A History of Commodifying Criminal Justice

Prison Voyeurism in Serial and the Jinx

by Daniel Teehan

Fewer than a hundred years ago, on a plantation in Mississippi, hundreds of black men labored daily in the fields from sunup to sundown in unbearable, abusive conditions. More than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, their labor was exploited under threat of the lash—and it was done so without wage compensation. This was Parchman Farm, and the men who worked there weren’t slaves—not in name at least. Parchman Farm was, and continues to be, Mississippi’s largest prison. The men toiling there were subject to the involuntary servitude permitted by the 13th Amendment as “punishment for crime.” The practice of exploiting the underpaid labor of incarcerated bodies (often bodies of color) is one that can be traced from Parchman to the modern day, where it persists as one of the manifold ways in which the incarcerated are exploited for capital gain. But there was another form of exploitation, less brutal but still insidious, practiced at Parchman that finds parallels in the present day: the appropriation of the experience of incarceration for popular consumption.

In 1933, John Lomax, a folklorist made famous by his documentation of cowboy songs, arrived at Parchman with his teenage son in tow. They saw in the plantation, so segregated from society, an opportunity to document an African-American musical tradition free from the influences of contemporary culture and musical trends such as jazz. According to Lomax, “My son and I conceived the idea this summer that the best way to get real Negro singing in the Negro idiom and the music also in Negro idiom was to find the Negro who had had the least contact with the whites.” In short, they wanted to capitalize on the “authentic” field songs preserved by Parchman’s imposed isolation from postwar society. Where some might have seen only the discomforting continuation of slavery by a different name, John and Alan Lomax saw a chance to document the real “Negro idiom,” free from “the influence of white speech and white singing.” While this desire to capitalize on the fetishization of slave culture and the mystique of incarceration seems repugnant today, the popularity of recent pop culture phenomena such as Serial and The Jinx shows that our voyeuristic tendencies toward prisons and criminal justice proceedings have changed only in form.

Prison Labor at Parchman Farm

While some might chafe at the comparison between a podcast and television show on the one hand, and a cultural appropriator like Lomax on the other, the similarities lie in how we as a consuming audience buy into the commodification of the prison experience for entertainment without regard to what that experience actually entails. Rather than offer meaningful insight into the machinations of the criminal justice system, the stories of Adnan Syed in Serial and Robert Durst in The Jinx serve simply to offer the public anomalous real-life examples of the sensationalized and largely unrealistic crime procedurals consumed en masse on television. While some have hailed the series for raising consciousness about issues within the court systems, the simple truth is this: if the Serial listener or Jinx viewer allows their understanding of the criminal justice system to be shaped or formed by the shows, they now fundamentally misunderstand the realities of the broader criminal justice system.

By focusing on the most dramatic instances of violence and post-trial ambiguity that they could find, Sarah Koenig of Serial and Andrew Jarecki of The Jinx have perpetuated the American delusion that the courtroom is the center of drama in a criminal proceeding. Drawing out the process of investigation and publication over the course of months and even years, they force those involved in these tragic murders to slowly and painstakingly relive them. And they have done all of this in pursuit of ratings and press, which we as the public have been more than happy to provide. In reality, mandatory minimums, plea-bargaining, and an eroded system of indigent defense have ensured that courts are places of near-minimal significance for the vast majority of those who pass through the system. In fact, due to the overwhelming powers invested in prosecutors by years of tough-on-crime legislation, 94 percent of state cases and 97 percent of federal cases never make it to trial in a court: they are settled out of court, in a plea bargain. And the plea is always guilty.

If you want to be outraged about problems in criminal justice, you shouldn’t need Serial’s indictment of faulty memories and trial tactics. In fact, I’ll give you some options. With five percent of the world’s population, our prisons hold almost 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated. By some estimates, we incarcerate six times more of our black population than South Africa did in the midst of apartheid, more than were controlled under slavery 13 years before the Civil War, and we disenfranchise almost six million citizens on account of prior convictions. This includes almost a quarter of black adults in Florida, which, if you know much about Florida’s history of electoral politics, is a sort of a consequential fact. We’re the last country to have juveniles in prison sentenced to life without parole, and we’re one of the few industrialized countries that still regularly executes our own citizens (unsurprisingly, in a racially inflected way). We hold over 80,000 people daily in conditions of solitary confinement characterized by the UN as torture. Some of those people have been living in parking-lot-sized cages for over 40 years. More than 65 million Americans, or almost one third of adults, have a criminal record. Those with records can be discriminated against, legally, when it comes to getting jobs or applying to schools. Those with felony drug convictions are ineligible for public housing, food stamps, and Pell grants. The list goes on and on. The American carceral reality, if you choose to look at it, is unconscionable.

Unfortunately, this reality does not make for good television, be it fictional or not. But it is a reality we need to confront if we are to address the very real, very racial problems plaguing our society. The Jinx and Serial obstruct this effort by misdirecting attention and interest that could be stoked into outrage at our status quo. Of course, these shows are not the first true-crime dramas to profit off of the sensationalism of criminal proceedings. However, other such series differ markedly in production value and target audience—cringeworthy reality shows such as Judge Judy, Dog the Bounty Hunter and COPS spring immediately to mind. There is also the entire genre of fictional television, stretching from Law & Order through NYPD Blue all the way to Orange is the New Black, which shamelessly translates crime and punishment into serialized entertainment. The way these shows have been naturalized in the entertainment industry is suggestive of the naturalization of the relatively recent phenomenon of mass incarceration. Yet, while those productions at least seem transparent about what they are, The Jinx (produced by HBO) and Serial (made by the creators of This American Life) have managed to use high production values and brand recognition to sneak procedural melodrama into highbrow cultural circles. To the extent that these shows are smash hits likely to breed copycats and offshoots, this is a troubling trend indeed.

The popularity of these shows speaks to something larger than good storytelling. In fact, public fascination with prisons and punishment has been around as long as the country has, and it extends in scope far beyond recordings of field songs. In the 18th century, those convicted of crimes were displayed in the pillory or whipped in the public square. In the 19th, public hangings were advertised in newspapers and drew staggering crowds. In the 20th, prison biography became a widely read literary genre. The relatively recent shift away from public punishment did little to lessen the allure of the experiences of the condemned. If anything, isolating prisons and executions from society has opened up a fertile imaginative space in which the anxieties and curiosities of the free citizenry can manifest. Rather than facilitating real empathy for the plight of the incarcerated, popular culture has appropriated the high stakes of trial and punishment for the sake of ratings and publicity.

Clearly, the primary way in which the timeless interest in criminality is currently manifesting itself is a problem. But it need not be. Other media—fiction and otherwise—addressing prison issues have managed to occupy less cringeworthy spots on the entertainment-education spectrum. Eugene Jarecki (brother to Jinx maestro Andrew Jarecki) created The House I Live In, a scorching documentary about the War on Drugs which, while not entertaining per se, is certainly as gripping and well-made as The Jinx. Michelle Alexander’s unexpected hit book The New Jim Crow, though not perfect, has changed the discourse on incarceration and engaged an entirely new demographic of advocates. My ability to comment on The Wire is limited (by the fact that I’ve only watched a season), but enthusiasts of the series celebrate its research, casting, and verisimilitude in depicting the War on Drugs. This more nuanced ethic seems borne out by creator David Simon’s prominence in The House I Live In, and by his recent sit-down with President Obama. The point is: if a writer or filmmaker wants to present crime and imprisonment to the consuming public, there exist plenty of more thoughtful models to choose from.

At a time when people are becoming more conscientious of the ethical implications of their choices, whether they be what they buy, how they eat, or where they invest, the same nuance can be brought to bear on the cultural products we consume. Students who question the University’s investment policies or take Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics” and then give up meat should bring that same scrutiny to what they listen to and watch. A good start would be to not fall prey to shows that take up the long tradition of commodifying the trauma of criminal proceedings. I, for one, can think of a few sensational crimes more deserving and needing of our attention. But they’re more likely to be found on CSPAN than HBO.


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