W. Kamau Bell: I had a great time in prison

Story highlights

  • W. Kamau Bell heads to prison for his new CNN show
  • America's prison obsession, mass incarceration squander inmates' potential
  • Go inside San Quentin on CNN's "United Shades of America" Sunday at 10 p.m.

W. Kamau Bell is a critically acclaimed sociopolitical comedian, featured on "Kamau Right Now!" on KALW in San Francisco and CNN's "United Shades of America," airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

(CNN)I had a great time in prison.

That's something I never thought I'd say. The day-to-day discomforts of prison life, combined with the big-picture realities of mass incarceration, do not add up to a party.
But as a comedian, I'm also attuned to what American audiences enjoy. And America loves what I call, prison pornography. I'm not saying that America loves adult films set in prison. Well, at least I'm not saying that exclusively. I'm saying that America "gets off" on seeing people in prison. And our country really "gets off" on seeing people in prison living like freaks and feral animals. We love watching it on the news and in narrative film and television. We especially love those "real" cable documentaries about how gross and punitive prison is and how crazy and twisted and criminal the inmates are.
Well, this week, on my new CNN docu-series "United Shades of America," I'm headed to prison. And I abso-double-F-bombing-lutely did not want to make one of those prison porn documentaries. I didn't want to make a show exotifying prison while at the same time it creating the impression that we, as a nation, are doing a good job at prison.
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Luckily the risk of making prison porn on this visit was relatively low, as my show went to San Quentin: a notorious prison in Marin County, California, home to the largest death row in the United States. Although it is only about half an hour from my house, it might as well be on the moon.
I had never been to San Quentin (or any prison) before we filmed the episode there, and I was initially scared because of the whole prison pornography thing. It turns out I was wrong to be afraid.

'America is the worst at prison'

I certainly wasn't prepared to enjoy myself, for a lot of reasons -- but most of all for this one: America is the worst at prison. We're like really, really bad at it. And before you get all, "But what about [INSERT TOTALITARIAN / THIRD WORLD / AXIS OF EVIL COUNTRY HERE]?", let me explain.
We can argue all day about each individual prison in the world and how "good" or "bad" it is, but that's not what I'm talking about here. (Although, let me say now for the record that if I must go to prison I'd like to be extradited to Norway. I've had several apartments that didn't look as good as one of Norway's prison cells.) But I'm saying that the United States, like a middleweight boxer, is pound for pound the worst at prison in the world.
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Don't believe me? Here's the proof. America, the self-described greatest nation on Earth, has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. While we only have 5% of the world's total population, we have an un-F-bombing-believable 25% of the world's prisoners.
We have more people in prison than China and India combined, which is abso-F-bombing-lutely crazy because those countries have 2.3 billion (!!!) more people than we do. And then when people in America serve their time in prison (or actually get paroled), they end up back in prison within five years more than 75% of the time. Meanwhile, my prison away from home in Norway, has one of the lowest recidivism rates, at 20%.
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And like everything in America, if something is bad for everybody, then it's way worse for my people, African-Americans. While African-Americans only make up 13% of the country's population, we make up 40% of America's prison population.
This is due to oversentencing, unequal application of the law and also that whole trend, throughout America's history, of just generally criminalizing black people. And it gets worse, because in America, not only do we like people being in prison, we also like to see them in prison living like animals.
Now, back to the fun I had in prison. Admittedly, I had a great time in prison at San Quentin because every night I was allowed to leave and go home. I didn't have to live in the cramped cells. I didn't have to figure out ways to navigate the horrible -- and I mean horrible -- food. I was able to focus instead on the men who I met there. They were all funny, smart, remorseful, resourceful, skilled and self-reflective in ways that most people that I meet on the outside are not.
And they are this way in large part because San Quentin, despite its well-earned infamy, is a prison that really puts the "rehab" in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Many men that I met said that most of California's prisons only have two programs, Jesus and Alcoholics Anonymous -- which to my understanding are really just the same thing.
But at San Quentin, the men who I met are provided with many different types of programs. And many of those programs are led by men in the prison. And because San Quentin is located in at the edge of a huge metropolitan area, it has many volunteers who come in from the outside to lead programs. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan even made a visit last year. Most prisons in this country are in the middle of nowhere, which makes is much easier for us all to throw those people away. Out of sight, out of mind.
But of course there's a problem even in San Quentin. The men I met, who I thought seemed like incredibly thoughtful human beings, were all working hard on themselves to develop the life and job skills they would need on the outside. They have life sentences with the possibility of parole, and though it seems from recent statistics that parole is being granted more often than in the past, nobody I talked to in San Quentin seemed overly optimistic about getting paroled. But they continue to do restitution, get educated, go to therapy and acquire job skills -- because they want to be ready. They want to get and stay out of prison.
In many ways, parole is the opposite of what we enjoy -- in pop culture and in real-life politics -- about prison. We want to lock criminals up and throw away the key to show how tough we are as a society. No governor that I've ever heard of runs for re-election by giving stump speeches like, "I've paroled more inmates than any governor in the history of this state!"

'Aren't we better than this?'

But why not? This question is the one I keep asking myself after my first trip to prison. Shouldn't one of the goals of prison be getting as many of the inmates as possible back out into the world to be responsible citizens? Aren't we just wasting generations of human potential by keeping over two million people behind bars?
We are throwing away workers, voters, fathers, mothers, friends, lovers, and all of their potential. And why? So we can look tough? Aren't we better than this?
President Obama certainly thinks so. After we taped our show at San Quentin, he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, stating, "Mass incarceration makes our country worse off and we need to do something about it." Or, as Zuckerberg put it after his visit to San Quentin, "We can't jail our way to a just society, and our current system isn't working."
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There are hopeful signs that our country is moving away from its prison fetish toward a more forgiving approach. The long-running movement to "Ban the Box" is making its way onto college campuses, seeking to include students applying to schools in the protections against asking prospective employees about their criminal histories. Because if you have to check that box, it is likely you won't get that job.
This is the United States of America, where we love second chances. This country was literally founded on giving people a second chance. We're supposed to be able to imagine new possibilities for ourselves and for others.
So if I can have a great time in prison, surely we as a society can help inmates-- once they've done their time -- to have a great time in the outside world. Surely we can make it possible for them to actually become the workers, voters, fathers, mothers, friends and lovers they have the potential to be.