Every family has one: the reactionary uncle or close-minded cousin who’s read a single article about crime in America and suddenly becomes an authority. Predictably, this person, usually at a family gathering or holiday, will fold his arms over his chest, sigh audibly, and proceed to lecture you about the need to “get tough” on our nation’s criminals, and the best place to start is right inside the walls of our prisons. “They’re coddled,” they’ll insist, or will drone on about some dubious study they found in the appendix of an Ann Coulter screed that “proves” the average penitentiary is one step from Club Med, what with the televisions, air conditioned gymnasiums, and seven-course meals that approximate fine dining on the Queen Mary. They’ll state that prisons are for punishment, not pie-in-the-sky rehabilitation, which is a clever way of justifying torture without appearing barbaric. While the best way to deal with these inconvenient kin is to frame them for a heinous crime that necessitates a long stretch in one of our nation’s more disreputable lock-ups, the next best thing is to insist that they take a single hour out of their day and watch Alan Raymond’s Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House. No one committed to the idea that criminals are irredeemable will be changed by this film, but at the very least, it will correct the mistaken impression that hard time has been transformed into an extended vacation by bleeding hearts and assorted sociology majors.

Filmed in 1990 and released the following year, Doing Time is far from a landmark documentary on the subject, but its simple, unvarnished approach is more than enough to give fortunate outsiders an idea about our nation’s toughest prisons, in this case a maximum-security penitentiary near Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. These are federal prisoners — a large number of mafia hitmen, Columbian drug pushers, and the occasional murderer for good measure. Many of these men spend 23 hours a day in 6×8 cells, while others not so lucky are forced to share that same cell with a fellow inmate. Needless to say, these concrete closets receive no ventilation, and the only fresh air that manages to sneak into the cells is through small holes in the door. Inside, we see obviously cramped conditions, as well as shit-filled (and broken) toilets that will likely never see a plumber. There are also refugees from Castro’s Cuba; men not charged with any crime, but seen as “high risk”, so they are locked down 24 hours a day. The only silver lining here is that we can finally see that illegally detaining prisoners — while failing to grant them a day in court — precedes the current Bush administration and indicts the bastard’s father as well.

Outside of the revolting conditions and unbearable noise, the film’s power resides in its unflinching look at these men and their crimes. On occasion, a prisoner will insist that he’s been railroaded (one man with links to the “French Connection” of legend yammers on about corrupt judges, conspiracies, and “faggot witnesses” who sell out their friends for lighter sentences), but by and large, these are admitted felons who not only fail to show remorse, but speak about their crimes as if proud, yet detached. Take the gentleman who was serving a life sentence for killing three members of his family (including his sister): he claims to be looking for a more spiritual path, yet when relating the nature of his crimes, justifies slitting three throats because he was denied a place to sleep for the night. “When family turns you out,” he declares, “Well, that’s it.” His hardened honesty is so refreshing that he’s almost reasonable. Fuck if I’d ever pay for a motel while a cot’s within earshot.

Then there’s the man who killed four inmates in a prison riot who, in the midst of discussing their deaths, cries, “But what about me?” He then proceeds to discuss his glass eye and the numerous places on his body that have taken a bullet. He’s a hardened, unrepentant S.O.B., but he is what he is, and he’s still entitled to be treated like a human being. He’s off the streets for the rest of his life, and given the nature of this place, he’s being suitably punished. Why then insist on degradation, pain, and humiliation? And we all know that they work assorted jobs for around 25 cents an hour (dishwashing, machine shops, etc.), but it struck me that since they have no freedom whatsoever, why force them to hold mindless employment? Some may want to get out of their cells for several hours a day, but to me it seemed exploitive, especially in light of the fact that many low-paying, but nonetheless necessary jobs were being farmed out to prisons, where the pay is almost non-existent. It’s impossible now that the barn door’s open, but no one should profit from another man’s incarceration. The state’s job is to protect the public, not help corporations make a buck from indentured servitude.

As the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, it needs to ask itself if it in fact has a “handle” on crime. No one’s arguing for the elimination of laws or a system of punishment, but clearly the official decree that rehabilitation is no longer a part of the prison system has done nothing but push our jails to the breaking point. And for many small towns across the country, the construction of a human warehouse becomes as important as a Wal-Mart. Refreshingly, the film pushes no agenda and offers no solutions, which should be up to our elected representatives anyway. But as no one ever got elected (or re-elected) by promising to be softer on crime, real reform is unlikely in the next few centuries. In the end, we are left with the unavoidable dilemma: there are those who will break the law and pose a threat to those who do not — what are we to do with them? A good first step is to once and for all shatter the illusion that prison is a refuge from madness and despair. Without doubt, it is the worst place on earth. Perhaps it should be. But let’s stop pretending that we’re doing these people any favors. They’re in fucking hell, and they know it.