What comedy is teaching Americans about their flawed prison system

By Christopher Zoukis

If I had a nickel for every time I read a comment about someone talking about how prisoners have no right to complain about anything, that they’re living the life of luxury with free room and board—a virtual paid vacation!—well I’d have a hefty chunk of change in my commissary account. And if I had a quarter for every time one of those comments came from someone who has absolutely no concept of what life behind bars is like for the average individual, then I’d have enough to fund everyone’s commissary account for the next year.

Because most of the time, people are basing their opinions on the experiences of high profile or celebrity inmates who, by and large, have been incarcerated for white collar crimes. White collar crimes make up less than 10% of federal prosecutions, and an even smaller percentage of those prosecuted actually serve time. So it’s safe to say that the experiences of white collar criminals represents a minority experience—yet it’s the one the casual viewer/reader will most likely associate with when they hear about prison.

Many of those convicted of white collar crimes will serve at minimum security facilities (when the impact of offenses are broader—like in the cases of Bernie Madhoff—they’re more frequently bumped up to medium security nowadays) also have access to the crème de la crème of legal times, who are better able to fight for their right to be housed in “cushier” facilities, often in close proximity to family—that is indeed a luxury not typically afforded to the other 95%.

It is true that issues of cleanliness and safety tend to be more adequately dealt with in certain minimum security facilities, again often due to aforementioned legal teams who are able to fight for their clients in those prisons. The experiences of Martha Stewart is usually forefront on people’s mind when conjuring images of the supposedly luxurious experience of doing time. But even that being said, white collar prisons are not necessarily a walk in the park.  With a few exceptions, the days of “Club Fed” are gone.  It’s something that shows like Orange is the New Black are excelling at: making clear that even the minimum security system is incredibly flawed in its ability to set inmates on the path towards becoming productive citizens upon release.

Because whether you’re housed in the admittedly more physically dangerous medium and maximum facilities, or a minimum security one, the psychological damage remains the same,

Comedian Jeff Ross is pushing the American public even further to confronting the realities of a deeply flawed prison system with a new special on Comedy Central, Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live at the Brazos County Jail, which documents time he spent in a maximum security facility. 

Ross admittedly went into the experience viewing the prisoners as “some strange class of subhumans,” but after just four days, came out of it realizing what those of us in the system know: our prison system is set up to create more hardened criminals, not rehabilitate them. 

But at the end of the day, one of the most difficult impacts of imprisonment will be felt in all types of prisons. Because what people who have never been imprisoned cannot conceive of is how devastating the lack of even the simplest can be. The complete restriction of your freedoms, the fact that you cannot walk out the door into the sunshine when you feel like; that you cannot speak to your loved ones unrestricted—those are the things are truly soul-crushing. And unless they have experienced it first-hand, no one can tell someone who is imprisoned that access (which we pay for) to a television means they’re getting off easy. No one.