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Midnight Express: A Film About Prison to Beat All Prison Films

Midnight Express, a 1978 film by Alan Parker, is a fictionalized account based on a true story of an American caught trying to smuggle a couple of kilograms of hashish out of Turkey. Caught, he attempts to cooperate only to find out that cooperation doesn’t get him home immediately.  He pleads guilty and is sentenced: there is no defense to his crime.  Hashish or meth or heroin or cocaine or fentanyl or any number of drugs are illegal or “controlled substances” in the American jargon.

At first Billy is sentenced to just over 4 years which, with standard reductions in time for presumably good behavior (what the United States calls good-time/gain-time), Billy ends up serving years, but less than the total only to find that with just 53 days to go, a higher court has imposed a new 30 year sentence.

The prison is brutal (as are some American prisons) not just because of the separation from family and friends, but because of the decrepit state of the facility and the physical and sexual violence meted out by prisoners on each other and by guards on the prisoners.

Think the Mississippi State Penitentiary.  Or Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Or spend some time on Prison TikTok and listen to the stories told by ex-inmates of violence and degradation. If they are half as true as they claim to be, they are horrifying.

At one point, as he is being re-sentenced and before he curses the entire Turkish nation as a country of pigs, Billy speaks about mercy as being the measure of a society.  Mercy can come in many forms.  It can come in the length of sentences we regularly dole out for non-violent drug offenses.  It can come in the kind of society we choose to create built on love that encourages its people to treat each other with dignity and respect.  Or we can choose darker paths and then wonder why we end up in dark places.

In some ways Billy Hayes was even more guilty than some of my drug clients.  He taped the hash to his belly.  He came from a reasonably well-off family by American standards and wealthy family by world standards (dad is an insurance salesman) and had no real reason to smuggle drugs across international borders.

There are models in certain parts of the world. We can do better.

Addendum: Billy Hayes (YouTube) on the film where he provides a criticism of the movie.

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