A few things happen after you spend a couple of months busting through the 54 episodes of HBO’s prison-drama Oz. First of all, everything looks white. That is, after six seasons of a show showcasing diverse racial, ethnic and religious makeup, every other show out there just looks… too white.
It probably is.
And a second thing happens. You walk away mad. Really mad. Because the American prison system is broken.
The entire American justice system has serious problems, there’s no arguing that. But the prison system itself is a mess, full stop. Draconian legislation like the Three Strikes laws first enacted in Washington D.C. and California were very popular in the early-to-mid 1990s; 23 more states had enacted similar laws within a few years.
Habitual offender laws like Three Strikes meant that prisoners can receive sentences out of proportion for their crimes, such as life for shoplifting. Mental health laws, meanwhile, were subjected to severe criticism in the aftermath of John Hinkley’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981; after Hinkley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, Congress and many states wrote laws shifting the burden of proof of insanity to the defense, and three states abolished the insanity defense altogether. Mental health facilities, penal and otherwise, lost funding, and many across the country were shut down over the next two decades. Meaning, all those people who'd ordinarily have gone into mental health facilities were sent to prison instead. Other shifts in penal laws across the 1980s and 1990s resulted in dramatically increases in prison populations across the board, coinciding with an upswing in death sentences, which began rising in the late 1970s, took off in 1981, and peaked in 1997.
I don’t mean to start piling my soapboxes up. What I’m trying to do is provide a little context for Tom Fontana’s HBO series Oz, a show that’s both timeless and a undeniable product of its time. 1997 was a bad year to be a prisoner in America.