Our Prison Fixation

by Heather Ernst

Prison life and the practice of incarceration has been a subject of interest among the public for years. When public executions and punishments were no longer a public spectacle, interest in the subject did not falter. People began to wonder: What is life like behind prison bars?

It’s part of the human condition to be curious. Prisoners are outliers, the ones who broke societal rules and expectations. A prison has a distinct culture, but over the years, the barred doors have swung open to let us see what life is truly like for the convicted. Many prisons, like Alcatraz and the Tower of London to name a couple, have become tourist hot spots, drawing crowds from all over the world.

Prison life has been featured in many popular movies: Cool Hand Luke (1967), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and The Green Mile (1999). More recently, television shows about prisons like Oz, Prison Break, and the popular Netflix show Orange Is the New Black have used prison and its inmates as subject matter. Documentaries have covered numerous prison-related topics, from daily life to psychological makeup of high-profile felons, to haunted/abandoned prisons. Why do inmates behave the way they do? How do they act once they’re locked up?

In Unguarded Moments, maintenance worker Larry Neal presents an alternative, first-person account of his interactions with inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary in the 1980s. In contrast to melodramatic presentations in media and television about prisons, this down-to-earth account focuses on Neal’s daily interactions with felons whose crimes aren’t notorious enough to merit a “high-profile” status. Neal’s candid narrative about his interactions with inmates sheds light on these “everyday criminals.”

Since Neal was, in convict slang terms, a “square man” (a staff member who is not an officer), he developed a different kind of relationship with the inmates. He was not a threat; he was there to improve their quality of life in the prison. Often maintenance workers and inmates pulled pranks on each other and would work together on maintenance projects all over the penitentiary. In one instance, a confident younger prisoner continued to bet against an older, more seasoned one, and the stakes were much higher than the normal currency of push-ups.

“One of the bets that became popular for a while was for losers to do a song and dance. That consisted of a shuffling of the feet, a clapping of the hands, and a rendition of the “Quack quack! I’m a duck!” song in a high, quiet, embarrassed voice. … It’s an amazing sight to see some time-hardened, rough, old convict, red-faced and humiliated as a crowd gathered at the plumbing shop door to cheer and whistle.” (58–59)

Stories of harmless practical jokes fill the pages of this memoir, which is surprisingly lighthearted for a work about a major state penitentiary. However, Larry Neal does delve into the more macabre in the chapter “The MSP Gas Chamber.” Even with his inside experience, Neal is not exempt from preoccupation about the room where 40 inmates were executed. He writes:

“I found the chamber fascinating and wondered if that meant I had a twisted mind (something most people took for granted), but I later realized that if so, there were a lot of other similarly warped people. Almost every public tour given of the pen would bog down at this place where men and women had been forcefully launched from the here and now into eternity.” (154)

Our appetite for knowledge on prisons will probably never be satiated. There will always be a burning curiosity about incarceration and the inner workings of a place where society’s worst are kept locked away from the rest of the world.

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One thought on “Our Prison Fixation

  1. Ahhhh… it is such a beautiful idea that prisons are, “a place where society’s worst are kept locked away from the rest of the world.” If people are truly hungry to see what life is like for societies worst, they might be better off going to Wall Street banks and the executive offices of some large corporations.

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