Perry Mason's creator had more important concerns than television
Erle Stanley Gardner had some strong opinions on the American criminal justice system.
Erle Stanley Gardner is most closely associated with his famous character Perry Mason. Over the course of 82 novels, Gardner used his experience as a real-life attorney to create the literary world's winningest lawyer. At the time of his death in 1970, Gardner was the best-selling author of the 20th century. Currently, only Goosebumps and Harry Potter books have sold more copies than the Perry Mason series.
Like his well-known character, Gardner put considerable thought and work into criminal justice. Throughout the 1950s, while most pundits took the opposite stance, Gardner tirelessly advocated for prison reform. He was the founder of the Court of Last Resort, a program that saved innocents from prison and death.
In a series of three articles in the Wisconsin State Journal, beginning in October 1959, Gardner outlined his opinion regarding the controversial topic. Specifically, he spoke of the press' obligation to inform and report on what happens to prisoners.
"Statistics show that much more than ninety-five percent of all men confined in penal institutions will be released in their lifetime," Gardner wrote. "Society simply doesn't realize and doesn't want to realize that what the prisoner does to society after he is released depends, in large part, on what society has done to the prisoner during the time he has been confined."
While that statement may seem obvious to contemporary readers, at the time it was written, the notion was radical. Even more than it is today, jail was a taboo in Mid-Century America. It certainly wasn't something polite society was comfortable discussing, and so a lot of prison-related problems were ignored.
Gardner used his platform to illuminate the psychological problems inherent to modern imprisonment. "When a kid is caught stealing cookies, he is given a spanking. That usually keeps him from stealing cookies. The spanking is administered against the security of the home and amidst a background of love and affection."
By comparison, then, prison is societal vindication, completely devoid of humanity. "After the kid grows up and starts stealing money he is put in a prison. That punishment is long, drawn out, it entirely overlooks the fact that the prisoner is a human being."
In visiting prisons throughout the country, Gardner joined the likes of Charles Dickens as a writer who used his fame to shed light on the inhospitality of the reform system.