I Am A Killer · Prison Phones · Kids Behind Bars

Plus: Mark David Chapman makes an appearance

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If you were on the fence about watching I Am A Killer: Released, here are two incisive reviews that might help you make up your mind. The second season of the Netflix series on the U.S. prison system dropped all three of its episodes Friday, which means that I had to thrash my way past the countless “suggestions” that I watch it on my way to Grand Designs (perhaps the most gloriously bitchy architecture show ever).

This season is about Dale Wayne Sigler, who prosecutors say shot a Texas Subway employee “execution style” in 1990, during a robbery that only netted Sigler $400. Sigler was sentenced to death, which in Texas actually means you might get executed. However, jury-selection issues prompted a resentencing to “life” in prison, which means Sigler was eventually released on parole, providing the showrunners with their series.

The Daily Beast takes a dive into the series, noting that, though it didn’t come up during the case, Sigler now appears to admit that the slaying was motivated by homophobia (John William Zeltner Jr., the victim, was gay), a prejudice that Sigler didn’t drop during his years in prison. There’s some very unsavory victim-blaming from Sigler, which made me wonder if he shared his disgust about gay folks with the parole board (or if they’d care if he had).

Decider writes that after Sigler unrepentantly shows his bigoted ass, “we came to feel less sympathy for Sigler, and we’re not sure if this is what [producer/director Itamar] Klasmer intended.” No one’s arguing that prisoners who’ve served their time are required to come off as saints, but it sure does make for a tougher sell, the idea that to watch this one must voluntarily consume the same kind of hate we’re being fed from so many other angles. — EB

Back inside prison, the Verge spoke with folks who are incarcerated in San Quentin about the coronavirus epidemic ripping through the facility. The thing that makes this piece so interesting is that information was gathered via calls to and from inmates’ illicit cell phones, as well as with information from anonymous staff members, in part because though the Verge requested comment seven times, no one from the prison ever responded. Snip:

Quinn lives in a sparse cell populated by a bunk bed, a toilet, a sink, and a small cabinet. He gets three meals a day, two of them cold sack lunches that typically consist of a boiled egg and a slice of bread or an apple and a baloney sandwich. Dinner — the prison’s one hot meal — is cold by the time it’s served. “The food doesn’t get you full,” Quinn says. “It’s the same thing over and over.”

In the spring, as part of COVID-19 precautions, staff members on the mental health team selected some men to move from H Unit to North Block, in an effort to create more space. “We were forced to decide which guys were stable enough to go up there [to North Block],” a social worker named Erica* tells The Verge. “We had to come up with all these names. None of us wanted any of them to move.”

Erica was unable to continue seeing her patients after the move — the prison was worried about the virus spreading from inmates to staff. Recently, however, she heard that one of her former patients tested positive for coronavirus in North Block. The news confirmed a feeling she’d had for some time: the prison didn’t care about its inmates. “Corruption is everywhere,” she says. “These people make decisions and don’t care who it affects.”

The Verge story, which you can read here, isn’t the only place where you can take in the Quentin COVID-19 case in the inmates’ own words. CJR also points us to the Prison Renaissance Zine Project: “Incarceratedly Yours, covid-19 Issue.” The cover alone is breathtaking, and its contents are remarkable — according to Adamu Chan, a poet and inmate who spoke with CJR, his fellow authors worked on the publication in the isolation of their cells. “I feel strongly about my duty to speak out, because I know some people aren’t in the place where they can do that,” Chan says, noting that with a 20-year sentence, he needn’t worry about appealing to parole board officials. “Your voice can get silenced and snuffed out here.” — EB

I covered a lot of ground there; here’s the reading list:

No no you can’t be happy that R Kelly reportedly got his ass beat in prison. Seriously, you can’t: if we’re going to argue for a better criminal justice system, then we can’t snicker even to ourselves that — per TMZ — Kelly was sitting on his bed in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) “when another inmate walked in his cell and started punching the crap out of Kelly.”

TMZ writes that the beef was allegedly because Kelly protesters had spurred lockdowns at the prison. I was like, “Protestors? For or against?” when I read that, so I went down a bit of a hole. According to Kelly’s attorney, who spoke with Page Six, groups of people are gathering outside the jail to agitate for Kelly’s release.

That said, I couldn’t find independent corroboration of pro-Kelly protests outside the MCC (which is in downtown Chicago), and reporter friends in the Chicago region tell me that they’re unaware of any significant Kelly-related civil actions in the area. Have you seen any information on protests, other than that provided by Kelly’s defense team? If so, drop me a link, I’m dying to know more. — EB

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Mark David Chapman was denied parole last week. The AP reports that Chapman, who shot John Lennon to death in 1980, took his 11th spin before the New York State parole board and was denied release from his 20-years-to-life sentence.

CNN reports that a spokesperson with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision “would not provide details on why Chapman was denied release.” Chapman, who is 65 years old, will be allowed his next hearing in August of 2022. — EB

The subject of another property that streaming services seem to think I must watch is also in the news. Richard Wershe Jr., the titular character in 2018 true crime drama White Boy Rick (it’s on Starz, aka The Outlander Channel), was released from a Florida prison this July, 32 years after he was arrested at age 17 for “possessing cocaine in excess of eight kilograms,” then turning informant for the feds.

The 51-year-old did an interview with the Daily Mail about his return to society, saying he’s going to become an advocate for prison reform, saying, “You tell me how it's right that I served 32 years for a non-violent crime and someone who has raped or killed walks free in a few years.” (Our first item today gives some truth to that claim.)

“I'm working to advocate for people who are in the same situation as I was – non-violent offenders who are in maximum security prisons or serving substantial sentences beyond what they should be,” he tells the Mail. “Where is the equity in justice? That's what I want to advocate for.” — EB

WHAT A SEGUE Y’ALL. Sarah notes on our story budget doc that A&E docuseries Kids Behind Bars, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory, is now available free to anyone — no A&E or provider subscription or login needed.

As if anticipating my cocked brow at a show entitled “Kids Behind Bars,” she noted that it is “actually pretty decent,” a phrase I will demand be engraved on my tombstone. Over nine episodes, the show follows eight people sentenced to mandatory life sentences without parole while they were still juveniles. You can watch the newly-unlocked episodes here. — EB

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