The Shawshank was a Puff Piece


Title: Animal Factory

Rating: 5 Stars

I don’t remember under what conditions I first read about Edward Bunker. I’m almost positive that it was in the context of Reservoir Dogs. I vaguely remember looking up all of the actors that played the various colors (eg Mr Pink was Steve Buscemi, Mr Orange was Tim Roth, Mr White was Harvey Keitel). Towards the bottom of the credit list, because he only had a couple of lines and he was shot at the robbery so never made it to the warehouse, was Mr Blue, played by Edward Bunker.

For some reason, I looked up Edward Bunker. He led a, shall we say, interesting life. He had a traumatic childhood and turned to crime at an early age. He ended up going to prison at sixteen. At seventeen, he became the youngest ever inmate at San Quentin (in 1951). While in solitary, he met Caryl Chessman, who was on death row for over 10 years, was a published author while in prison, and became a cause celebre until he was ultimately executed.

Inspired by Chessman’ example, Bunker began to write. He had some supporters on the outside who encouraged him. He was paroled after five years in San Quentin but returned to a life of crime. He was in and out of prisons from 1950 through 1975. He spent about 18 years in various institutions.

Starting around 1973, his books began to be published. In 1978, Animal Factory was published.

It features two main characters. The first is Ron Decker, a newly convicted drug dealer going to prison (San Quentin) for the first time. The second is Earl Copen, a career criminal deeply experienced in prison ways. He takes Ron under his wing and over the course of the novel they develop a deep friendship.

It’s clearly autobiographical. As I was reading it, I almost felt as if I was reading someone’s diary or watching a documentary.

Interesting points:

  • Animal Factory is deeply unsparing in its criticism of the jail system. The title says it all. However men come to the prison, they come out as animals.
  • There is a real division among the races. The prison officials encourage it as a tool so inmates fight amongst each other instead of uniting against the system.
  • The men engage in rough horseplay with their buddies as a substitute for the affection that they no longer have access to.
  • Earl, who is clearly intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read, is ready at any moment for acts of violence if the situation calls for it. The prison is his world and he is clearly at home.  I believe that at one point he quotes Milton, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”.
  • Roy, who starts off relatively innocent, quickly hardens and becomes a real convict.
  • The guards are part of the system just like the convicts. The prison system dehumanizes all that it touches.

I found out later that Steve Buscemi (remember, Mr Orange from Reservoir Dogs) directed the movie version of Animal Factory. Edward Bunker plays a bit part (he’s appeared in several movies, pretty much always in a bit part). Danny Trejo plays a major character in the film. Bunker originally met Trejo when they were both serving time at Folsom.

So, someone that Bunker met from a movie made a movie about spending time in prison starring someone that Bunker met in prison. There is some weird symmetry / order to this universe!



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