not from experience anyway (and I’m pretty happy about that). But as a gent who’s written and published some crime fiction, I’d done a fair share of reading books and watching programs about prison life. After all, one must have some level of authenticity to comment on things.
So there I was, at some crime fiction convention, talking with noir impresario Eddie Muller about prison in general and the HBO show Oz in particular, which had just concluded its last season. I was a fan of the show, and especially the character of Tobias Beecher (thanks in large part to Lee Tergesen’s excellent portrayal). Beecher was the show’s “regular guy,” a white-collar worker who landed in prison for vehicular manslaughter after killing a girl while driving drunk. A tragic story that could happen, under the right circumstances, to almost anybody.
Along those thematic lines, Eddie recommended You Got Nothing Coming, Jimmy Lerner’s first-hand account of how he went from mid-level executive to low-level prison fish.
I’m a man who can take a recommendation (especially from the czar of noir), so I read it. I enjoyed it. And I learned three things from it. Well, to be fair, I learned many things about life prison from this book, but there were three main takeaways:
Always Get a Lawyer
Sure, you hear this all the time. But after reading Lerner’s account of the circumstances that landed him in prison, it really hit home. An excerpt:
“I knew that once the detectives heard the whole story, once I told them all about the Monster, once I explained it all, they would understand. They would take the cuffs off and let me go. I didn’t need a lawyer.
They didn’t understand.
They arrested me for murder.”
Prison is Not a Nice Place
Yeah, no kidding. We’ve seen the documentaries about how crowded, violent, and downright nasty prisons are. But reading the account of a “regular guy” trying to navigate the social structure of incarceration really made the whole idea of being in prison feel quite alienating and lonely.
Prison Food is Terrifying
I remember (too vividly) some of Lerner’s stories about food preparation in the prison’s kitchen. But even without the special added ingredients (mainly a variety of bodily fluids) added to the food, prison cuisine is something I’m more than happy to pass on, as evidenced by Thrillist’s recent Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Prison Food (which was the inspiration for this whole post).
If you, like me, have some passing interest in prison life without feeling the need to ever visit one, here are a few other resources you may find interesting:
- Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
- Prisoners’ Inventions by “Angelo”
- Behind Bars: Surviving Prison by Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards
- Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal Colony by Jennifer Wynn
- Green River Rising by Tim Willocks. This book, the only title on this short list classified as fiction, got me interested in philosopher Jeremy Bentham (who was one really odd dude) and his Panopticon.