Jailhouse Gawk

Can boozing behind bars help calm fears of the pen?

By Gerry Christopher Johnson
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 18, 2010

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As calm, collected and continent as I strive to be, there are two things mortifying enough to ruin even my most absorbent boxer briefs. The first is a cockroach crawling on my face. The second and most frightening scenario: going to jail.

Even though the thought of doing a bid terrifies me, on many Saturday nights I trade the bar for my couch, where I curl up with a carton of Turkey Hill ice cream and a marathon of Locked Up, MSNBC’s series documenting real mass murderers, drug dealers and transsexual prostitutes who fascinate me as much as they freak me out.

But how accurately do Locked Up and other prison shows depict the reality of life in the pen? Eastern State Penitentiary presented the perfect opportunity to find out.

The event was billed as a celebration of the latest artistic installations at the prison-turned-historic site, but for me it would be a practice run—just in case the Feds finally came after me for downloading Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, tearing the Do Not Remove tag off my mattress, turning my copy in ridiculously, embarrassingly late or any of my other various antisocial crimes.

I couldn’t have picked a more ominous night for wandering around a haunted prison. By 6:45 p.m., darkness had just begun to fall, and so had had rain from the gray clouds hovering over the sprawling 19th-century fortress. “A storm’s a brewin’,” I thought to myself. Judging by the smell of it, so was some food. Starving, I raced inside.

I walked past the gift shop and into the cell block, where patrons stood around gabbing with plates and beers in hand. However, there were no servers or food stations to be found. “It’s okay,” I assured myself. “Even if the food has already been eaten, the historical treasures are nourishment enough.”

That lie was short-lived, as I soon was at the point of pulling a Jean Valjean on a passing Italian hoagie. Given how that worked out for Jean, I resolved to find some food before I ended up in the clink for 19 years. I was tempted to rummage through the stones, dust and moss inhabiting the interior of each cell for some old cereal or other prison foodstuffs that may have survived from the ’60s.

I frantically wandered through the maze of hallways, greeted at every turn by chipped concrete, dreary cells and socializing people. Hungry and hopeless, I wondered if this was desperation borne of being in the place I feared—or just of being fat.

But I finally found a reason to rejoice, namely a table stocked with pad thai, hoagies and ziti. “Is this prison food?” I asked the server, who scooped a serving of buffalo shrimp onto my plate. “They wish,” she laughed.

Food in my belly, I stumbled across an ceramics installation by Judy Moonelis called “Brain Cell,” based on the stunted neurons of prisoners kept in solitary confinement too long; ESP’s designers philosophized that solitude aided in rehabilitation and, at first, used that method on all their prisoners. According to the inscription, Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842 and described the harm inflicted by solitary confinement as the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain.”

Was Dickens describing solitary confinement or getting drunk? I wondered. I ordered some red wine and went about my own slow and daily tampering with my own brain.

Another installation, “I Always Wanted to Go to Paris, France” by Alexa Hoyer, consisted of three television sets placed around the prison, each showing clips from prison-themed movies relating to that area they’d been placed in. I was shocked (shocked!) to find the television in the shower cycling through a homoerotic montage of famous shower scenes, bare flesh and all. Was I in a museum or a bathhouse?

However, I didn’t come here to get off. I left the comforts of the shower and went out to the courtyard, where arrows pointed me toward solitary confinement, known as the Klondike. I also ventured into the cell block known as death row, where the most dangerous criminals were kept until they were shipped off to meet their makers. Both were dark, creepy and dirty, just as I’d imagined.

Finally, I came across a sign (I later found out it was part of another art installation, which made a lot of sense) that described “dark tourism,” ESP’s bread and butter, which involves visiting places of large-scale death and suffering. “Poverty Tourism, Grief Tourism, Suicide Tourism, Assassination Tourism, and Prison Tourism,” were major subgenres, the sign read, tongue in cheek. Others pointed off down hallways to distant Antietam and Rwanda.

“How sick it that I’m enjoying buffalo shrimp as I check out the prison-industrial complex for entertainment value?” I thought. I left, ashamed, but not ashamed enough to not grab another glass of wine on the way out.

The next night, another Locked Up marathon came on. I changed the channel. My stint as a dark tourist is over—until HBO starts showing Oz reruns again.

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