Friday, February 25, 2011

The Big House

Prison is the ultimate gated community. When you think about it, nothing beats a prison when it comes to exclusivity. Not everyone can get into a prison, and it’s even harder to get out. A prison is often called The Big House, which is another way of solidifying the connection between incarceration and social elevation. The Big House is the ultimate mansion we drive by in awe. If you are ever upstate and pass facilities like Sing Sing or Dannemora, you will definitely experience a feeling similar to that evoked by the great houses once occupied by robber barons in places like Newport, RI. The prison is no more accessible than homes occupied by the grand old families, such as the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. In this regard, the superrich live in a state of isolation that resembles the lot of prisoners. Of course it will be argued that rich people can come and go as they please in their luxury cars, yachts and private planes, but the freedom is an illusion, in some ways not far from the illusion that all ordinary people live with, i.e., that they are free to control their destinies when in fact they occupy little cells of routine. Inhibition and self-prescribed repression make their worlds into unwitting prison cells in which they aren’t free at all. Prisons are violent places, but in a sense they are also very safe. Those who have committed atrocities are protected from the retribution of their victims. Further, they get to live in the company of others who share a topsy-turvy set of values in which to be very bad—by society’s standards—is to be very good. Hardened criminals essentially have excelled at what they do, and their reward is to be sent to a penitentiary: a place where they get the satisfaction and pleasure that derives from paying penance for their sins.

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