Life somehow fails to imitate art when it comes to prison uprising


July 21, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They had a hostage situation at the Maryland Penitentiary last week, so naturally I thought about Al Pacino. He is an actor. This means he pretends for a living. The last time Pacino was here, he pretended they had a hostage situation at the Maryland Penitentiary.

It was 13 years ago. One afternoon, Pacino walked into a Baltimore courtroom to watch real-life law enforcement people at work. He wanted to study their styles for a movie he was shooting here. I was sitting in court next to Ron Matz, the WCAO radio reporter. We were covering the trial of a city cop on narcotics charges.

"That's Al Pacino," Matz whispered, pointing toward this little runt standing in the courtroom doorway.

"You're nuts," I said. "You could fit that guy into Al Pacino's pocket."

The movie was called "And Justice for All." On the big screen, Pacino looked about 50 feet tall. The movie prison inmates were also 50 feet tall. In real life at the Pen last week, everybody was shorter, but I kept thinking about Pacino anyway, because the line between what we see on movie and television screens and how we translate that to reality keeps getting blurred.

Start with Wednesday morning at Madison and Forrest. Inside the Pen, we had two correctional officers in the hands of prison inmates. Outside, we had television cameras lined up and guards marching in formation past the cameras every few minutes.

"Look at this," a veteran photographer snorted.

"The start of a power play?" somebody asked.

"Are you kidding?" the photographer said. "There's no power play. There's no nothing. This is strictly for our benefit."

The line begins to blur between reality and pretense: Al Pacino returns to the scene of the crime. Does this sound a little too cynical? A few yards from the photographer, a prison insider leaned against a medical van on Forrest Street and nodded his head slowly.

"Of course it's for television," the prison official said. "You don't think the inmates know what's going on out here? They have televisions inside. They're watching the news. Everybody in there sees a chance to be a hero on television."

It was late in the morning. The TV people were readying for their

noon news programs, but the prison people were already looking further ahead: to the 6 o'clock shows, to cable news and, if it went long enough or got bloody enough, to the network operations.

Nobody wanted this. The news gets big enough and it takes on dTC

a life of its own. If this happens, the inmates could sit in C Dormitory and dictate not only hostage-release terms, but the content of the evening news. It's the prison version of college kids yelling, "Hi, Mom. We're No. 1," only lives are at stake instead of ballgames.

And so we had the scramble for air space, and the competition of images. If prison officials marched enough uniformed officers in front of cameras, this would provide the pictures television needs to fill its time slot. Via television, you show the inmates inside that they're surrounded, that they can't win. Television unwittingly becomes the middle man in electronic negotiations.

Thirteen years ago, the producers of "And Justice for All" rounded up a bunch of real-life reporters and asked us to play reporters for the movie cameras. The scene was the Penitentiary, where a berserk inmate had taken a hostage.

In the movie, we reporters were to come rushing up to the Pen gates, hollering, "Where's the warden?" and "How many hostages are there?" Holding us back was this wall of make-believe city cops, played by real-life city cops. We shot the scene 15 times and never got it right. You can see it in the finished product. Reporters are screaming, and the cops are shoving us back, and there's pandemonium everywhere.

In the age of ubiquitous television, this is not how it works. Cops do not shove reporters in front of cameras. Reporters do not scream unless someone has questioned our expense accounts. In danse macabre situations like last week's hostage crisis, everybody has learned new rules.

"Nobody wants to rush this thing," one prison official said early Wednesday afternoon, "unless it gets close to the 6 o'clock news. Then, you might have some people arguing to use muscle before it goes on television."

Instead, there was a variation on a theme. About 30 reporters and photographers were gathered together and asked to help negotiate inside the Pen. The inmates wanted an audience: not merely reporters, but all the people outside who would get their reports. The inmates wanted to talk about overcrowding and bad food at the Pen. They wanted these conditions improved before they'd let the last hostage go. Instead, in early evening, a few hours after the 6 o'clock news, the last hostage was freed and the crisis quietly resolved.

In the movies, it was different. Al Pacino and all the inmates were 50 feet tall in the movies, and there was much drama and blood inside the prison. In real life, maybe the inmates saw themselves on the 6 o'clock news and discovered they were only 19 inches tall.

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