Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Take a walk down the Green Mile

There are very few times my flatmate and I can sit on the sofa and give a programme our full, undivided attention. But amongst the drivel that crowded our television screens last Thursday night, there was a hidden gem. 

ITV’s new two part documentary, Inside Death Row, saw acclaimed broadcaster Sir Trevor McDonald venture inside one of America’s most notorious maximum security prisons, Indiana State. Just an hour’s drive south of Chicago lays one of the country’s oldest prisons, where nearly two thousand prisoners are serving an average sentence of 52 years each. 

Not one to shy away from drama, Trevor dives straight in at the deep end, and takes his first walk down death row - otherwise known as X-row and the Green Mile. And viewers shocked by what they see. Of the 12 condemned men living – if you can call it that – on Death Row, the first they speak to is Benjamin Ritchie. He freely and openly admits in a shockingly poignant way that he’s “the kinda guy that does need to be in prison”. When questioned as to why this is, he responds: “If I can’t pay my bills the legal way, I’ll go get a gun and I’ll pay my bills.” A truly disturbing sentiment, considering our answer to a financial difficulty would most likely be to increase our credit card limit.

 The men on this wing are locked up for an unimaginable 23 hours a day, and so have to find ways to occupy their time. Diabetic redhead Paul McManus killed his wife and his two young daughters. Now he spends his days keeping his cell impeccably clean. 

Other areas of the prison where inmates are allowed to mix come as a refreshing surprise after the cold segregation of X-row, but we’re soon reminded that these prisoners are just as violent. Ronald L Sanford is 38 years old, and has been at Indiana State since he was just 15. He was convicted of a double murder of two elderly women for the measly sum of five dollars, at 13 years old. 

Sanford is unique amongst his fellow inmates. Whilst the other convicts spend their recreation time passing a basketball, sparring the air, or doing pull-ups, Ronald is sat in his cell reading about eugenics or metaphysics. He has used his time inside to educate himself into a polite, eloquent individual. Sure, it doesn’t change the fact he committed an unspeakably violent act, but it is refreshing to see a prisoner do their best to turn their life around, despite the fact he’ll almost certainly die in his cell. He is serving 170 years. 

Aimee and I sat in silence for the majority of the hour, struggling to contemplate both the crimes and the existence of these individuals. Every now and again, we’d gasp or shake our heads at the nonchalant attitude of the inmates talking about the likes of murder, rape and kidnap. But I suppose that’s just it for them; it’s no longer shocking because it’s all around them. 

Despite our country’s obsession with the death penalty and such like, it’s good to see someone taking a more objective view on the goings on of maximum security prisons such as Indiana State. Most documentaries would take the view of condemning the prisoners for their horrific charges, but what use is it condemning an already condemned man?

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