In November, Charles Platt wrote a piece for Boing Boing about his zero-gravity flight experience. This month, he submitted this gripping account of his visit with his friend, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for murder. It's one of the best articles I've read this year.
Life on the Inside
by Charles Platt
The man by the metal detector looks like somebody’s
benevolent uncle. White-haired, folksy and jovial, he could
be in a TV commercial selling hearing aids. You’d never
guess he controls access to a concrete-walled correctional
Getting into this Texas prison is turning out to be more
difficult than I expected. First I had to submit a written
application with a photocopy of my driver’s license,
for a background check. After I was approved, I had to
establish the date of my arrival, and when I drove out here
this morning my car was subjected to some truly amazing
security theater, as one humorless uniformed guard stared
solemnly at all the stuff in the trunk while another peered
under the hood at the engine.
Finally I was allowed to park in the visitor lot, after
which I walked into a little fortified bunker at one corner
of a huge perimeter fence topped with coils upon coils of
razor wire. This is where I am now, with white-haired Mr.
Friendly asking me—in the nicest possible way—to
empty my pockets. Since inmates are not allowed to possess
money, I’m not allowed to carry any in—with the
exception of two rolls of quarters, which I was advised that
I actually should bring with me, for purposes that I do not
I’m here to visit a prisoner named Son Tran, who
joined a Vietnamese gang in Houston when he was thirteen and
was convicted of two gang-related homicides four years later,
although he has raised some questions about
the validity of his confession.
After sitting in shackles on death row for several years he
found himself suddenly reprieved, as the U. S. Supreme Court
decided that kids who committed their crimes when they were
under eighteen should not be given the death penalty.
Forced by the feds to spare a life, the Texas criminal justice
system did the next-best thing: It sentenced Son to forty
years before he can be eligible for parole. He now spends his
days providing unpaid labor, sewing underwear for a garment
manufacturer that has contracted with the prison system.
Forget about third-world sweatshops; some of the most
lucrative ones are staffed by felons here in America.
Probably to most people, forty years would seem a fair
punishment for a former gang member convicted of homicide.
Most people might also feel that keeping such an individual
locked up is a sensible precaution to protect the rest of us.
In this text, I will explain why I disagree with both of
these propositions. As Exhibit A I’ll offer a personal
statement by Son Tran, which I have formatted as a PDF file.
You can view it by clicking
this link. I think it’s a remarkable piece of work,
especially considering that he was brought up speaking
Vietnamese at home, and never finished high school.
Across the Free-Fire Zone
Today will be my first opportunity to see my inmate
pen-pal face to face. I’ve never spoken to him, because
at the time of my visit, Texas still doesn’t permit any of
its prisoners to communicate with the outside world by
telephone. I found his name on a web site dedicated to
establishing communication with inmates via that most archaic
system, the U. S. Postal Service, and I’ve been
swapping letters with him for more than a year since then.
Mr. Friendly is now waving me through the metal detector,
beaming at me and telling me to “have a nice
day,” without any perceptible irony. Presumably this
cheerful old geezer was chosen for his gatekeeper role to
discourage any suspicion that a correctional system might
have a dark side.
After I emerge from the metal detector I pick up my two
rolls of quarters and proceed to a kiosk enclosed in
bullet-proof plastic, which makes the woman on the inside look as if
she’s peering at me from under water. I slide my
driver’s license through a tiny slit, and she waves me
forward, through a remote-controlled door.
I find myself in a holding area the size of an elevator.
The door closes behind me, and I have some difficulty
controlling my reflexive claustrophobia. But, the license
checks out okay, and she returns it to me through another
slit before opening a second, inner door, allowing me to
proceed into the prison.
Now I walk along a section of asphalt path across a
free-fire zone between the outer fence of the prison and the inner
fence. Two guard towers are strategically placed to overlook
this arid moat, and I have no doubt that men with
loaded rifles are watching me with more than casual interest.
Probably it would not be a good idea to stray from the path,
I pass through a gate that clangs behind me, and I
continue across a grassy area toward the central building of
the prison—which closely resembles a modern high
school, although maybe I should say that high schools, these
days, closely resemble modern prisons. Vaguely I wonder when
the American school system embraced the slit-windowed
concrete-box motif, and why. But then I am inside the main building
and I find myself in a spacious lobby, where another official
takes my driver’s license, and keeps it, giving me a
slip of paper in return.
This I take with me to another armored cubicle, where I
present it through another slit to another out-of-focus
figure behind bulletproof plastic. I advance into another
elevator-sized holding area. The door closes behind me,
another door opens ahead of me—and here, finally, I am
in the visitor area.
The Social Scene
Now I am seriously disoriented. After all the layers of
security, this is the ultimate anticlimax. I have entered a
large room like a cafeteria, where families are sitting at
dining tables. Kids are running around, chasing each other
and laughing. The low-security prisoners are allowed to sit
alongside their estranged relatives, hanging out and eating
The convicts are utterly
unlike the thugs you see in Hollywood prison movies.
They’re everyday guys in their twenties, looking no
different from people you might expect to see working at the
paint counter in Home Depot or servicing cars at Jiffy Lube.
Over the years I have encountered some genuinely violent
people—the kind who radiate an aura of menace which
anyone with any sense will interpret as a clear warning to
stay away. Those dark vibes are absent here, and after a
moment’s thought, I realize why: Drive-by shooters and
serial killers constitute only a small percentage of the
prison population. Drug offenders, these days, are the
largest subset. Thus, most of the men I am looking at
probably made the mistake of trying to earn a little cash on
the side by selling herbal or pharmaceutical products from
which the government, in its wisdom, feels we should be
Son Tran, of course, is imprisoned for a much more serious
reason, and cannot mingle with visitors. There’s a
long, enclosed section for such “violent” types,
who have to communicate via telephone handsets from behind
more panels of bulletproof plastic. To me it’s ironic
that the prison has invested in such an elaborate system of
protection, because I’m not sure who scares me more:
The inmates, or the system that put them here. Call me
paranoid (and indeed, many people have), but
the many arms of law enforcement have broadened and
strengthened their powers to an extent which would have
seemed unbelievable just a decade ago.
The list of ominous indicators is long and getting longer,
including warrantless wiretaps, innocent people killed or
traumatized during no-knock drug busts based on bogus
tipoffs, random traffic stops in search of drivers who have
had two beers and will be hauled straight to jail,
search-and-seizure of laptops by immigration officers, suspension
of constitutional rights for anyone suspected of
“terrorist acts,” tasering of citizens who ask
why they’re being arrested, harassment of tourists
taking photographs in public places, grandmothers fined tens
of thousands of dollars because kids used their
computers for file sharing, seventeen-year-old boys jailed
for having sex with sixteen-year-old girlfriends, men
stigmatized for life as “sex criminals” because
they urinated in public, photo-radar systems that can
track vehicle movements by using character recognition of
license plates, naive wives of drug dealers imprisoned for
years as “couriers,” and revival of the archaic offense
of criminal libel, raising the risk of prison time if you
post a little too carelessly on Craig's List. I used to
view law enforcement as a source of protection; today I
tend to see it more as an instrument of intimidation.
Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person
out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds
of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a
crime victim. Of course I am aware of the counter-argument:
“If you don’t break any laws, you’ll have
nothing to worry about.” Tell that to Governor George
Ryan of Illinois, where DNA evidence exonerated so many
people who had been placed erroneously on death row, he
felt obliged to commute the sentences of the remaining 163
inmates awaiting execution.
No doubt the prison that I am visiting harbors some truly
unpleasant characters whom I would not want to encounter
while walking alone on a dark city street. But I don’t
believe that Son Tran is one of them.
I sit on a plastic chair and wait for the prison
authorities to allow Son to come here to converse with me.
Finally he appears behind the bulletproof window, grinning
happily, as if this is the highlight of his week—and
who knows, maybe it is.
I ask him why he wanted me to bring two rolls of quarters,
and he explains that I can buy food from vending machines in
the visitor area. So, I go to the machines, which dispense
what I call “gas-station sandwiches”: skimpy
slices of Wonder Bread containing a minimum filling of tuna
salad or ham and cheese. I buy a few and surrender them to a
corrections officer, who places them in a paper sack and
passes them through a small hatch to the restricted area
behind the bulletproof plastic. In this way, I buy lunch for
my inmate friend. I’m suitably sobered by the idea that
the sandwiches constitute a treat compared to the regular
prison diet. For one such as myself, accustomed to whole
grains, organic greens, tofu, and other health-conscious
vegetarian staples, eating nothing but prison food for forty
years might be the single most awful aspect of being locked
Son devours his rations with enthusiasm, and we chat,
through the telephone handset, in the same awkward style of a
visitor chatting with a patient in a hospital. How are
things? How are you doing? Have you seen your family lately?
All topics seem trivial compared with the big and basic fact
that I am free and he is not, but I can’t think of much
to say about this. When he was taken off death row, he lost
his court-appointed lawyer who was managing his appeal, and
he lacks the resources to get a new attorney. In any event,
he can’t talk about his case with me because the
connection may be monitored, and our conversation won’t
be protected by attorney-client privilege.
We talk about current events, and everyday life with other
prisoners (most of whom he feels are harmless), and about the
pencil drawings that he has been creating. Since Texas
prisoners are not permitted to earn money or possess money,
donations for them are placed in an Inmate Trust Fund
account, from which the balance may be applied to purchases from the prison
commissary. And since #2 pencils are the only drawing
implement stocked by the commissary, Son Tran’s
opportunities for self expression are limited.
Still, he has been creating painstaking portraits, which
he has sent to me as gifts from time to time, leaving me
wondering what to do with them. If I try to sell them on his
behalf I’ll place him in a risky position, since he is
not allowed to indulge in anything that could be considered a
business activity. If he violates this regulation, he may be
punished by losing his opportunity to further his education.
In other words, if a Texas prisoner tries to make himself
useful by selling something that he has made, the system may
respond by preventing him from educating himself.
Money, Fear, and Politics
I guess I’m beginning to sound like a bleeding
heart, here; but this is not entirely accurate. Let us
suppose, for a moment, that Son Tran was guilty of the crime
of which he was convicted. I fully accept that homicide should entail the
most serious consequences. The question is, what exactly
should those consequences be? From a strictly rational point
of view, does incarceration for forty years make good sense,
or would something else be better?
Let’s start with the concept of deterrence.
I’ll ignore the death penalty, since the Supreme Court
has already eliminated it for people under 18. Thus, we are
left with incarceration. Has any study ever proved that
the prospect of forty years without parole is a better
deterrent than, say, thirty years, or even twenty
years? It seems utterly implausible to me that the actions of
a teenager in an inner-city gang will be affected by such a
distinction. In fact I don’t believe that deterrence is
either the effect or the purpose of the long, mandatory
sentences that have become endemic in the United States
during the past two decades.
It’s important to understand just how extreme the
situation is. We now incarcerate a larger proportion of our citizens,
and a larger absolute number of them, than any
other nation in the world. The United States has less than 5
percent of the global population yet has almost one-quarter
of all the world’s prisoners. (Source: New York Times,
April 23, 2008.) The Land of the Free has become the land of
Now here’s the interesting part. From 1925 through
1975, the American incarceration rate remained around 110
prisoners per 100,000 population, not far from the current
world median of approximately 125. (Source: New York Times,
as above.) What happened since then? How could the rate
increase by a factor of 7 during just three decades?
I can suggest an answer in three words: Money, fear,
Money is an issue because the United States is one of the
few nations that can afford to build enough prisons and keep millions of
people locked up. Most other nations are unwilling or unable
to spend so much money unproductively.
As for fear and politics:
Back when Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California,
growing discontent among conservatives encouraged the state
to lead a movement toward tougher sentencing. When Reagan
reached the White House in 1981, with his wife promoting the
“war on drugs” and chanting “Just say
no!” with her vapid grin, conservatives gained the
power to encourage changes on a national level.
This trend reached its culmination in 1988, as
Reagan’s reign was ending and Republican presidential
candidate George H. W. Bush was looking for an edge over
Michael Dukakis, his Democratic opponent. Bush’s
campaign manager, Lee Atwater, and his media consultant,
Roger Ailes, found their opportunity in the story of a
convicted murderer in Dukakis’s home state of
Massachusetts who had served 12 years in jail before being
released on a weekend furlough, at which point he proceeded
to commit a particularly unpleasant rape and other associated
Atwater and Ailes believed that one disturbing incident of
this type, involving a heavy-set black rapist, would matter
far more to voters than any reasoned debate about policy
issues. It would capture the imagination, regardless of
statistics showing that the event was a rarity or even a
singularity. They didn’t seem to care whether the
furlough policy had been a good thing or a bad thing. They
simply knew that Dukakis had been in favor of it
while he was governor, and it could smear him as damagingly
After the story was circulated via The Reader’s
Digest, Bush started hammering away relentlessly at Dukakis
for being “soft on crime.” This issue became
probably the biggest factor enabling him to win the election.
For more information about the propagandists who facilitated
the rise of the Bush dynasty (leading by extension to the
rise of Bush Junior) you can check the Wikipedia page for
Willie Horton, the rapist who was at the center
of the controversy. It makes depressing reading.
Many other politicians were quick to notice Bush’s
successful exploitation of public anxiety, and followed a
similar strategy, calling for harsher penalties while
denouncing their opponents for being less punitive than they
were. In other words, they followed the ancient practice of
whipping up fear while simultaneously promising to alleviate
This is a simplification of a complicated national trend, but I
believe it does help to explain how the general U. S. prison
population increased by a
factor of 7. Many conservatives see no problem in this, since
long sentences have been accompanied by a reduction in
violent crime. On the other hand, in Canada, violent crime
went into a similar decline without a massive increase in the
prison population; and in some states (notably, New York) the
crime rate didn’t go back up even after authorities
relaxed their previous punitive policies.
Therefore the linkage between longer prison terms and a
lessened crime rate remains a matter for debate. One
conclusion, however, is indisputable: Tough sentencing does
reassure anxious voters.
Adjusting the Consequence to Fit the Crime
Let’s suppose that protecting the general public is
the fundamental issue. The question then becomes: How much
protection is enough? Logically, to reduce the risk to zero, all violent
offenders should be imprisoned for life or executed. Since
this may be unethical and is certainly unaffordable, we have
to find a reasonable compromise, balancing the risk that a
released criminal may repeat his crime against the social
advantage of enabling the majority of prisoners to resume
Traditionally, the parole system is supposed to serve this
purpose by assessing each prisoner on a case-by-case basis to
determine which ones are safe for release. Parole can be
especially appropriate for juvenile offenders who may have
been immature or unduly influenced by their peers.
This gets me back to the case of Son Tran. Imagine
yourself aged thirteen, feeling angry and estranged from your
fellow students because you’re Vietnamese-American.
Imagine that you are approached by some older kids who are
themselves Vietnamese. They invite you to join their club,
and for the first time in your short life, you are freed from
your feelings of alienation. You find acceptance.
Of course, there’s a price to pay. It’s like
joining the army: You go through a process of indoctrination
and desensitization, during which you bond with your
comrades-in-arms and learn to obey orders.
The scenario that I’m outlining does not excuse the
crime. It merely suggests that someone who was not yet an
adult, and became infatuated with gang culture at a very
impressionable age, should not be judged as harshly as, for
example, a serial killer who has committed multiple
crimes over ten or fifteen years. After a decade in prison,
the serial killer may still represent a severe risk to the
general public while the younger man may not, and a system
that refuses to take this into account wastes human potential
and wastes our money. Even when the state reaps some income
on the side by forcing prisoners to do menial work for no
pay, incarceration remains an expensive proposition.
There is of course the point of view that punishment should
be administered for its own sake; that criminals
should be made to suffer. This bothers
me, because aside from deterrence (already discussed above) I
see no social benefit from punishment. Very often, it seems to be
simply an outlet for revenge, and revenge is not a very
highly evolved impulse. It receives mixed reviews in the New
Testament, does not ennoble anyone, and certainly
doesn’t enrich anyone. I prefer the concept of
restitution, requiring the guilty party to earn money to
compensate a victim or his family. That at least is
useful—and, incidentally, may still serve as some
I also refuse to give up on the idea of rehabilitation,
because I know people who have successfully decided not to
repeat past mistakes. Prisons are properly referred to as
“correctional facilities,” implying that they
should be capable of correcting bad behavior. If
there’s a chance to redeem someone rather than execute
him or take away his liberty for half of his life,
wouldn’t that be a more constructive option?
Most of all, I am dispirited by the simple-mindedness of
imprisonment as a social tool. Our remedies for most social
problems have evolved over the past couple-thousand years; people
who are mentally ill, for instance, receive medical treatment
instead of just being shut away in lunatic asylums.
But the ritual of incarcerating criminals survives basically
unchanged. Really, we need a smarter and
more creative alternative that doesn’t cost so much.
If it can also be less destructive of human lives, so
much the better.
One thing on which everyone can agree, regardless of their
political orientation, is that prison is a depressing place.
Based on my experience in Texas, merely visiting it is
extremely depressing, even when the facility is modern and
As I leave the barbed-wire fences behind me I feel the
same kind of sadness that I experience when someone dies.
It’s a similar situation: A loss of human value which I
am powerless to prevent. That’s why I continue to send
letters to Son Tran from time to time.
Other prisoners have suffered greater injustices, other
prisons impose harsher conditions, other nations subject
their prisoners to crueler treatment, and millions of
people—drug offenders, especially—are incarcerated for
reasons that make no sense to me at all. Son Tran just
happens to be the guy I know, and so, he’s the one I am
telling you about. If his life story interests you, you can
write to him yourself, while remembering that he has to buy
postage stamps, envelopes, and paper from the commissary to
reply to you, and therefore, even very small donations are
appreciated. The trouble is, you cannot send money to him
directly. It will be returned by the authorities, and will
rouse suspicions that he is soliciting assistance, which he is not.
Here’s what you can do, if you are interested. Send
me a blank email at this account that I have set up:
In return I’ll tell you how to
write to him and how to make a small donation if you so wish.
Your email address will not be used for any other purpose.