Louis Theroux Goes to Prison

April 3, 2008

In January the BBC debuted Louis Theroux‘s latest documentary, Behind Bars, in which he investigates “a strange world within a world” – the infamous San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.

The hour long program observes the relationships between prisoners and guards, the self imposed racial segregation between inmates, and the social implications of romantic relationships within the penitentiary.

One inmate, Deborah, explains her position and social value as a transgendered woman within this self-contained place: “[the men] get to have a relationship and have a little house and go to work everyday and come home everyday.” It seems, then, that the transgendered woman becomes a part of the illusion that makes life behind bars livable. She makes it possible to simulate the familiar companionship and heteronormativity outside of San Quentin.

Relationships between the CO’s and inmates are portrayed as surprisingly warm.   The prisoners also seem more than willing to talk to Theroux, an obvious outsider.   Some prisoners, such as David Silva – who is serving 520 years and 11 life sentences – is in lockup 23 hours a day, virtually cutting him off from all human interaction. 

The special originally aired January 18, 2008 on BBC2.  A segment of the program can be viewed here

Photograph: Rex Features, http://www.bmivoyager.com/2007/10/27/weird-wonderful/