Friday, August 8, 2014

Joseph F. Spillane's "Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform"

Joseph F. Spillane is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books, including Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States, 1884–1920.

Here Spillane dreamcasts an adaptation of his new book, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform:
Coxsackie tells the story of a “reform” prison built in Depression-era New York State, built to educate young men who were thought to be more promising than adult male felony offenders. Built on a foundation of good intentions, Coxsackie prison quickly foundered on the shoals of violence and racial division. For the thousands of young men who experienced imprisonment there, Coxsackie was an education of the worst kind. The collapse of progressive good intentions is a powerful one, but ultimately a depressing one, and I am not sure that it contains the sort of redemptive element that would make for a mainstream film. Still, one can fantasize…

When thinking about casting a film based on the book, I can’t help but think back to the 1955 film, Blackboard Jungle, directed by Richard Brooks. Brooks adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s 1954 novel of the same name, which Hunter had based on his short time spent teaching English at two vocational high schools in New York City. These were the very places from which the young men that served time at Coxsackie were drawn, and I can’t help but imagine casting the prisoners in similar fashion, using relatively unknown young actors. Oddly enough, just as some of the young actors in Blackboard Jungle went on to fame (Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow), so too did some of the actual inmates at Coxsackie, the ranks of which included future world middleweight champions Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull), and the actor Charles McGregor.

Coxsackie featured the same kinds of idealistic but overwhelmed teachers that Glenn Ford played so beautifully well in Blackboard Jungle. I can’t help but imagine someone like Adrien Brody to portray a teacher whose reformist ambitions are mixed with the certain world-weariness and resignation that came with life behind bars.

My book begins by describing an unlikely partnership between Austin McCormick, the most influential prison reformer and warden of the New York City Penitentiary, and artist Ben Shahn, the renowned muralist and social realist. Alfred Molina already played Shahn’s contemporary, Diego Rivera, in the film Frida, and I am convinced who could probably play Shahn as well. As for MacCormick, a tough, determined, but slightly built son of a Congregational minister from Maine—well, he could have been played by Alan Ladd (if we were casting this movie in 1946!). Sadly, with Ladd no longer available, we might consider the British actor Martin Freeman. A different look, but he captures that everyman’s intensity, while being sufficiently short.

Finally, Coxsackie also tells the story of Robert Martinson, a leftwing Berkeley activist in the 1950s, a Freedom Rider for civil rights in 1961, and eventually a leading critic of what he perceived to be the excesses of liberalism. A crusader in every instance, Martinson found national celebrity leading the attack on the idea of rehabilitation in the hopes that prisons like Coxsackie would eventually be torn down. Instead, Martinson’s crusade helped lay the groundwork for a more nakedly punitive approach to imprisonment, upon which our present system of mass incarceration is built. Recoiling at the movement he had helped unleash, Martinson eventually took his own life. For the gangly, intense, and ultimately tragic Freedom Rider, I can think of no one better than Sean Penn. Fantasy over!
Visit Joseph Spillane's website.

--Marshal Zeringue