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TV Review: 30 Days – “Jail”

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For the uninitiated, Morgan Spurlock is the documentary genius behind Supersize Me, wherein he subjected himself to 30 days of eating nothing but McDonald’s restaurant food morning, noon, and night. And if asked to supersize the meal, he couldn’t refuse. Spurlock took the concept of the 30 day experiment to a whole new level last year when he released a series of one hour documentaries chronicling the events experienced by volunteers or Spurlock himself, as they lived 30 days immersed in a lifestyle very different from their own.

For example, taking a die-hard right-wing Christian and making him live 30 days, not with a Muslim family in a Muslim community, but as a Muslim in a Muslim community. This means the Qur'an, the beard, the praying, the customs, the whole tabbouleh. An atheist free-thinker must live with an evangelical family. A pro-choice clinic worker must live in a pro-life home for mothers led by a very pro-life pastor. You get the picture — challenging people with modern day divisive issues and making them face the issues. For the final segment of this season, Spurlock took it upon himself to live for 30 days as an inmate in a jail.

This couldn’t have been easy. And it sure didn’t look very easy. He would live 30 days with the prisoners, including a 72-hour stint in solitary confinement.

The deal was that he would receive no special treatment from the warden or guards. He was to be treated as a common inmate. And they easily complied. Though he wasn’t sent to a maximum security prison, the admission process alone was dehumanizing enough. He was searched, given clothes and a mattress for his bed, and told to find a cell with space. The poor guy goes in fearing beatings and getting raped (much to the desperation of his girlfriend) and now he has to pick his cell. Not easy when you know whoever you “bunk” with is a criminal, not to mention the overcrowding. Each cell built for two inmates is inhabited by at least three, so you are basically stuck sleeping on the floor until someone leaves or is transferred.

If you can call it sleep. Morgan doesn’t get much sleep for the first few days. The environment is oppressive. No windows, no outside time, just the cell block open area. Oh, and the showers are right in the open area, the same place where they eat, live, and occupy their time. There is nothing to do, literally. All the prisoners can do is play cards, read, watch TV, and sit around and take root. That seems like the true punishment — condemned to boredom. The prisoners, including Morgan, make use of stairs and T-shirts as makeshift bars to do chin-ups. The tables are used for tricep pushups. And mostly they walk around the perimeter like caged animals.

His first cellmates are cousins, one a thief, the other a dealer. One of them was on his second day and another one of their cousins had been discharged the day before. Keep crime in the family, that always works out well. But the boys are nice enough characters, not the tough-as-nails bad-asses TV presents us with. No angels for sure, but not evil, either. They are victims of circumstance, dealing with the life that was handed to them, like most anyone in or out of jail.

As Spurlock puts it: “Either we live in a country where we simply lock people away forever for making mistakes, or we live in a country where we try to help people who have made mistakes re-enter society as productive human beings. End of story. It’s that simple.”

As usual with any 30 Days segment, we are presented with animation dishing out a plethora of information about the subject matter. So we learn that 25% of the world’s incarcerated population is in America, and the level of inmates in for drug use/possession has shot up 12 times since the Nancy Reagan "Just say No" crusade in the '80s. There are 2.5 million Americans in the penal system at this very moment. And then he gets to the meat of the subject — money.

The penal system is a profitable game and all the companies that supply the system with everything from hot dogs to body armor, are interested in keeping the business running as is because of all the benefits stemming from the incarceration of people, including all the mentally ill people who should be in hospitals and not in jails. Case in point, one of the prisoners is schizophrenic and has been jailed for trying to escape from a hospital. Hospitals are overcrowded, prisons are overcrowded, and meanwhile, thousands upon thousands of lives are being wasted to keep this penal economy going. No help, no therapy, nothing. That is, unless you are a drug addict.

When this happens, you get sent to the cool cellblock — the one with therapists, group sessions, plants, outside access, meditation time, and work to keep you busy. Morgan gets transferred there for the last ten days of his stint so he can experience all the layers of the prison. There he meets a former cellmate addicted to heroin who now resides in that wing. He’s dry, he’s clean shaven, and he’s thinking about getting a job once he gets out. Everyone in that wing is optimistic about when they leave. It’s a whole different ball game.

But eventually the stint is over — after 25 days. That’s right. Since most convicts get released on good behavior after 85% of their “shift”, so does Morgan. Sounds too convenient to me, but I can’t blame him for wanting to leave. And there were a few on-camera moments that seemed set up, but in an obvious way. He’s in solitary and yet there’s a camera with him and not the one hooked up to the ceiling. The toilet just happened to break and keeps flushing continuously. It all just sounds too neat to me.

So did some confession cam time. This is one aspect I detest about both the show and Supersize Me. I feel he was over-emoting to get the message across. But I could be wrong. Still he knew in the back of his mind that this was a limited engagement and he would be quickly released or could be released at any moment, unlike his cellmates who were there for the long run.

We do get treated to a segment at the end going over all the released inmates during that month and how they quickly returned inside after only a few months on the outside. How the system completely failed them. How they got very little help and are now condemned to a life in and out of jail for sometimes stupid mistakes, like getting caught with some dope.

Despite some set up moments and some over-sentimentality I give this episode, perhaps the greatest yet. A four out of five.

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About David Desjardins