Rich Manieri: The prison blues just aren't the same

This is a portrait of Rich Manieri in the LNP photo studio June 6, 2016.

Imagine somewhere between Shawshank and a Motel 6.

You’ll come up with something pretty close to the Beaumont Federal Correctional Institute in Texas.

It’s a medium security prison, and we recently learned how mediocre its security really is. Inmates tend to escape, and in perhaps the most interesting twist in the history of prison breaks, they come back.

It seems four inmates — that we know of — have pretty much been coming and going as they pleased. They walk out, buy liquor, cigarettes, cellphones and other contraband they can move in the joint, and they return.

Not exactly Clint Eastwood digging his way out of Alcatraz with a soup spoon and swimming across the bay.

The four men who had been using the federal slammer in Beaumont as a YMCA finally got caught this month.

U.S. Marshals told NBC News they had received “repeated reports” of inmates escaping and coming back with contraband. The Marshals weren’t sure how they were escaping.

Something tells me it wasn’t Tim Robbins bodysurfing through the sewer.

It occurs to me that in a recent column I was highly critical of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion that the U.S. abolish prisons. It seemed to me a ridiculous, naive, impractical idea. But maybe we should just make prison voluntary. Perhaps we’ve underestimated its appeal. Or maybe we’ve been watching too many movies. Let’s not do away with correctional facilities. Just unlock the doors and see who’s willing to hang around. Maybe we’d be pleasantly surprised.

Of course, this would ruin some great prison songs.

Maybe the guy Johnny Cash was singing about in “Folsom Prison Blues” wouldn’t have been so down in the dumps if he knew he could just walk down the street and pick up some whiskey and a Bowie knife.

“I’m stuck in Folsom prison.” Not anymore you’re not.

Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” wouldn’t be the same either.

“Sad sack was sittin’ on a block of stone ... Way over in the corner weepin’ all alone ...”

If he only knew attendance was optional.

The “prison movie” genre would also take a significant hit. Entire scripts would have to be rewritten.

Remember “Cool Hand Luke?” Paul Newman played Luke, the inmate who refused to conform to the rules of a brutal southern prison and kept escaping.

Guard: “Sorry, Luke. Just doin’ my job. You gotta appreciate that.”

Luke: “Aw, callin’ it your job don’t make it right, boss.”

It just wouldn’t have been the same had Luke said, “Aw, don’t worry about it boss. I was coming back anyway. In fact, I picked up some Budweiser and beef jerky for you.”

The Beaumont incident, while rare, was not the first of its kind.

Virtually the same thing was happening at a federal prison in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Those inmates had vehicles waiting for them. One snuck out at least three times to see his girlfriend. Another, who was apparently planning quite a shindig, was caught with a cellphone, a pair of scissors, two 1.75-liter bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila, two cartons of Newport cigarettes, four boxes of Black & Mild Cigars and some food, according to CNN. His pantry is better stocked than mine. And this was the same federal pen that once housed Al Capone. Maybe old “Scarface” had just given up at that point.

In July, a Tennessee man escaped from a county jail only to come back seven hours later.

I’ve never done any prison time but I’m pretty sure that if I was on the loose for seven hours I wouldn’t be making my way back to the “Big House.” Unless, of course, life on the inside was comparatively more attractive than freedom and especially if someone else — you and me — was paying.

The federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for housing about 184,000 federal inmates, according to 2017 statistics, at a cost of about $34,000 per year, per inmate.

I don’t want to suggest the unauthorized long weekends at Beaumont indicate some sort of national trend, but it would be nice to know that federal inmates are where they belong while they pay their debt to society.

The four Beaumont inmates have been charged with escape and are back in prison. Hopefully, someone has patched the hole in the fence or at least locked the front door.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at manieri2@gmail.com.

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