In recent months, several high-profile court cases have seen the rise of a new legal tactic: being ‘too good for prison’.
As some lawyers will try and have you believe, some members of our society just aren’t cut out for jail. In fact, jail time will only serve to make them a worse criminal than they already are. Whether they’re too rich, too famous, too young, or too talented; prison just isn’t the place for them… even if they are rapists, murderers, or thieves.
Just last week, Judge Aaron Persky was clear in his explanation of Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s prison sentence: it was so short (just six months) because anything longer would “have a severe impact on him.”
And in a report to the court, paralympian and accused murderer Oscar Pistorius was described by his psychologist as “broken” and unfit to handle jail, adding that, “in my opinion, his current condition warrants hospitalisation.”
Add these two incidents to a long list of privileged men and women who consider themselves ‘too good for jail’ – and you need to start wondering what punishment they were expecting, for the serious crimes they committed.
I remember the utter shock I felt when Martha Stewart was sent to prison in 2004 for five months. Martha Stewart? A celebrity? In prison? It seemed remarkable that someone so high-profile and so wealthy was not (as I assumed she would be) above the law.
It was the same feeling last week when high-profile Sydney banker Oliver Curtis was found guilty of insider trading and sentenced to five years jail time. Although it remains to be seen whether or not Curtis will serve any of his time behind bars, the sentiment was there all the same: this was not a guy who should be in prison.
So how has it come to be, in our modern democratic society, that we have come to consider some people more suited to punishment than others?
It is a well-known fact that prisons, particularly in America, are teeming with lower socioeconomic minorities who have found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty, crime, and incarceration.
In Australia, the demographic is very specific: 92% of our prisoners are male, with over a quarter of them (27%) identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. At least half of these prisoners had served time previously.
Prison life is tough.
With the top three offences being violence, illicit drug offences, or sexual assault; the men and women behind bars are dangerously unpredictable. They are struggling with serious drug addiction withdrawals, violent tempers, anger issues, and mental illness. Even unprovoked, they run the risk of attacking fellow inmates and creating a general environment of fear.
Little wonder that for men like Pistorius, Turner, and Curtis; the thought of leaving their luxurious, wealthy, and privileged lives for months or years in prison seems simple unimaginable.
Life inside a Californian women's prison. Post continues after video...
There is no doubt that time in prison changes the person being incarcerated. But so it should.[/img_caption]
But more than just the everyday threat of violence in the prison system, it is the system itself that apparently poses the biggest risk of all for inmates.
The psychological damage of being stripped of your freedom, your identity, and your independance is crippling.
Malcolm Young is a longtime prisoner advocate in America, who runs a new re-entry program for federal prisoners.
"We underestimate the impact of incarceration on aspects of people's personalities that give them the ability to function," he says. He explains that ex-inmates may "suffer periods of disorientation that cause them to lose some skills and abilities."
Depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts or behaviours are not uncommon among the incarcerated, with many also suffering from hypervigilance, paranoia, social withdrawal, and an eventual dependence on institutional structures.
With a single prison institution often holding up to a thousand inmates, this kind of congruity is necessary for safety and order. In saying that, there is no doubting that prison is spirit-breaking. Isolating. Mentally challenging on a daily basis.
But, uh - isn't that the point?
In hugely popular Netflix series, Orange Is The New Black, the very first episode sees the young, beautiful, and WASP-ish Piper Chapman enjoying her last night as a free woman. The next day she would be turning herself in for a year in prison on drug trafficing charges.
Sitting with her best friend Polly - heavily pregnant - the women watch their husband's cooking dinner as they contemplate the absurdity of the situation.
Polly: How the f*ck are you going to jail tomorrow?
Piper: Prison. Not jail.
Polly: You're missing my [baby] shower.
Piper: Polly, I'm really sorry.
Polly: I know. You focus on how you're going to maintain your eyebrows behind bars. You may not come back with a unibrow.
Around the world, nice, middle class, well-educated, polite men and women watched that scene with amused detachment.
How weird it would be, we all thought. How strange to be ripped from our warm and cosy and otherwise law-abiding lives to be lumped in with 'them'. How sad to miss your bestie's baby shower because you had to go to prison.
But what we all fail to remember when watching Orange Is The New Black, sympathising with Piper Chapman (inspired by the real-life story of Piper Kerman, who served 13 months in prison), is that she did the wrong thing.
The same goes with Real Housewives of New Jersey star Teresa Guidice, who served 11 months behind bars for nine counts of mail, wire, bank and bankruptcy fraud in 2014. Her husband, Joe Guidice, is now serving his sentence of 36 months, and isn't doing so well.
"Joe is struggling," a source told Us Weekly. "He was moved from general population and is now with the illegal immigrants. He has no one to lean on."
You feel the same old twang of sympathy. Poor bloke, he really didn't deserve to be thrown in among the 'real' criminals, did he?
And herein lies the root of the problem: there should not be a sliding scale of crime based on your wealth or privilage. A crime is a crime, and all people who committed it deserve the same punishment.
"Man shoots girlfriend in late-night attack."
"Youth rapes and physically assaults girl."
"Man turned in to cops by best friend for stealing money."
I wonder what kind of reaction these headlines would cause if it had been a person of colour or lower socioeconomic standing instead of an olympian, a college swimming star, and a Sydney banker?
What happens when we take their crimes out of the context of wealth and privilege, and superimpose them on the acts of your quintessential criminal?
Would we still be feeling that the punishment was too severe?
20-year-old Brock Turner will undoubtably emerge a wildly different person after serving time in prison.
And so he should. With the maximum sentence for rape in America sitting at 10 years, he is extraordinarily lucky to be serving only a few short months. But will that be enough to stop him the next time he thinks to hurt another human? Probably not.
Prison is meant to be tough. Horrible. Horrific, even. It is meant to prompt an intense period of self-reflection and analysis in which (hopefully) you emerge the other side repentant.
And at the end of the day, anyone - rich, poor, male, female, young, old - needs to serve jail time after committing a crime.
Because a white collar criminal is just as dangerous as a blue collar one.