Kenneth E. Hartman

"Making the world I live in a better place remains my goal and focus"

Prison As a Metaphor For Modern Society


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Prison As a Metaphor For Modern Society
Prisoners And The Media



The Underside of the American Story 


Kenneth E. Hartman, C-19449



     Prisons, the very antithesis of the privilege and license accorded the citizens of a free society, stand as apt metaphors for the America of the 21st century.  The great sticks of a carrot-laden culture, they ring our cities and dot the rural landscapes of our states, oases of shining lights shadowing the teeming masses who have failed to adapt to modernity's shifting sands.  They are structures of immense contradictions.  Naked violence and atavism exist alongside passionately humane efforts to save the wayward.  Within the confines of a prison can be found all that is wrong and misguided, all that the rapacious nature of selfish individualism can breed in the hearts of men.  Inside the same barriers can also be found examples of decency

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so heartwarming as to be almost beyond belief.  In the sad chiaroscuro of the prison world, darkness and despair tend to overwhelm the light, to be sure, but light exists there, nonetheless.  In the settling cloud of America's transformation from man's last, best hope into a force of menace, in our country's tormented coming to terms with new circumstances, there, too, light remains.  Prison is less a mirror than a looking glass, darkly showing what we are, what we could be, and what we should both fear and hope for our collective future.


     I came to prison in 1980, at the tail end of the last era of reform and rehabilitation.  Sentenced to life without parole for murder, I was a 19-year-old thug from the blasted wasteland of South Los Angeles' urban, post-industrial decay.  Closed factories, boarded-up houses, and police garrisons marred what had been, during the booming post-war years, a neighborhood of sturdy, working-class people supplying the durable goods the country desired and produced.  White flight from the changing dynamic of race and class had barely begun, and the creeping rot that would result in the chaos of today was still confined to areas on the other side of some street or freeway.  Nevertheless, what was coming to urban America was clear to anyone who looked.

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     What was coming to the prison system was less obvious.  Prisons, unmoving edifices in space and time, lag behind the rest of the world.  The counter revolution against humane, restorative ideas crashed through the fences in the mid-'80s as a tidal wave of young men came pouring in, the product of the wars launched against the more troublesome of the perceived excesses of the previous decades: drugs and crime.  That this mass incarceration had little to do with any actual rise in crime rates and was more a function of a political and media driven response to uncertain times, mattered little to those of us packed into ever-diminishing spaces.  The explosion of the incarceration rate demanded a boom in prison construction, and a new industry was born, complete with lobbyists and political patrons.  Like any other governmental bureaucracy, the prison system adopted growth as its raison d’ętre.

     In the quarter century of my imprisonment, I have lived this reality of expansion for the sake of expansion.  I have watched, with horrified fascination, as rural towns, bereft of jobs lost to the global race to the bottom, have sought to outbid one another for new prisons, guaranteed sources of well-paid, unionized employment.  The sons and daughters of those who once built automobile parts and farmed the land now guard the wayward

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sons of the urban America their parents abandoned to dissolution.

     I am, in equal parts, a product of the colossus this country has become, and the internal, less visible empire that lurks on the underside of the American dream.  I am a son of the boundless optimism of the baby boom and the reactive terror of the conversion of our culture to one of mass victimhood.  From my isolated seat on the periphery, deep within the heart of our darkest fears, I have witnessed the spreading tentacles of the prison culture slip through the electrified fences, around the armed gun towers, out into the free world.


     It is no happenstance that prisons are built out beyond the pale.  From their earliest incarnation in catacombs far below Imperial Rome, separation and isolation were the guiding principles of imprisonment.  America's first prison experiment, in 1773, used an abandoned copper mine in Connecticut.  The first riot against poor conditions happened a year later in the same mine, not surprisingly.  The general public probably knew little, if anything, about the conditions or the riot because prison occupied a distant territory in the collective consciousness, the isolation and separation essentially complete, literally and metaphorically.

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     From this ignoble beginning, through the Colonial Period, through the 19th century's mostly misguided reforms, and into the middle of the 20th century, the story of American corrections is one of obscure people engaged in an ill-regarded profession.  Little thought was expended by the average man about what actually went on behind the monolithic walls of the prisons.  Crimes occurred, dangerous and pathetic perpetrators were captured, tried and sentenced to invisibility.  Conditions were generally horrific, leading to suicide and insanity all too often.  Corporal punishment, forced labor, deprivation of food, terrible sanitation; all of this and more characterized the prisons of America.

     Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most astute observers and interpreters of this country, arrived to these shores to study our prisons.  In his assessment of the relationship of our free society to our incarcerated, he noted, "While society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism."  [FOOTNOTE #1]  The unfettered tyranny of corrections in America would remain virtually unchanged until the middle of the 20th century when the civil rights struggles of the era penetrated the walls.


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     In the '60s and '70s, the situation for prisoners began to change.  The United States Supreme Court, in a series of landmark decisions, accorded to the imprisoned a measure of the dignity of man, a taste of the fruits of citizenship.  [FOOTNOTE #2]  The spreading counterculture started to consider prisoners as representatives of the oppression meted out by society.  We mutated from the disappeared to icons.  For a brief moment, prisoners were a cause celebre.  The powerful, at least those in opposition to the status quo, adopted our concerns and championed our needs.  It was a heady time in prison.  It seemed our moment in the sun had arrived, that we would emerge from the shadows into a warming light of possibility.

     On the way to our christening we ran smack into the iron bars and granite walls of reaction.  The counterculture turned out to be both weaker and more fickle than we could have imagined.  By the '80s, across the country, reforms were being cast out in favor of the resurrection of punishment.  Liberal thinking lost its appeal in the face of widespread unemployment and stagflation in free society, and on account of the unfortunate propensity of unreformed criminals to continue committing crimes.  Reformers became do-gooders, progressive thinking became weak reasoning, and prisoners returned to being prisoners, a species of evil that would only understand force;

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force being a much more emotionally satisfying response to those who violated the law.

     The period of mass incarceration that began in the '80s, took off in the '90s.  By the turn of the century, more than two million Americans were serving time in the internal empire of prisons that darkened the horizons of every state.  The rate of incarceration quadrupled nationwide.  Within some minority groups, the possibility of imprisonment became more likely than higher education.  The growing costs of the prison nation, or as Jesse Jackson so eloquently and insightfully dubbed it, the "prison-industrial complex," soared to unprecedented percentages of state budgets.

     Prison became a central focus of the collective consciousness.  The proliferation of newsmagazine shows found endless grist for the mill of morbid fascination within the walls of prison.  The old pattern of virtual invisibility disappeared.  The cameras followed the sentenced right into their cells, as the public gawked, staring through previously unseen iron bars.  Our secret world, our subculture, suddenly became a part of the wider world.  While the overall result was revulsion and an ever-increasing demand for harsher treatment, for a growing segment of free society the mores and rituals, the deformed prison society, exerted a pull, a gravitational

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suction.  The worst of this world seduced a vulnerable part of the rest of the world with its poisonous mix of violence, racism, and primitive ethics.


     "All my homies are in cell block six," sings Kid Rock in one of his more popular songs.  Prison always played a role in traditional country music, but the songs were invariably about regret and redemption.  Gospel music, likewise, often featured a condemned offender finding redemption, a lyricized  chronicle of man's journey from the darkness to the light.  Today, the glorified quality of prison thuggery, of racial dominance struggles, of riots and stabbings are celebrated.  The characters in these hugely popular songs are no longer the stylized, clean-cut musicians of Elvis' Jailhouse Rock, or the sad, remorseful men of Merle Haggard's death row poem "Sing Me Back Home."  Instead, unrepentant killers, misogynistic players, and drug dealing sociopaths are lauded.  Never mind the victims, never mind the reality of young lives misspent in dreary concrete cages; the imagery, presented with all the sizzle of cutting-edge technology, sets up as successful role models the worst examples of humanity's failings.

     In the urban centers of America, a direct consequence of mass incarceration, the mythos of the ex-con has assumed a

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prominent place.  As the penalties for imprisonment have expanded to include so-called "collateral punishments" [FOOTNOTE #3] whole neighborhoods have become populated by unemployable parolees.  Schooled in the nation's lock-ups in the logic of force mentality, these restive, angry men have ascended to positions of cultural influence.  The swelling numbers, and the failure of free society to adopt a workable approach to the problem, have assured new recruits to align themselves with this army of the rejected.

     The mass media's fixation with the bloody lead has served to push the prisoner/gangster mythos out into the suburbs and on into the heartland.  Young, middle-class kids have formed branches of street gangs bred in the prisons of the big states.  Not content with merely aping fashions and lingo, these metastasized specks feel compelled to commit the same atrocious acts as their progenitors.  The logic of force, the unquestioning acceptance of might makes right, the basic tenet of gangs and police throughout America, the most fundamental principle of the prison world, increasingly comes to dominate the youth culture of Anywhere, USA.

     Prison boots are sold on the internet as an essential fashion statement of the angry disaffected.  The Oregon prison system, capitalizing on this ominous trend, sells prisoner made

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jeans around the world.  "Prison Blues," the uniform of prisoners nationwide, becomes a label, a brand name to be marketed, and more than prison blue jeans, the prisoner image  is being marketed.  That most ubiquitous of convict symbology, the prominent tattoo, once scorned by free society, has also worked its way into the popular culture.  No self-respecting actor or fashion model seems to be unadorned with ink.  More unsettling, as the glitterati have always sought to appear on the fringe, housewives and factory workers, even cops, are now sporting the monochromatic tattoos born of the lack of colored inks available inside prison.

     In many ways this deteriorating situation is the result of numbers.  The prison demographic continues to swell the ranks of those directly effected by the experience of the internal empire.  The most recent statistics indicate more than 2.2 million people incarcerated in America.  Adding to this astonishing number all the parolees, probationers, excons, and those employed by the prison system easily swells this number closer to ten million; one in thirty, or so, of the country.  Add in all the people with a close relationship to this ten million; perhaps one in ten are closely connected to what was once an obscure, essentially hidden world.  It is no wonder the


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prison culture has penetrated so deeply into the American psyche.


     In the prison world, the overriding concern, the rationale that trumps all others, is "safety and security."  For prison administrators, safety and security is a kind of mantra, an incantation that is uttered and written as sacred text.  Once invoked, these magical words have the power to alter reality, to unwind clocks and seal doors.  As the punitive model deepened its hold on the operations of prisons, the safety and security mantra has been increasingly utilized to disembowel efforts at rehabilitation and reform.  The mantra is a figurative club, wielded most effectively against humane and progressive attempts to hold back the onrushing tide of repressive policies put into place during the past decade.

     Sadly, in a society more and more dominated by the pursuit of risk-free existence, zero tolerance for deviance, or even the possibility of deviance, safety and security has overtaken the more amorphous concepts of civil liberties and the presumption of innocence.  In prison, many educational, vocational and therapy programs have been terminated because of the potential for a breach of safety and security.  Similarly, in free society, rattled by endless security threat warnings and local

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news coverage of isolated tragedies, there is an acceptance of this concept of fear as the guiding principle of policy and lifestyle.

     Schools are placed on "lockdown" because of real or imagined threats; indeed, whole cities and regions are locked down.  The lockdown is a specifically prison-derived measure.  After unrest or violence, or, more often, in response to intelligence produced from informants or guards' perceptions of prisoner behavior, a lockdown is ordered.  All movement is restricted and most programs are suspended.  In the most extreme instances, lockdowns can continue for years.  The irony of the lockdown, used ostensibly to restore order or prevent disorder, is how resultant frustration and resentment too often spark further violence.  It is dubious how long a free society can, or will, endure lockdowns before fracturing under their oppressive weight.

     A regular feature of prison life, and virtually all lockdowns, is the unannounced search of quarters.  Under the all-powerful safety and security guise, prisoners' personal property is routinely searched.  There is no requirement for cause.  Instead, the prevention of possible violations, of close surveillance, of the gathering of information necessary to avert something that might occur at some point in the indefinite

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future, these are the justifications for invasive searches.  It is no coincidence, as the prison model has grown, that search and seizure laws enshrined in our nation's founding documents and our culture's historic struggles to limit the power of kings and armies, have been eviscerated.  Doors are kicked in with the force of search warrants issued by unaccountable tribunals in the pursuit of terrorist suspects and drug dealers.  Orwellian tactics are employed in the naming of civil liberties denying laws.  The "Patriot Act" enfeebles the spirit of those who stood against unaccountable tyranny.  The "Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" destroys the habeas corpus petition, having little, if anything, to do with combating terrorism.  Welcome to the brave new world of freedom's denial to protect freedom; welcome to the world of prison writ large.

     The prison world has always depended on the use of informants, snitches, rats, to maintain control.  The authorities have limited, if any, connection to their charges.  Informants are cultivated and rewarded with plum job assignments, material perks, and, occasionally, early release from incarceration.  In a society predicated on the maintenance of order, to the exclusion of all other concerns, it is necessary to gather intelligence on the mass to avert all manner of potential uprisings.  In the space of the past decade, under

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the omnipresent desire for safety and security, the informant has been increasingly relied upon.  As perfected in prison, the word of a "reliable" informant becomes justification for drastic actions.  When the government's connection to the people becomes ever more attenuated and tenuous, the need for the well-placed snitch grows.  Ultimately, like in prison where the most absurd, self-serving information is acted on with a vengeance, the leaders of a free society burdened with the safety and security mantra act with overwhelming force to any allegation of threat.

     To perpetuate itself, to justify the expanding reach and scope of the concertina-wired enclosures, the criminal justice system, over the past 20 years, has adopted the strategy of criminalizing more and more of human behavior.  Conduct that would have resulted in a raised eyebrow becomes felonious at the stroke of a pen.  Crimes that once netted a few years in prison suddenly demand life sentences after catchy names are touted in slick advertising campaigns.  So successful have these efforts been it is no wonder they are now applied outside the netherworld of crime.  Reading lists of suspect books are demanded, in case someone has been considering ideas deemed a threat to safety and security.  The mere viewing of banned photos can cause a cavalcade of heavily armed government agents to swarm into the miscreant's house.  In a foreshadowing of what

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has come to pass, all in the interest of safety and security, of course, random roadblocks are deployed to check for drunk drivers; valid identification must be presented.  None of this is remarkable in prison where guards routinely block movement and demand identification: it is necessary to maintain control, to ensure safety and security.

     Underpinning this slide to the prison world's subjugation of reality is the logic of force.  The object of a prison administrator is to achieve complete domination of groups of hostile, uncooperative men who have demonstrated, through their own actions, a propensity to resist authority and violate rules.  The rules by which the prison world operates are, in essence, not very complicated.  The end justifies the means.  Results-oriented management, in the parlance of government bureaucracy.  The only substantive constraint on prison administrators is what can be gotten away with without the consequences outweighing the results.  A primitive, reduced kind of cost-benefit analysis is employed.  The consequences of this de minimus approach to managing the lives of human beings are seen in the disorder and chaos engendered by the application of force to solve problems.  The logic of force falls on its own spear as it provokes further need for force; it is, by any objective analysis, wholly illogical.

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     Unless, consciously or unconsciously, the object is to create circumstances where more force becomes necessary.  Force becomes a warped perpetual motion machine that plays on the unique calculus of human nature that reaps more energy than it sows.  The ancient creation myth of the world snake that consumes itself from the tail is tweaked.  The utilization of force, for force's sake, consumes itself yet births a more powerful snake in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics; in perfect compliance with the laws of human nature.  The most insidious quality of this illogic is how it tends to blind its practitioners even as they practice it.  Just as the confused warden of a dysfunctional prison will opt for force to seek, in vain, to regain control, the confused leaders of a free society imbued with the perverted ethos of prison will bring the levers of government crashing down upon the heads of the citizenry.  Their goals surely are a safe and secure society, but what emerges looks less like that laudable goal than the world of prison.  Force demands force, which demands more force, ad infinitum.

The Law of Unintended Consequences never fails to bleed into the lives of men, particularly those with firm and well-planned agendas.  Designating uneducated and unfocused poor kids as urban terrorists results, unfortunately, in their

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enhanced appeal.  What had looked like a wasted youth culture of dissipation and petty crime is transmogrified into another link in the global chain of extremism.  Simultaneously, the image of these hitherto street thugs is magnified in the hearts and minds of millions of disaffected youth.  Just as in prison, where the system's missteps produce more prisoners and keep the cells full, the modern American state magnifies its enemies; the perceived need for safety and security, in a world of endless opponents, even in our own streets, is perpetuated.


     Inside the prison empire's dark cells and crowded yards, packed with the embodiment of the safety and security threat so demonized in the mass media and idolized on the urban American "street," lessons have been learned that could be the salvation of our free society.  Confronting the heavy hand of government right where it strikes bone and flesh, and knowing the real story of failure and impotence behind the gangster myths of popular legend, prisoners have been compelled to devise strategies and tactics to counter the logic of force's illogic.  We know that meeting force with force only gains in the short term, while feeding the longer goals of those who would remake our society on the prison model.  We know our forays into the limelight must be delineated within a narrow sphere of

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restorative actions lest they be utilized to further negative stereotypes.  Altering the currently accepted wisdom of the "bad" being irredeemable requires persistence and unerring aim.

     The safety and security devotees claim a record of success; but it is a fallacious claim.  To clear the air, it is useful to examine the actual accomplishments of the prison state.  The rate of incarceration in this country now exceeds all other industrialized nations by an order of magnitude.  The lengths of time prisoners are sentenced to in this country are found nowhere else on earth.  More to the point, the extraordinary lengths of time actually served by prisoners serves no purpose beyond quenching the fears stoked into the hearts of the society by those who see only the prison model as a solution to society's problems.  The reality of criminal behavior is well understood and documented.  Young, underprivileged men between the ages of 16 and 24 commit most crime.  [FOOTNOTE #4]  Life sentences, hundred year sentences, and the like, guarantee imprisonment well into the forties and beyond, far past the age of likely recidivism.  In fact, middle-aged men rarely reoffend.  The canard tossed around so widely that all criminals permanently threaten the safety and security of the populace does not hold up under close scrutiny.   

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     More troubling, from a larger perspective, is the growing appeal and influence of the prison world's warped culture.  From the already discussed popular culture's use of prison dress and iconography to the more insidious spread of gang mentality and behavior, prison has become a full part of the youth culture of America.  Looking down the road, absent transformational change, the logic of force will be brought to bear on a growing non-compliant population of have-nots trapped on the wrong side of all the divides further separating society into those who own and those who want.  Force, in greater and more devastating amounts, will be required to protect the society from the increasingly desperate and self-destructive behaviors emanating out of the recalcitrant world bred by the force applied.  The prison model, the model both practiced by and favored by the safety and security crowd, will destroy free society, all the while working overtime to protect it.

     Fortunately, there is a unique knowledge learned from the prison experience, a skill-set that can be applied to counter the trend beyond the fences.  History is replete with examples, from Dostoyevsky to Mandela, of those who were tested in the fires of incarceration, who came out of it filled with compassion and leadership.  They also saw and understood more completely the nature of the security apparatus; the heavy hand

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of government had rested heavily on their own shoulders.  Paradoxically, the prison culture, which threatens all that a free society holds dear, could produce the cadre of leaders necessary to counter the ills of its own making.  Just as in prison, though, resistance will be fierce, and these leaders will need to possess, in addition to their hard won knowledge, courage and tenacity.

     The logic of force produces a deep sense of helplessness in those who live on the receiving end of the arsenal of repressive devices employed to maintain safety and security.  Prisoners are forced to confront a reality that denies their very humanity.  Many react with blind fury and self-immolating acts of rage.  To counter this, a few successful programs have been instituted to reinvigorate the idea that our lives also have value, that we can be powerful agents for good.  In my own state, home to the world's largest prison system, not to mention among the least successful, we have witnessed prisoners' taking charge of themselves, to great success.  At the California State Prison-Los Angeles County, I wrote the proposal for what became the Honor Program.  The core precept of the program is the notion that even maximum-security prisoners can conduct themselves honorably if afforded the opportunity.  The more determined acolytes of the safety and security above all else mentality

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have bitterly resisted, but the program has succeeded.  Four years later, amidst the virtual collapse of a failed prison system rampant with violence and corruption, and in the face of too little official support, the program continues without a single major violent incident.  A record unmatched in this state, to be sure, and, likely, nationwide.

     The concept for the program sprang from my lifetime of incarceration, from the experiences and information gathered on the ground, inside the armed perimeter.  The program has continued through the efforts of dozens of other long-term prisoners, all of whom have learned to counter the logic of force with creativity, good humor, and focused determination.  These lessons will be necessary in the coming years in free society, as the safety and security ethos gains strength.  The primary lesson we have learned, a lesson the free society is clearly beginning to learn, is that diversity of ideas, tolerance of differences, rejection of conformity, all of these are anathema to those who see the world in stark, black and white, good and evil terms.

     The secondary lesson, the lesson that is less obvious but more damaging, is the force applied to achieve conformity of behavior, and uniformity of belief, creates an equal and opposite resistance that will, inevitably, resort to force.  The

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so-called "asymmetrical" form of battle, wherein comparatively lightly-armed combatants challenge the might of the overwhelming state.  The inevitable outcome, as any prison in America, or the exploding streets across the waters show, is ever more repressive measures leading to ever more desperate acts of defiance.  It is the death spiral of the logic of force's illogic.


     This all poses a question of real significance: What America do we want for our future?  A country based on the negative lessons of prison will doom us to a bleak reality.  The federal government will be overtaken in the mad rush to secure everything from any possible threat to our collective safety and security.  Just as state after state degenerated into a position of reaction to the misrepresented menace of crime throughout the '80s and '90s, until the hapless governors were reduced to uber-wardens so, too, will the presidency.  A country built on hope and optimism will fall prey to its fears and insecurities.  Many more doors will have to be kicked down in many rogue states, while many rights will have to be sacrificed to the elusive pursuit of complete security.  As we who have dealt firsthand with this mentality know, the logic of force will continue to produce more reasons for its application.  The snake will eat

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itself to birth a more menacing snake demanding more force as illogic trumps reason.

     Alternatively, perhaps, the positive lessons learned inside the prisons will be applied to the problems of modernity.  Honoring the inherent worth of every person, seeking compromise over confrontation, working to bring balance into the complex problems of human relations: all of these approaches that have proven themselves in prison will be tried.  It will also be necessary for a larger segment of society to cross the thresholds of prisons and risk embracing the discarded souls languishing inside.  This, in addition to an act of simple humanity, a way to defuse the isolation and irrational rage that too often reside in the damaged hearts of prisoners.  In that I have seen both sides of this equation, I know, with a certainty derived from painful lessons that a healing society can be created in even the most inhospitable of environments.  In still another example of the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences, the massive prison state is producing, along with the growing army of the dispossessed and angry, a smaller, but no less important, group of those who have seen the truth of the logic of force.  We see the spreading influence of the prison culture, and we know its consequences.  We also know how to bring about transformational change.

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     Life prisoners live by a simple maxim.  "Hope for the best, but expect the worst."  We expect that tough times are ahead for America; we have no illusions about this.  We hope, still, that our insights and experiences can assist free men and women in saving themselves from themselves, from their worst impulses. 

     The final irony: we, the imprisoned, helping to save free society.



Footnote #1

     G. de Beaumont and A. de Tocqueville, "On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France" (Philadelphia: Francis Lieber, 1833)

Footnote #2

     See, Wolff v. McDonell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974); Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974); Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977); and, Cruz v. Beto, 405 U.S. 319 (1972).  These cases were the culmination of a decade of prison litigation.  However, see Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which limited the rights of prisoners and signaled the definitive shift of the Supreme Court.  

Footnote #3 

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     "Collateral punishments" include disenfranchisement, denial of government assistance in education programs, laws specifically designed to bar ex-cons from a wide variety of jobs, and a whole panoply of similar regulations written into federal and state codes that work to continue the punishment after the sentence is finished.

Footnote #4

     Recent medical studies have shown the part of the young male brain dealing with impulse control does not fully mature until the middle twenties.  Further research is surely needed, but this does fit well with the facts of crime, on the ground.


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