My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To make the punishment fit the crime
The punishment fit the crime.
- The Mikado, 1885
One-hundred-thirty-six years since an operatic buffoon first pranced the stage bemoaning the consequences society inflicts upon its evil-doers, consider the Academy Award nominated documentary, Time. A film that assures us, no progress has been made.
I watched Time with prejudice: assuming I already know the harm our racially-skewed and excessive incarceration system lays upon fellow citizens. Not first-hand mind you: people like me rarely go to prison. Rather from reading, as if empathy-in-print equaled experience.
I can’t say that I particular liked Time, nor even that it added much to my indirect experience of incarceration. But the film stays with me. Its unanswered questions swirl in my head. What lingers is what the film leaves out.
Start with the title. “Time” is a vague. It could be about Stephen Hawking as soon as Sibil Fox Richardson and her quest to get her husband Rob released from Louisiana’s Angola Prison. The obviously clear title is “Doing Time.” Which everyone in this film does: Sibil; her husband; their four sons; for close to twenty years.
Then there’s the backstory. Selective at best. The film is rich in video clips Sibil made for her husband over the years, from when he first enters Angola while she’s pregnant with twins. We learn that they were high school sweethearts, that they opened a clothing store in Shreveport, that they struggled financially, that they committed armed robbery, and that they got caught. Rob is sentenced to sixty years without parole. Sibil—the getaway driver—also does time. What we don’t learn are any details about her time in prison, or who reared the boys, or how the family arrived at the current state. Present tense cameras record four admirable young men, one a dental school graduate, another college bound, living with their professional activist mom in what appears to be middle-class comfort. We get no reference of the struggle that led from there to here.
Intuition suggests the key is Sibil’s mother, a stern Black woman whose minor role downplays outsize influence. Watching this woman, during her too few moments on camera, makes clear the origin of the daughter’s firm resolve. It also illustrates a mother’s disappointment. That her well-reared daughter might have married a doctor or lawyer instead of a bank robber. The dismissive greeting she gives Rob upon his parole lays bare the fact that this woman does not approve; she endures.
At different points in the film both mother and daughter use the phrase, “You do the crime, you do the time.” Yet they say it to such different effect. For the mother, the crime spans the breath of all her daughter’s poor choices. For Sibil, it’s a badge of honor: she has done time beyond the harm of the crime.
I can understand why it’s necessary to portray this family as so upstanding, in order for attain the audience’s approval. Though that’s really too bad, because a sixty-year sentence for the crime committed is ridiculous regardless of character. The baseline message is clear: the punishment was so severe because Sibil and Rob are Black, and the obstacles Sibil faces to bring her husband home are not only Herculean; they are arbitrary and demeaning.
The film makes a clear and powerful case that our penal system is skewed, harsh, and ineffective. And in one powerful scene we observe Sibil in her church, asking forgiveness of the bank employees her husband terrorized during the robbery, of her mother, and her congregation. Sibil convinces us that the justice meted out was unjust. But once again, there is an important question that Time leaves out.
What punishment would have been appropriate?
Sibil is so personally knowledgeable about our prison system, I would love to know what she considers fair punishment for the crime she and her husband committed. After all, they robbed a bank: with guns. That’s not nothing. Regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of capitalism or gun rights, any society has to set consequences for people who violate its precepts.
It’s hard to conjure a single crime whose punishment is best met by sending a man to prison. Yet that is what we do: more than any nation on earth. When I hear Sibil’s voice, so steeped in the futility of our prison system, and I trust her experience I will never attain, I want to hear a deeper message than “the system is bad.” She and her husband committed a serious crime and suffered extreme consequences. I want to hear her outline a punishment that would be just.