DVR Chronicles: United Shades of America Ep. 2 “This Isn’t the Usual Situation”

~Lorenzo Patrick (@smartspeak89)

This week’s episode of United Shades of America should’ve been sponsored by Murphy’s Law. It’s one thing to understand the general point that prison reform is needed. It’s another to find out where to start. W. Kamau Bell’s trip to prison highlighted a number of possible places. Of course, CNN couldn’t just go to any prison. They sent Bell to San Quentin, America’s most camera-ready notorious prison.

It would be very easy for this episode to be a deluge of statistics and finger-wagging, since mass incarceration is a pseudo-election issue. There were some necessary numbers provided, but it really did a great job of staying focused on the life of a prisoner. Imagine an episode of Lockup but with Kamau Bell on commentary. As much as there was to like this week, I still feel like there was more that could’ve been done with the topic. Here’s my 10 thoughts from this week’s show:

  1. The recidivism rate (or the rate at which prisoners return to jail) is 60% within three years. That’s still incredible to me.
  2. San Quentin used to be one of America’s “worst” prisons. Now, thanks to the sheer number of rehabilitation programs it has, is now one of the best. That’s also coupled with a shift from being a Level 4 security facility to a Level 2. The difference between which, according to Bell, is a “frothy episode of Oz” and a Martha Stewart-type prison.
  3. Pinochle is prison’s most popular card game, in case you were wondering. It’s complicated and takes tons a time in a place where time is infinite. Makes sense.
  4. San Quentin has a newspaper that has circulation in the general public called San Quentin News. Journalism students from local colleges do their research, then the inmates write the piece. Interesting assignment to have.
  5. In addition to the newspaper, the facility has a host of different programs, which include a baseball team that plays against outsiders, and a host of re-entry programs.
  6. Ironically, Bell’s episode mostly interviewed those who wouldn’t be leaving. The juxtaposition seems intentional.
  7. A small subtlety that also seems intentional: Bell mostly interviews black inmates, but still talks to a variety of people. The only one up for parole is white.
  8. In terms of the purpose of jail, the show does a decent job of highlighting the rehab vs. punishment debate, and just how messed up that conversation is.
  9. Yes, prison food is still terrible.
  10. There were MANY pains taken to explain that the resources, services and aid available to the inmates at San Quentin were not the usual case. Makes that recidivism rate make understandable.

Bell had a few points to make in this week’s show, and they present themselves as follow-up questions throughout the show. For example, the recidivism stat shows up early in the show, as if to ask why it’s so high. San Quentin is then presented as an example, but those who embody it aren’t going to ever be able to show the fruits of their reformed labor. Just about everyone Bell interviewed was on some form of life sentence. They all took accountability for their actions –  whether they robbed banks or killed someone – and have developed skills that would make them productive members of society.

A statement during his interview with Father George Williams that sums this up nicely. “Well there are men that have been in here since the ‘70s,” Williams starts. “To which, I would ask the people watching this program: ‘How many of you are the same person you were in 1978?” Which begs the question, “Why isn’t there a more streamlined way for inmates who show progress in bettering themselves to lighten their sentences?” Or, more cynically, “Why not extend these rehab services more to those with with an end to their sentence?” From last week to this week, it appears this series is more interested in being a table setter for further conversation than making grand pronouncements. Bell continues to be an enjoyable and quirky follow, which has been needed through two subjects that can be very dark to start his shades of America.

Next week, he’ll profile the growing Latino population and how that’ll shape this year’s election. I wonder if Donald Trump will watch? United Shades of America airs new episodes every Sunday at 10 P.M. EST.

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