Paris Hilton is out of jail after serving three (but technically five?) days of her 23 (or is it 40?) day sentence. Released for medical reasons–most likely caused by her refusal to eat or a nervous breakdown–Hilton will spend the next 40 days under house arrest. Rather than discuss the double standard that allows her to escape the incarceration while over two million other people do hard time, I want to argue that Hilton should be out. She shouldn’t be kept in a cage, and neither should anyone else. Our demand that she sit in that cell “like the rest of us,” and our collective sniggering at her “just deserts,” says much more about our acceptance of the logic of prison and our notions of who belongs inside and who out than about any resistance to celebrity culture or demand for equal justice.
After all, what’s so funny about Paris in jail? It’s funny because we think she doesn’t belong there. She is rich and girlish and sexy and blonde and white and pretty. That’s somebody who belongs on the “outside,” right? So who belongs inside? Poor people and people of color. And look at the conditions in the LA County Jail where she was to be held: she was kept in isolation in an 8X12 foot cell, supposedly for her own protection. Protection from what? From other prisoners, one supposes. Because we make this assumption that people in prison belong there because they are bad people, dangerous and lacking the moral fiber and humanity to be integrated into life on the outside. This assumption draws from and feeds into the “tough on crime” rhetoric and logic of criminalization that has put over two million people in cages in this country.
ABC News quoted officials on the conditions of life behind bars for Hilton; it wouldn’t an easy stay: “Forty-five days in L.A. County Jail is really rough. That’s an awful, hellish place,” said criminal defense attorney Dana Cole. “Conditions are miserable, people take showers under cold dripping water, the food is completely inedible.” Paris faced staph infections, a medical problem rampant inside. And we laugh. How funny that Paris is in there, this heiress princess who couldn’t possibly make it. Again, the assumption here is that a whole class of people should be able to “make it” in jail. These conditions are figured as inhumane for Paris, but the jail is filled, beyond capacity, with so many others who, following the logic that Paris is an oddball there, somehow belong there, and should live in these inhuman and dangerous conditions.
All those crying foul that Paris gets off while “the rest of us” have to serve certainly have a point. Al Sharpton is right–there is a racist and classist double standard at play when Paris is excused from prison from having a rational reaction to the irrational space of the prison while poor folks and people of color, who are incarcerated at much higher rates than rich white people, are forced to stay inside, no matter what. Unequal justice is the rule; Paris is not an exception. Fox News agrees with Sharpton, arguing that everyone in prison should be there and should stay there. This is the danger of using this logic that Paris should serve her time, just like the rest of us. This moment where we see inside prisons, a space usually shielded from those who are, for the present moment at least, untouched by incarceration, where we really see the unhealthy, dangerous and unliveable conditions inside prison, should be seized to say no one should be locked inside there. Paris shouldn’t be in prison, and neither should anybody else.
UPDATE: Well, it loooks like Paris is headed back inside, making clear the often arbitrary nature of incarceration. More later.