A media biz friend of mine recently forwarded to me a news report on "the world's hottest criminal," Ms. Stephanie Beaudoin; a 21 year old nursing student in Quebec. Complete with a fetching photo of Ms. Beaudoin on a boat in a bikini, the story mentions that she's facing 114 criminal charges for breaking into more than 40 homes last summer. Ms. Beaudoin is apparently a Facebook sensation, inspiring all kinds of awkward headlines, comments, and tweets. Her "arresting" good looks were mentioned, of course. Clever.
As a federal prisoner, I couldn't help but wonder whether Ms. Beaudoin was as amused as everyone else seems to be. If she is, I suggest that any such giddiness will wane promptly. The criminal justice experience loses its flavor quickly. A recovering addict myself, I know that people who commit crimes by the dozen are usually hurting, from substance abuse or other social or mental problems. Nobody robs 40 homes just for fun. And as cute as her tale might be right now, Ms. Beaudoin could end up in prison for a while and might be branded a felon forever. Even in progressive Canada, that's not an asset. The nursing career is probably already a wash.
Yet, we titter. Hey, she's hot, right? This week's amusing sideshow -- remember Jeremy Meeks, the "hot felon" whose mug shot went viral last year? It's even more fun that she's a bikini babe. If I were still the ignorant teenager I was when I went to prison nearly a decade ago, I'm sure I would be sharing and retweeting Ms. Beaudoin's picture to my friends. But I'm not that boy anymore.
Having long witnessed the way the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex chews up and discards so many men, women, and children each year (it's in the millions), deeming them unworthy of services and support, I know that most of Ms. Beaudoin's Facebook fans will forget she ever existed once she's been dumped into the prison machine for processing. The system is designed that way now: persona non grata status, guaranteed. Disenfranchisement. Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and they will remember her. She's certainly attractive enough. Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black ("OITNB" to Facebook types), still gets face time in her role as post-prison reform advocate. She's blonde and attractive, after all.
Sadly, though, most of the men confined here in prison with me are probably not as amusing or attractive to the denizens of the Twittersphere or Blogosphere. They're mostly poor, uneducated, disproportionately minority, and from impoverished communities. Most have little hope of ever posing on a boat for a selfie, and many are now so isolated from mainstream culture that they've never even heard the term "selfie." Many will be middle-aged and in poor health when released, with nowhere to go. They'll be unable to fill out an online job application, let alone actually get hired for a job, and most will be back in prison within five years. Nothing attractive about that.
Yet, as a prisoner, I'm not surprised at Ms. Beaudoin's newfound fame, or in the popularity of the Orange is the New Black television show. The American -- and Canadian -- public is so used to the policy of mass incarceration that they've become desensitized to its horrors, and it was only a matter of time before the plight of the 2.3 million Americans in prison right now become fodder for a slick dramatic comedy series.
Indeed, many people "out there" that I've talked to have expressed surprise that the book that the Orange is the New Black TV series is based on has little in the way of sexy drama and catfights, and instead devotes considerable space to addressing the racism, misogyny, and rank unkindness that permeates America's "correctional" system. Series regular and flavor of the month Laverne Cox gets a TIME Magazine cover as the face of transgender rights. The transgender women that I know are trapped in men's prisons like this one, guarding the restroom door for each other for fear of being raped or assaulted just yards from the guards' station. There will be no Facebook fan parties for them.
Yes, Ms. Beaudoin's beauty will likely be soon forgotten. Just like the women of FCI Danbury -- the real prison in Danbury, CT where Orange is the New Black is set. When the series went viral, the Federal Bureau of Prisons was in the process of kicking out all the women from that prison to make more beds for men. Many of the women confined at FCI Danbury were from the Northeast, and were to be shipped to Aliceville, Alabama and other outposts far from home, away from the children that many had been separated from.
Given Orange is the New Black's popularity, an impressive consortium of politicians, judges, and celebrities joined together to protest. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reluctantly agreed to do what it could to keep the women close, and it pledged to open a new women's federal prison in Danbury within 18 months. Today, more than a year later, the new prison is an empty lot, and it might be another year or two before things get going. The spotlight is gone and all is forgotten.
We can only hope that one day, the story of a young, attractive nursing student facing more than 100 criminal charges will stay front page news as the sad tale that it really is, and not serve as manure for viral amusement. From the view in my prison cell, it doesn't look like that day is coming anytime soon.
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