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Behind the Bars

By Byron Kerman   stlmag.com   January 11, 2013
It only costs a dollar. Surely, that is among the reasons for the success of Behind the Bars, the biweekly tabloid chock full of the freshest local mug shots, distributed at some 300 area locations.
What’s a dollar in 2013? A third of a gallon of gas? Less than a cup of coffee, to be sure. Behind the Bars is available at convenience stores and gas stations throughout the area, often right near the cash register. So when you’re buying gas or picking up a donut or a lottery ticket, the publication is an easy impulse buy.
And what entertainment you’ll get: stealing, domestic disturbance, possession of a controlled substance, assault, probation violation, identity theft—these are a few of our favorite things. Behind the Bars offers page after page of mug shots of St. Louis–area arrestees, many divided into sub-groupings by their alleged crimes, for us to look at, all in the name of fun. You can stare into the faces of three guys, all accused of, say, forgery, and begin to wonder if this is what a forger looks like.
But, isn’t that judging a book by its cover? The magazine wants to make this sort of thing crystal-clear, for legal reasons and what not, so on no less than every other page, you will find this disclaimer: “All are innocent until proven guilty.” (It’s essentially the same disclaimer you’ll see on the screen at the beginning of each episode of COPS.)
But that’s not exactly what we readers and fans of BtB are thinking, is it? For those who haven’t picked up a copy, most every page of the magazine is tiled with mug shots, with an occasional short article in a box, or an ad for a law firm, bail bondsman, or the like. Looking at the grid of faces, one does not think that the accused could be anyone; they don't look like peers or neighbors. That’s because nearly every face wears that morose “caught” expression (and a number of them have the facial blemishes and pits suggestive of experienced drug abuse.) They look, for lack of a better term, guilty.
A little armchair psychology makes it clear: You don’t read Behind the Bars thinking that a good lawyer will be able to get these wrongfully accused saints out of the pokey. No, you read it with a presumption that’s pretty much the opposite—and that glimpse of crime and punishment, of darkness, of ugly immorality meeting with a deserved public shaming, is what got you to cough up that extra buck at the gas station in the first place.
BtB has evolved in the three years it’s been around, and now it boasts features like Jailhouse Café, in which prisoners offer simple jail-cell recipes that other incarcerated readers of the mag can try, like “Twinkie and pineapple pie,” which requires no baking or refrigeration. The Matching Game challenges readers to “Match the Arrestee with the Item They (sic) Allegedly Stole.” Recent items have included an American flag, a doll, bacon, condoms, a tent, a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors, Vaseline, a copy of the Trading Places DVD, and a dog. A section devoted to terrible haircuts, weaves, and wigs is printed in glorious full-color.
Short articles are designed to titillate—and they do. A father concerned that his son might be gay bought him a night with a prostitute at a motel. The demimondaine turned out to be a dude; the son was sufficiently horrified that he stabbed dear old dad.
The thieves who prey on the Saint Louis Galleria get their own special police blotter. One ran from the cops and hid in a tree. Another shoplifted items and stashed them under a doll in a stroller. A third woman squeezed into 19 pairs of underwear in a department-store dressing room before strolling forth into the arms of security.
In an account of a local lawyer getting collared for hiring what he thought was a prostitute (it turned out to be a cop), BtB made a lame and awkward pun: “The stigma of being arrested for soliciting a prostitute can be very damaging to your reputation and in this case he will not be able to get himself off. Maybe he should have done that then initially.”
The police blotter has always been a popular part of news coverage. AOL’s Patch newsletters have arrest info in nearly every daily issue. Then there’s the local Evening Whirl newspaper, with more text and a lot more cutesy sermonizing than BtB. Salacious crime reporting is not a new idea, just a dependably popular one. And Behind the Bars reduces it to the most essential visual element: the mug shot, with a small amount of window dressing, all for a dollar.
It’s all sort of kicking a man when he’s down, isn’t it? It’s about that superior feeling we get from examining the faces of the wretched and pilloried in print. Our natural presumption—despite the disclaimer—of guilt, and the guilty pleasures thereby conveyed.
I like to look for the mug shots where the arrestees are smiling. It almost seems that they know where these photos are going to wind up, and with all the shame they’ve got headed their way anyway, they don’t need the additional shame that Behind the Bars promises. Being gawked at is supposed to make you feel ashamed, but if someone wants to make you look like a slimeball—and make money in the bargain—you might as well mess with their intentions. Don’t look guilty—look like a star, baby.