“…society secretly wants crime…and gains definite satisfaction from the present mishandling of it.” Photojournalist Susan Madden Lankford quotes this line from Karl Menninger in her book Maggots in My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time, but she seems oblivious to the irony. Here, after all, is a giant coffee-table book filled with photographs and interviews with women in the Las Colinas jail in San Diego. Reading these women’s stories of drug use, molestation, neglect, prostitution, single-motherhood, and more drug-use; looking at into their weary faces — why would we do these things if there were not a “definite satisfaction” involved? As we flip through the pages, surely we are intended to feel not so much a guilty pleasure as a pleasurable guilt. Clearly the book is more upscale than, say Judge Judy, but with its fascinated voyeurism and its constant finger-wagging, is it really different in kind?

The target of the righteous indignation is, of course, somewhat different. Lankford is less interested in personal than in societal guilt. “How have we failed so many women?” she wonders. The answers she comes up with are familiar ones — basically, society doesn’t do enough to make sure that children are not neglected. The book is sprinkled with pull quotes from “Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D.” who rather gratuitously explains that being abused as a child tends to leave you fucked up. The conclusion is that these women need more attention – from parents, from society, from us.

Perhaps that’s true. But I can’t help thinking that maybe they could do with not more scrutiny, but less. Most of the women in Las Colinas are there on drug or prostitution charges. If drugs and prostitution were legalized, they would be…not happy, not healthy, but not, for the most part, in jail.

Lankford, of course, argues that the women actually enjoy jail on some level; she speculates that confined women secrete oxytocin, a calming hormone associated with sex and birth which may “make jail time more tolerable” and even “encourage recidivism”. It’s a telling foray into pseudoscientific balderdash. After all, if even the inmates derive subliminally sexualized pleasures from jail-life, can we be blamed for doing so as well?