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Yesterday's TV, Today's Economy: Oz


Just how much has prison life changed since 'Oz' aired in the late 1990s?

With nearly half of the world's prisoners located in the USA, it figures that we're fertile ground for a blockbuster prison drama. In 1997, HBO's first hour-long TV series introduced America to Oswald State Correctional Facility. Oz was a Level 4 maximum security prison full of violent, troubled, yet ultimately endearing inmates.

Much of the series is set in an experimental prison unit called Emerald City. "Em" is a controlled, racially diverse environment with a reformist rather than punitive bent. It never quite represented real-world prison conditions, even when the show was airing between 1997-2003. An Oz based on reality would have shown a disproportionate number of African-American inmates-84% more African-Americans than Caucasians were incarcerated in 2004-as well as been overcrowded or lacking infrastructure.

A 2011 Oz, however, might see more prisoners on early parole. Even though the total US prison population has climbed by more than 2% since Oz ended in 2003, the recession has forced states to cut budgets. A number of states, including Texas and Tennessee, are considering letting inmates out early to save money.

Those inmates might also have deeper crows' feet. Inmates aged 55 and older are one of the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, meaning more men Vern Schillinger's age. There are also more older prisoners-age 35 and up-on death row than there used to be. Those inmates would be executed by lethal injection, the 21st century's capital punishment of choice. The original series' hanging, firing squad, and electric chair wouldn't be featured.

Conjugal visits were always a big deal at Oz, especially after Governor Devlin decided to ban them in Season 2. Today, Jefferson Keane's fiancee might be an inmate herself. The number of incarcerated women has increased by 12.5% between 2003-2009 . There also might be a non-hetero twist: Since 2007, California has allowed same-sex conjugal visits by domestic partners.

Many Oz inmates worked at a factory, and in real life, the private sector knows that our 2.3 million inmates make excellent cheap labor. Since Oz first aired, prisoners have remained busy at work on everything from call centers to deboning chickens. Recent investigations have uncovered the fact that prisoners even build components for the Patriot PAC-3 missile, body armor for the US military, and electrical components for Boeing (BA), Textron (TXT), and BAE Systems (BAES) through Unicor, the Bureau of Prisons' "corporate arm." Unicor, a corporation wholly-owned by the federal government and called Federal Prison industries until a 1977 rebranding, was started as a rehabilitative program in 1934. It now employs almost 16,000 inmates throughout the US correctional system. Many states maintain correctional industries, as well.

In Season 3 of Oz, the medical ward is privatized by the fictional Weigart Corporation. Real companies also make a killing constructing penitentiaries and providing prison services, from overpriced phone systems by AT&T (T) to private SB1070-compatible immigrant prisons built and run by Corrections Corporation of America (CXW), which reportedly netted more than $74 million in tax 2010 dollars for the project, according to ThinkProgress. G4S, formerly Wackenhut, is another big prison profiteer.

Governor Devlin's Season 1 cigarette smoking ban turned out to be prophetic. In 2004, the real-life federal government banned smoking in all federal penitentiaries. Because cigarettes acted as currency, inmates had to find a new medium to trade. In some prisons, that "new money" is actually packets of mackerels, or "macks." They act as piscine gold, guarding against the overnight inflation that seems to be a regular occurrence for staples like snacks and candy.

We know what today's Oz would look like. A future Oz, however, might not be viable at all, thanks to advanced mobile surveillance systems. GPS-equipped ankle bracelets might replace today's cell walls, allowing prisoners to roam freely, and making the idea of Oz rather nostalgic.
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