The searing epic A Prophet presents French prison life as a series of opportunities to either kill or be killed. In the beginning, 19-year-old Malik arrives in the prison system as an empty canvas; he is timid, can neither read nor write, is only vaguely aware of his Islamic heritage. He’s confused and frightened by the new world he’s forced to enter.
Like Malik, Tulsa native Mike Murphy went to prison at age 19. He was charged with possession with intent (25 hits of acid), and robbery with a firearm.
“It really wasn’t a robbery,” he says.
Murphy, a gruff, goateed 37 year-old, carries himself with the perpetually defensive swagger of an ex-con. He’s an acquaintance and a co-worker, a dignified line cook at an upscale downtown restaurant who I’m confident would have my back in a brawl.
“I pulled a gun on somebody who owed me money, and he told (the police) I robbed him.” Murphy pauses, seems to contemplate this last sentence, and follows up with a humorous, though necessary, qualifier: “I guess that’s a robbery, too.”
Murphy spent the next eight years in various prisons around the state—Lexington, Big Mac, Jackie Brannon, Holdenville. When he was finally released in 1999, he used his newfound freedom to further indulge an already nasty meth habit (a drug he had constant access to in prison), and spent the next seven years shooting up and fighting.
“I felt like I needed to make up for time,” he says. “I lost mostly all of my 20s. I didn’t have the opportunity to party like most people did, so it took me probably six or seven years before I actually realized, man, I gotta really stop doing all this or I’m just gonna fuckin’ end up back in there.”
Murphy cleaned himself up, started working in a local restaurant, and, in 2008, went to culinary school.
“I’m proud of myself. I’ve come a long ways, man. If you’d known me in 2000, 2001, 2002, I was a totally different person. I’d stay up for a month. Imagine that? Imagine me staying up for a month? You know I’ve got an attitude anyway, Imagine me being up for a month. It’s crazy.”
While I was cozily viewing the Circle’s latest offering—a brutal examination of social mores within the prison system– Murphy was getting hauled off to David L. Moss for drunkenly giving the finger to a passing squad car. The cop subsequently arrested Murphy, in front of Drake’s Tavern on Cherry Street, on charges of public intoxication. This was followed by a tacked-on charge for assaulting an officer whilst being processed. According to Murphy, a Correctional Officer ordered him to remove his flip-flops before entering a holding cell, to which Murphy responded: “You take them off, motherfucker.”
The guard responded in kind– he threw Murphy on the ground, tased him and proceeded to forcibly remove the flip-flops. The “assault on an officer” part of the story is a little foggy, but Murphy admits he doesn’t pay the Tulsa Police any respect.
“Sometimes, when I get drunk, everything comes out.” Murphy attributes his hatred of our city’s police to his time served. “There’s no line between a correctional officer and a policeman. I don’t like talking to them, I don’t like dealing with them, I have no respect for them.”
In A Prophet, the guards are controlled and manipulated by a Corsican gangster who takes Malik under his wing. Bribes and threats are routine; one guard helps smuggle in hash while another follows the Mafioso’s orders to promote Malik to porter (or trustee). They’re corrupt, easily controlled and impotent.
Murphy’s experience falls in line with the film’s depiction of prison life.
“I did run across a couple of shady correctional officers that would pack dope for people. They’d meet your old lady out on the streets and bring something in for ya,” Murphy explains. “Most of the stuff you’d send through the visiting yard. They’d bring it in up their ass. They’d bring it in and you’d have to take it the same way they brought it.”
Like Malik, Murphy’s first experience with a needle was on the inside. “The first time I ever shot dope was in there… There’s more drugs inside than on the streets. It’s more accessible because you’re in a closed in area, but I’d get high there everyday, man.”
Murphy says that prisoners would barter for drugs using cigarettes, and, inevitably, owed debts would develop. A Prophet shows debt to be a main source of control on the inside (Malik unwittingly becomes indebted/enslaved to the Mobster). Murphy concurs.
“That’s one thing about growing up in there– you want a chance of survival, you don’t get in debt with people. That’s a bad deal, man. You get in debt with somebody, you owe him. And he might want something that you don’t want to give him.”
Like Malik, who shuns the faith of his parents to the chagrin of fellow Muslim prisoners, Murphy went into prison an atheist and came out one.
“I’ve seen many turn to god. I think a lot of people use religion as a crutch or an excuse. I don’t believe in god. I believe in me.”