As a nervous Michael Jackson awaits the verdict of the jury in his child sex abuse trial, an even tougher future may be awaiting him in a California state prison if he is convicted.
Is Jackson too fragile and rarefied to endure prison? Or have his 40 years in the cutthroat music business made him more resilient than he appears?
“Any celebrity who has lived a life of entitlement is going to have an incredibly difficult time coping with prison,” said J. Randy Taraborrelli, who wrote the 1991 biography “Michael Jackson: The Magic and the Madness.”
“He’s a fragile person in many ways. It’s an understatement to say this would be extremely challenging for him,” he said.
If convicted on any of the molestation or conspiracy charges, Jackson would face at least one year in prison where he would enjoy no special rights. If convicted on all 10 counts he could be facing a maximum of nearly 20 years.
The mere fact of his fame makes it likely that, after a thorough physical and psychological assessment, he would be placed in a single cell in a unit designed to ensure his safety, prison officials said.
There is only one such protective housing prison unit in California. Its inmates include 1960s cult leader Charles Manson and Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
All the inmates were placed there either because their crime, their fame, or the fact that they have enemies statewide, means their safety would be jeopardized elsewhere.
“Despite Mr Jackson’s fame, if he were sentenced to prison he would be a convicted felon and you cannot give him any other rights than any other inmate,” a California prisons spokeswoman said.
“But because of his fame, we have to take extra steps to protect his safety,” she said.
Stress and sickness
Jackson would likely have little or no contact with other inmates, his food would be prepared by staff rather than prisoners and like other inmates, he would have to wear standard issue blue shirt and denim pants. His own clothing would be restricted to his underwear.
He could choose to exercise on his own or with two or three other inmates and if there were concerns about his emotional health, he would be on a round-the-clock suicide watch.
Anxiety has a habit of making Jackson sick. At least four times during his trial, he checked into hospital with flu, back pain or dehydration.
“He gets upset, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t eat, he can’t sleep,” Jackson family lawyer Brian Oxman told Reuters in 2003 when the singer was also briefly hospitalized for dehydration.
Jackson, 46, acknowledged in a March radio interview that he had never been a great eater. “Elizabeth Taylor used to feed me, hand feed me at times, because I do have a problem with eating, but I do my very best,” he told civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Last week, a private investigator hired by Jackson in March told Vanity Fair magazine that the singer seemed terrified of prison. “He acted like he was scared silly. He kept asking me what prison life was like. Can he watch TV and movies there?” investigator Gordon Novel said.
Taraborrelli said Jackson was tougher than he sometimes appeared and had always bounced back from difficulties in his long career as child star who turned world superstar.
“His resiliency is often downplayed. He has been in the entertainment business for 40 years and you can’t survive in that business by being very fragile,” he said.