TV Review- Louis Theroux - Miami Mega Jail Part 1- BBC2 Sunday 9pm
I've been watching a lot of Oz lately, the hard hitting US prison drama that attempts to show what life is really like in a maximum security prison. After watching six series of inmates fucking, fighting and killing each other I began to wonder if it wasn't just a teensy bit far fetched. I mean how can prisoners get into so much trouble if they are behind bars most of the day and under constant supervision?
Well, after watching Louis Theroux's blood-curdling new documentary inside Miami County Jail I began to think the writers had toned it down a bit. This place makes the Oswald State Penitentiary look like Buckingham Palace.
With around 7,000 inmates, the Miami County Jail is one of the largest in America. What makes the place slightly odd is that none of the men within its walls have been convicted of their alleged crimes. They are there in medieval limbo awaiting bail or are being held until their trial date which could be a day or several years if an inmate wants to put enough "distance" between themselves and the facts. In America, prison is where you go once you have been convicted and jail is where you stay pre-trial. That is, if you make it to trial.
Louis heads straight to the 5th floor where the nastiest scumbags are housed. He gets talking to a reasonably verbose criminal through the peeling bars of his cell about a recent fight that occurred.
"They got a saying in the jailhouse. Snitches get stitches"
is his measured response. The victim was rumoured to be an informant and was set upon as punishment. We catch up with Warren, the "snitch", in hospital the following day. His face looks like a bag of bruised plums. Louis delicately asks if he cooperated with the state.
"You know what my charge is? Driving with a suspended licence"
With a case like that he is hardly going to targeted by the FBI to rat on the Crips. It seems in this jail if your face doesn't fit it will get battered until it does.
In the "safety cells" housing some of the most violent prisoners, inmate Rodney lays down prison law or "The Code". Stacked twenty four to a cell "The Code" can only be described as the law of the jungle. Fighting is the only way to survive inside jail. Inmates fight to earn respect, rise up the pecking order and prevent getting raped, extorted and generally taken advantage of. There is an area of the cell called "The Paint" where prisoners go at it. Winners are awarded a bottom bunk whose kudos makes future beef with new inmates less likely.
It is made crystal clear that the weaker inmates or "ducks" are openly abused and preyed upon by the stronger prisoners. If they are lucky the families of targets can effectively be extorted for protection money. If they are unlucky they would be
"Fed to the wolves"
When Louis asks why inmates don't report threatening behaviour to guards he is met with hoots of derision. The guards themselves let the behaviour continue as they say they the inmates run the jail cells themselves and more importantly they are rarely told as there are severe repercussions for any prisoner caught "checking in" with guards. To defend this dubious practice of picking on the weak Louis is offered this wonderful bon mot:
"The name of the game is GABOS. The Game Ain't Based On Sympathy"
The way the jail is set up it is quite clear that if you are a bespectacled, white weakling you are absolutely fucked. Interestingly, the next chap that Louis interviews is one such person. Nianthony looks like he would have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag. He is college educated and intelligent enough to know he is in for a world of pain. He has the look of a man who knows he has about to get shafted in more ways than one.
"It's fucking awful...It's a fucking shithole. They are going to put me with 20 other crazy people and there is nothing I can do about it"
We see the colour drain from Niathony's face as he attempts to blend into the wall when another unpredictable inmate explains what they do to "hot boys".
"When you come to this jail and you known to be snitches you get beat bap bap bap! They gonna line him up. That means one dude gonna get him bap bap bap! Then he get tired and the next one gonna get him bap bap bap!"
Louis is then introduced the practice of "gunning" where inmates masturbate at female guards as they walk by. One gold toothed guy calmly explains
"People done be down 3 or 4 or 5 years without seeing a woman so I guess that's their way of getting off"
As if to emphasise the point one of the inmates starts wanking in front of the camera. Later, another inmate notorious as a habitual masturbator is asked why he doesn't feel any embarrassment for his degrading behaviour.
"You know what I be tellin 'em? Eat it up of write it up"
Louis then gets the rare opportunity to go inside one of the cells. In his unassuming style and with a "how do you do?" Louis instantly becomes the wettest guy ever to set foot inside the cell. He talks to the leader Rodney and asks him what would happen to him if ended up in a cell for real. Rodney's posse fall about laughing
"They would just slap the shit out of you. Nigga might just hang out on you. They will party on you...oh man"
It is made increasingly clear that as Louis is more Cambridge then Compton he is likely to get stomped big time.
At times the documentary plays out like some gruesome David Attenborough piece about predatory hyenas or some low budget sci-fi version of No Escape with inmates left to run wild with self-made rules that would qualify as "meaningless savagery" in the outside world.
A culture of fighting is the norm and the prison guards don't seem to do much about it. When Louis questions the head guard his response is somewhat defensive.
“Do you by chance have $600m in your back pocket? That’s what its going to cost to build a state-of-the-art facility. We have to make do with what we have.”
In The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky said:
"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons"
On this evidence America has more in common with Zimbabwe then it does with the rest of the "free world".