If you’ve read the book or watched the series on foxtel, ‘Orange is the new black,’ it might seem as though our culture has an affinity to life in the ‘big house’ and ‘selling the drama’ of criminal activity. Tele-dramas, movies, and even documentaries set inside prisons are all making their foray into homes across Queensland on any given weeknight. With TV shows such like the new series of “Wentworth” dramatizing life behind bars in Australia, it’s pertinent to ask the question, how close to the truth are these portrayals?
I grew up familiar with Ronnie Barker playing “Porridge” and that famous opening line “you are a career criminal with no chance or rehabilitation, who sees being caught as only an occupational hazard.” Hollywood and romanticized tele-dramas, slapstick comedy and even the latest suite of journalistic tv-documentaries are all painting a picture. But does that picture fit?
It might be easy for us to imagine prisoners in Queensland wearing bright orange jumpsuits and organizing themselves into gangs, demarked by their tattoos. We might imagine that prisons are action packed settings where there is always something brewing, with politicking being the order of the day and commissions from the rampant drug trade finding their way to the pyramid’s peak. It might all sound exciting and alluring and no doubt, it gives us something to talk about over coffee after church.
We’d be wrong.
Prisoners do get involved in fights – yes. Prisoners can be sexually assaulted even – yes. Prisoners might be involved in trying to gain access to contraband – yes.
But the truth is: large prisons are just really, really boring.
The best description I’ve ever heard was from a prisoner doing a laggin (sentence): It’s like being stuck in traffic on the south-east freeway, all by yourself in your car, wanting to go somewhere, but you can’t. All you can do is sit there and grind your teeth. And get frustrated by the car in front which isn’t going anywhere either.
Prisoners are bored, and this boredom leads to frustration. And when you look at the statistics around mental health and drug addiction for those who are in prison, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the powder-keg does explode.
The other big issue that predicates life in prison is isolation.
14.5 hours a day in your cell (the size of your home bathroom really), is a long time. No smartphone, internet, telecommunications, or comfy couch in front of a widescreen tv. No meal time with the family. Dinner is normally a bit after 4pm before being locked away by 5pm for the night.
Now the loneliness is now being broken up by the issue of overcrowding, with two prisoners to a one prisoner cell – which is being handled as best as possible by a department stretched in its resources – but overcrowding has only made things much, much worse.
Life in jail “doing time” is exactly that. Time spent staring at the wall counting the years, the months, the days, even the seconds until ‘getting out’… And by then, some find that the habit of doing time is so entrenched in their psyche that life on the outside is a terrifying prospect. We call that institutionalization and anyone who serves 5 years or more is potentially eligible for a disability services pension as a result.
Whilst this all sounds gloomy and soul-destroying, some prisoners are finding hope for today, tomorrow and their future in Jesus. Some have found that the time they have in their cells is time in which they can be productive in bible-studies and other educational programs. Time spent in prayer and worship, even watching “God TV” and hearing preachers edify them in their faith.
But in order to get through the time, and to break the frustration of isolation and boredom, meaningful engagement with positive members of the community is critical.
Enter the chaplain.
Many times a chaplain will hear the words “I couldn’t do this without you” and known all too well that the prisoner speaking those words is perhaps telling truth for the first time in their life.
So next time you turn on the box, bear in mind that what you are watching is the ‘highlights’ reel. Perhaps switching to ‘white noise’ might be a more accurate portrayal of prison life.