Saturday, January 25, 2003
The book is good, but the movie is better: Or at least more fun. I'm referring to Steven Spielberg's latest movie, "Catch me if you can." The movie is the story of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. -- a notorious con man and check forger who stole millions of dollars before his 20th birthday. Abagnale posed as an airline pilot, a medical doctor, a lawyer and a college sociology professor.
The movie takes certain necessary liberties with the story, but is a fun film to watch.
However, one of the most interesting portions of the book is Abagnale's description of his 6 months in a French prison in the late 1960s. It seems that not too long ago, the French weren't as concerned about human rights as they are now. Abagnale was sentenced to a year in France's Perpignan prison. If you saw the movie, DiCaprio got off easy compared to what Abagnale really had to go through.
There was no light switch. There was no light in the cell. There was, in fact, nothing in the cell but a bucket. No bed, no toilet, no wash basin, no drain, nothing. Just the bucket. The cell was not a cell, actually, it was a hole, a raised dungeon perhaps five feet wide, five feet high and five feet deep, with a ceiling and door of steel and a floor and walls of stone.
I was not fed my first day in Perpignan's prison. I had been placed in my grim cell late in the afternoon. Several hours later, exhausted, cold, hungry, bewildered, frightened and desolate. I laid down on the hard floor and fell asleep. I slept curled in a ball, for I am six feet tall.
The screeching of the door awakened me. I sat up, wincing form the soreness and cramps caused by my uncomfortable sleeping position. The dim form of a guard loomed in the doorway. He was placing something on the steps inside my crypt....
I felt around and located the food the guard had brought. It was a quart container of water and a small loaf of bread. The simple breakfast had not even been brought on a tray. The guard had simple set the container of water on the top step and had dropped the bread beside it on the stone.
The menu in Perpignan prison never varied. For breakfast, I was served bread and water. Lunch consisted of a weak chicken soup and a loaf of bread. Supper was a cup of black coffee and a loaf of bread.
I never left the cell. Not once during my stay in the hoary jail was I permitted outside for exercise or recreation. ...
The bucket was my latrine. I was not given any toilet paper, nor was the bucket removed after use. I soon adapted to the stench, but after a few days the bucket overflowed and I had to move around and sleep in my own fecal matter. I was too numbed, in body and spirit, to be revolted. Eventually, however, the odor became too nauseating for even the guards to endure, apparently. One day, between meals, the door creaked open and another convict scurried in with the furtiveness and manner of a rat, grabbed the bucket and fled. It was returned, empty a few minutes later. On perhaps half a dozen other occasions during my time in the tiny tomb, the procedure was repeated. But only twice during my imprisonment were the feces cleaned from the floor of the cell.
I weighed 210 pounds when I was received at Perpignan. The tedious diet did not contain enough nutrients or calories to maintain me. My body began to feed upon itself, the muscles and tendons devouring the stored fats and oily tissues in order to fuel the pumps of my heart and my circulatory system. Within weeks I was able to encircle my biceps with my fingers.
When Abagnale was finally released -- to the custody of Swedish officials (the guy was wanted everywhere) he was finally allowed to see a doctor -- who diagnosed him with having "double pneumonia" along with open sores, lice and other minor maladies.
If Abagnale had been forced to serve his entire 1 year sentence, it is doubtful he would have lived.
When France starts to preach on the brutality of the American justice system, remember what theirs looked like not too long ago.