ON PARIS HILTON
I feel a little hung over from all the hoopla surrounding the yo-yoing prison jaunts of Paris Hilton. Yes I delighted in Sarah Silverman’s comments at the MTV Movie Awards about Hilton chipping her teeth on the prison bars — like many Comedy Central viewers, I take great joy in the roasting of celebrities, no matter how harsh and offensive, as well as at what mental cost in to the subject.
It’s easy to gleefully rejoice in the misfortune of celebrities — when beautiful, glamorous women get fat, are cheated upon, display quizzical mental states — trash culture media and its adherents bask in the spectacle like a Roman holiday. Celebrity gossip mags and websites and VH1 are founded on the innate human indulgences of the proles.
However, I’m starting to genuinely feel compassion for Ms. Hilton. As much as I despised her reality TV show where she mocked the other half, and am disgusted by her ability to take an accidental pornographic incident and turn it into an empire of sorts, I do not think she should be spending time in prison for reckless driving. Of course her failure to comply with the law is not something to be taken lightly — but prison, really?
I’m sure many Hilton haters are gleefully imagining the dynamics of the princess among the paupers, fantasizing about how she’s finally going to face those little people, and they’re going to be brutal and unforgiving. Money can’t get you out of this one sweetheart. But who makes up the current prison population in the US? What types of women are currently behind bars — are they violent, insane, hard-bitten butchies?
According to the Women in Prison Project, a study conducted by the Correctional Association of New York, incarcerated women aren’t simply the gender counterparts to male inmates.
•29% of women in state prisons nationally are mentally ill, a rate significantly higher than the male inmate population or the general population. Nearly 8 in 10 female mentally ill inmates report having experienced physical or sexual abuse.
•Nearly 20% of incarcerated mothers report being homeless in the year prior to their incarceration.
•The majority of women inmates are incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as prostitution, fraud or drug offenses.
And in the UK, the Howard League for Penal Reform claims that 70 women have died in prison in the past ten years, compared with only one who took her own life between 1985 and 1990. Self-inflicted deaths among women constituted 12.5% of all suicides in UK prisons, although women only make up 6% of the total prison population.
If only the public conversation could shift from the current schadenfreude to what’s going in women’s prisons: why are so many women so readily incarcerated when it’s clear that they are in desperate need of basic rehabilitation programs?
Yesterday I was flipping through a trashy British fashion rag I am bizarrely addicted to. Hilton was snapped, in her alien sunglasses and gluttonously massive handbag, clinging to two books: the Holy Bible and "The Power of Now". If that doesn't scream mentally off, I don't know what does.
Masha Gessen is the author of *The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia*, which will be published in October. In the July issue of Har...
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