Class Issues in Prison Break.

November 26, 2007

NOTE: I am watching the first season of Prison Break on Netflix. Please consider any comments carefully to AVOID SPOILERS.

The television drama Prison Break is set up on the premise of a successful engineer (Michael Scofield) who commits a crime to end up in prison and assist his death-row inmate brother (Lincoln Burrows) (1) escape. I was hesitant to watch this show as my thoughts tend to run along the lines of “So, then what’s going to happen when they actually escape? Is that going to be the end of the show? And if they don’t escape? What’s the point of that?” But then again, I am a big fan of Lost, which also can not go on forever, so I stepped up to the plate and swallowed my disbelief. (2)

One issue that comes up over and over again in the first season is the disbelief of the secondary characters that someone like Michael would end up in prison in the first place. What would trigger an engineer with a clean record to commit a violent crime? (3) In the world where crimes are not committed to aid in getting one’s brother out of jail and one does not get blueprints of state penitentiaries tattooed all over one’s torso to aid in this scheme, engineers with clean criminal records and no history of mental illness are not at all likely to commit violent crime, and what’s more is that if they do, they are not likely to serve hard time in prison.

Howard Zinn writes a concise summary of the American prison system in A People’s History of the United States (4):

The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

It had long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side. But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people.

Not only did Michael Scofield not fit the class profile of someone who committed a violent crime, but he certainly did not fit the profile of someone who ended up in prison for said crime. He certainly had a “clever lawyer” in Veronica Donovan, he could afford whatever fines were placed on him, and certainly, a judge would be predisposed by his previous clean record to offer him lighter sentencing than that which is advised. He wasn’t only the type of person who wouldn’t normally end up in prison, but as Michel Foucault (5) argues, he isn’t the type of person for whom prisons are designed in the first place. As he puts it, prisons are built by the bourgeoisie to separate the lower class “other” in incrementally more isolating mechanisms depending on the severity of the infraction: mere displacement from society for minor offenses, solitary confinement for more serious crimes, and the ultimate punishment – destruction of the individual for those offenses that are totally egregious.

So called “White collar” criminals don’t end up in prison merely because their crimes are non-violent, but because the prison system was designed to keep the rich, white elements on the outside and the poor, non-white elements on the inside. Scofield, as a rich white man, had no business being in prison and in a non-television drama, his place in society would have probably kept him from serving any time for a failed bank robbery in which no one was injured. He would have faced probation and some serious fines, but those elaborate tattoos would likely have been for naught.


1) It is explained somewhere mid-season that the two characters who are biologically full-brothers have different last names because their father left while Michael was still in utero and in light of this, their mother chose to give him her maiden name, thus conveniently setting up a scenario in which the criminal justice system would neglect to realize that these two inmates were of relation.

2) Actually, I started watching it because my boyfriend got it on Netflix. But that’s not really as impressive sounding.

3) He robbed a bank and discharged a gun. No one was hurt, but the firing of the weapon classified the crime as “violent” on which basis the judge – an older African-American woman, just to continue the world of statistically unlikely occupations – made the ruling that she felt “incumbent that [he] see the inside of a prison cell,” which is a pretty awesome sentence. Not often do you find “incumbent” cropping up in an sentence.

4) My current bed-time reading. See what college does to you? Beware kids, you too will be reading serious social criticism for fun.

5) Yes, I’ve read Foucault. In my spare time. In French. This is what college does to you! I’m telling you, it’s dangerous!


6 Responses to “Class Issues in Prison Break.”

  1. Cora Says:

    regarding notes 4 & 5 –
    Currently on my bedroom floor (stacked neatly) are Middlemarch, A History of Private Live (Vol. I, From Pagan Rome to Byzantium), and The Sound and the Fury, all from my giant list of “things I didn’t have time to read in college.” I had to return The Complete Plays of Chekov to the library after only three plays, because I had already renewed it once and I keep checking out too many books. Now, thanks to you, I’ve been reminded of my many-times-over resolution to read more Foucault “when I have the time,” and shall have to go back to the library. (Also, there’s an ever-growing list of classic works of literature my prospies talk about that I feel I, as a graduate of the college to which they are applying, really ought to have read by now. Faulkner falls in that category, too. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I got fed up with halfway through 100 Years of Solitude.)
    In other words, WORD to that!
    ~ c.

  2. Sonja Says:

    I’d just like to say for the record that it took me three tries to get through 100 Years of Solitude and the ending was indeed finally worth it. It’s the middle that was perhaps unnecessary.

  3. Peeper Says:

    As an actual “rich, white woman” who has seen the inside of a prison cell, I have to assume that your at-best-naive comments are based solely on reading Foucault and watching Prison Break, and not on any actual exposure to the real (and very horrible) prison system in this country.

  4. Sonja Says:

    Well, yes, my commentary is based on my readings and on the TV show as the whole purpose of this blog is that I watch TV and over intellectualize it. This was never intended to be any sort of serious discourse on the actual prison system; as titled it was specifically related to Prison Break the show. My apologies if you believed it to be anything more than that.

  5. Kdart Says:

    Hi, I also tend to over analyze television shows. As to how Scofield got into jail. He planned to get in there by committing a violent crime by discharging the gun, and manipulating things so that he would stand in front of that particular judge. He also had a bit of luck, which is kind of how all TV works. As to why he wanted to get in there in the first place, he’s got an immensely, and unusually strong sense of family loyalty. As to class, just because he had a good job and finished university does not have him completely bumped up to be a rich white class man. He has no family other than a brother on death row, which the court doesn’t know about, but would definitely not help his class standing even if they did, and a lawyer friend who is fresh out of law school and a little naive. He grew up with Lincoln on the poor side of town. There are no rich relatives, no rich friends that he calls – no rich connections.
    And what’s that about the word incumbent? While I may have trouble spelling it, this is a commonly heard word within the legal system – especially from a judge.

  6. Sonja Says:

    Perhaps I haven’t been clear about what I mean by “class,” which is a definition I got from social theory and not from the traditional meaning of “upper class” or “high class” as synonymous with wealthy.

    Class privilege is all about how you are viewed by the outside world. Someone with a good job and a university education is going to be viewed by a random observer as being of a higher class than someone who graduated from high school and works in a factory. That’s what I mean by class – how your financial status affects how you are viewed. This, of course, can change. (Unlike the usual definition of “upper class” as something you are born into.) When Michael and Lincoln were kids, they were lower class. Now that Michael is an engineer, he is of a much higher class. Simple as that.

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