HBO's Oz, set in a fictional maximum-security prison in upstate New York, used twisted, shocking violence to gain its reputation as, in the words of one TV critic writing at the time of its premiere in 1997, "the most violent and graphically sexual series on TV."
There are plenty of shows that have premiered since the late 1990s that might give that critic a run for his money. But the show that digs the deepest into America's troubled criminal justice system isn't particularly violent, sexual or otherwise. It's not even set in prison.
Rectify, created by the character actor Ray McKinnon, follows the plight of Daniel Holden, who is thrown on death row as a teenager for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend, then released nearly two decades later, when new DNA evidence vacates his previous judgment. Currently in the middle of its third season on the Sundance Channel -- it's already been approved for a fourth -- the show is not your typical summer fare: slow, meditative, visually arresting, and with not much in the way of sex and violence, Rectify has hewn close to its core cast of small-town folk living in Paulie, Georgia.
The first two seasons dealt mostly with Daniel's gradual adjustment to life on the outside, as well as his family's adjustment to life with Daniel. In the years Daniel spent rotting in the confinement of a tiny white cell, his mother has re-married and and gained a stepson, who has taken over the family business.
Its current season is more explicitly about the difficulty--the impossibility--of living a normal life after prison. Prison, specifically solitary confinement, has robbed Daniel of the chance to live a full, meaningful life.
We hardly need a reminder this summer of the particular cruelty of solitary confinement. The catastrophic death of Kalief Browder last month--he was sent to Rikers Island at age 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack, spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, and hung himself two years after his release--has only added to the growing sense of outrage at the criminal justice system's willingness to throw lives into tiny boxes, shut the door and turn its back. Days before he became the first American president to visit a federal prison, Obama spoke at an NAACP conference, where he asked, "Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?"
Speaking to a reporter for The New York Times, one former inmate who spent a decade in isolation compared his experience to that of a dog kept in a kennel. "Let that dog out of that cage and see how many people it bites," he said.
Social psychologist Craig Haney has studied the effects of solitary confinement for over 20 years--he visited one group of inmates at California's Pelican Bay State Prison in 1993, then returned 20 years later to interview them again. According to the Times, Dr. Haney wrote in his report, "The passage of time had not significantly ameliorated their pain."
Rectify suggests there is no cure for the punishment of solitary confinement. The body and the mind don't adjust when you put them in a situation that could never exist in nature. Daniel is a black box, a prisoner of his own tortured mind -- but the viewer has no access to that mind, just as Daniel's family struggles to understand what he's thinking and feeling, and how they can possibly make up for the lost time and sanity.
Daniel seems to be constantly on the verge of self-sabotage. On last week's episode, he fails to return a form to his probation officer, explaining that he just lost track of time. He takes a job painting a pool at his sister's apartment complex, where he's staying, and works through the night to finish. Then he ruins his work, tipping a can of white paint into the empty, sky-blue pool, silently watching as glossy white streaks run down its length.
Daniel is broken, and it's unclear if anything on this earth will be able to fix him. In that same episode, he compares himself to Humpty-Dumpty. "Who will I be," he muses, "when they put me back together again?"