Paris Hilton is back in prison, sent by the judge who first ordered her there. Judge Michael Sauer, who originally ordered Paris to prison, was reportedly outraged that she was released, and refused to even hear evidence of her alleged “medical condition” that led the sheriff to release her. The media has widely reported her weeping and crying at this turn of events, as she shook for the several hours the hearing took, and became hysterical as she was resentenced. There seems to be a shift in perception, as if Paris has become a pawn in a procedural war, one in which she is an unwitting victim, perhaps precisely because of the celebrity status she enjoys–or, at this point, suffers.
Salon.com’s Heather Havrilesky and Rebecca Traister decry Paris’s return to prison on different grounds. Their headline, “Paris isn’t free–and neither are we,” at first suggests that perhaps Salon writers, at least, will be able to connect this case to a more generalized critique of the unfreedom inherent in a system of crime and punishment that relies almost entirely on fairly arbitrary caging. But the unfreedom that “we” suffer is not at the hands of the criminal injustice system, but rather at the hands of the media that continues to follow the story. We are unfree in the sense that we must continue to know about Paris Hilton. She will not disappear from the news, and the writers fear we are destined to lifetimes of hearing about this no-talent debutante and her comeuppance. This slippage in the discussion of unfreedom in the context of incarceration, such that the unfreedom is our inability to not hear about this woman rather than the unfreedom inherent in prison itself, points to the insistent permanance of the culture’s assumption that we need prisons in the first place. Our discussion of whether or not Paris should be freed is confined to an individualized account of whether or not she deserves the punishment she’s getting and whether or not is it tied to her celebrity status. Missing here is the important conversation about the injustice of the L.A. County Jail in the first place. We are in fact quite free in Havrilesky and Traister’s terms–that freedom is freedom from having to hear or know about something. We may not be free from Paris, but we remain free from ever having to hear about the realities of the prison industrial complex.
Paris is not fighting this new sentence, instead playing the part of contrite woman who has learned her lesson and will use her prison time fruitfully to reflect on what she’s done. She’s suddenly the model prisoner, and we are content, happy that she’s agreed to settle down and pay the price. We fail to ask the stakes of that price for the millions who are forced to pay it. And we learn the unfortunate and deeply false lesson that incarceration “works.” It doesn’t.