Prison fascinates me, as an American I have somewhat of an obligation to be at the least minimally interested. Paradoxically, the worlds largest democracy imprisons the most number of human beings on the planet in jails, prisons, and detention centers for persons who illegally crossed into America. A nation of privilege, Americans are prudent to ensure the correct persons enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
As a public policy, I disagree with mandatory disenfranchisement of the prison population. If a person commits a political crime, then it is logical to restrict their participation in the political sphere. Granted, when a person commits a violent crime they are trespassing against society, but as Kantian logic dictates, the law is not the utmost determinant of justice. The law can and is manipulated to target certain populations and limit their power within society. Using the loss of the right to vote as an example, despite the fact that prisoners cannot participate in the voting process, their populations are still weighed when determining political districting. That is, even though they cannot vote, they are still counted when figuring out how many representatives a county gets, how much funding an area receives, and the number of electoral votes a state has, which is particularly significant for states that hold federal prisons because federal prisoners can easily be moved from state to state. If prisoners themselves are disenfranchised, then they should not be counted within the political process. This is a manipulation of the law that distorts the political process.
Previous attempts to watch “Oz” were not successful. I found the entire concept too distressing, and couldn’t get past the first ten minutes. However, now after knowing people who have been to jail or prison or both combined with my personal interest to understand the American prison system, I felt compelled to watch the series in its entirety. This was psychologically somewhat exhausting, and completely shocking. First, as a film and television connoisseur, I was fascinated with how the producers and director of the series decided to tell the tale of the Oswald State Correctional Facility, level four (maximum security). Using Brechtian style techniques, “Oz” is one of the only series I have seen successfully pull off a narrator for the entirety of the series. “Sex and the City” attempted this and failed miserably, and generally television and film stay away from direct character narration because it is difficult to integrate into the work. The narrator in “Oz” is a wheelchair bound murderer and drug dealer named Augustus Hill who was thrown off a roof during the bust that sent him to prison thus causing a spinal injury that disabled him. By using something called “Verfremdungseffekt” (“distancing technique” in German) the audience is removed from the immediate storyline of “Oz” and let into one of the prisoner’s minds with Augustus’ narration. It is partly used to show the absurdity Oz’s world, and partly used to allow the audience to process the dramatic and raw portrayal of life in a maximum security prison. Harrold Perrineau (“Matrix Revolutions”, “Sons of Anarchy”, Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliette”) does a fantastic job of bringing the audience into the mind of a prisoner. Augustus guides us through the alliances that have been made, through the seedy underside of the prison black market system, and gives us a peek into how a world of violence effects people.
“Oz” is also one of the most Buddhist shows I have ever seen. Raised as Buddhist, I see the world as the equivalent of a harsh paradise. My father, also a Buddhist, calls the world a beautiful assault. One of the main question raised in “Oz” is the profound conundrum of finding a reason to live despite the harshest, most ruthless, devastating, degrading, and oppressive conditions a society has to offer. One of the questions of Buddhism is finding peace within the world despite the hardships. Can a person find a way to have peace in prison, the show asks us. Is there a way to reconcile the devastation with the desire to see another day? “Oz” gives the answer that despite devastating conditions, humans are hardwired to survive and continue the struggle, whatever it may be. The show also gives credence to the idea that there are individuals who thrive on suffering, those who enjoy violence for violence’s own sake, and people who are truly twisted and bizarre. To be a human is to witness the outrageous.
Certainly, “Oz” has its downfalls. Some of the storylines are bizarre and ill planned giving the effect that one is watching a soap opera. This is only at its worst though, generally the show avoids that feeling. However, given the high shock of the graphic nature of “Oz”, the show avoids sentimentalism for sensationalism’s sake while having the pitfall of overindulgence.
“Oz” will haunt you and leave you feeling psychologically tried. Witnessing a severe portrayal of depraved humanity is not an easy undertaking. I often wondered who exactly watched the show at the time of its airing from 1997-2001 but I suppose one could wonder why I watched this show in 2015.
A society can be viewed by how it treats its prison population. The purpose of prison should be to segregate those who dysfunctionally participate in society and provide them with either an opportunity to improve themselves as citizens of a country, or to ensure that they cannot participate in society because they are too dangerous. “Oz” asks us to suspend our disbelief that we could like any of these individuals who have trespassed against society and possibly see them for their humanity beyond the scope of the worst of their actions.