There are many books on the American prison system. Nearly all of these cite the negative aspects of the American prison system, including the safety of the staff from the prisoners, the treatment of prisoners, etc. However, some literatures also point out the advantages the prison system can have on the imprisoned individuals and, consequently, the society at large. This paper reviews two of these literatures that argue out these sides of the debate: Robert Johnson’s Hard Time, Understanding and Reforming the Prison (more of a supporting voice) and Billy Wayne Sinclair and Jodie Sinclair’s A Life in the Balance: the Billy Wayne Sinclair Story is more of a criticism than the support it is assumed to be.
Robert Johnson in ‘Hard Time, Understanding and Reforming the Prison’
Robert Johnson’s book Hard Time is one of the prominent literatures on the topic of American prison systems. The central thesis in this book is that imprisonment can be a very painful experience- what Johnson (1987) refers to as ‘conservatively painful’ experience- for the imprisoned. Of course, prisons are not meant to be pleasant places for the prisoners. Besides, the prison system came into being as a form of punishing those who, one way or another, hurt other people in the society, which involves trampling on the rights and freedoms of others. However, Johnson (1987) argues that imprisonment can become, contrary to the so-called punishment side of it, can be lead to the rehabilitation of offenders. Indeed, Johnson (1987) still accepts the punishment side of imprisonment. However, he sees this as beneficial punishment whereby the offender can learn something valuable about life and living with people as well as how to deal with pain; that an offender can at once pay his debt to society for his faults. In the end, Johnson (1987) argues, the prison system (through the many pressures and constraints in there) can also offer opportunities for the individuals to become more mature and develop skills for coping with the pressures of society.
The book becomes an extensive review of various literatures, with the main goals being to emphasize the central theme. The book is divided into three sections. The book starts with the history of the prison system and how it has evolved from the penitentiary to what it is today. Second, the book explores living and working in prison, including the process of adjusting to prison life. Third, the book turns its attention to prison reform (including programs for dealing with stress and help coping).
Generally, literatures on the management system in prisons focus on three dimensions. One dimension presents the management of prisons as more focused on punishment and control of prisoners. In this respect, the prison guards use various tactics to ensure they keep the prisoners in check. This control of inmates is achieved through intimidation and threats and, at times, beatings. Even the high walls of prisons and solitary confinement systems are ways by which to achieve this control. Another dimension focuses on prison management more focused on the rehabilitation of the prisoners. Another dimension looks at prison management as focused on both, although leaning more on one side (mostly control) than the other.
On his part, Johnson (1987) acknowledges the punishment aspect of the prison system. However, he avoids tying the punishment aspect to the control-oriented management system. Instead, he takes a more positivist perspective and portrays a prison system model that is characterized by a collaborative environment in which prisoners work with the staff to ensure a generally supportive culture. In such an environment, constructive citizenship evolves in prison, within the walls. Such an environment, further argues Johnson (1987) includes rehabilitation programs that are supported by both the staff and the prisoners. In other words, prisoners see the staff as allies. On their part, the primary goal of the staff- something they acknowledge and abide by- is to promote better coping. In this respect, they train the prisoners on various ways of coping with pressures both within the prison and the society outside the prison walls.
In these arguments, Johnson (1987) seems to imply that, in this collaborative environment, other boundaries (such as racial divisions) are transcended. Moreover, the implication is that prisoners and staff can overcome the tags of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
However, Johnson (1987) does not entirely believe that prisons are without fault. On the other hand, he argues, there is need for reforms, particularly the need to include more rehabilitation programs that address stress and coping.
Billy Wayne Sinclair and Jodie Sinclair in ‘A Life in the Balance: the Billy Wayne Sinclair Story’
This is a personal story by Billy Wayne Sinclair, who himself was imprisoned and lived the life within the prison walls.
The book opens with Sinclair’s account of his own life and how he ended up on death row and finally imprisoned for life. Indeed, Sinclair lived a life of crime in his early years. For example, the book opens with Sinclair’s citation of having left prison just five months earlier where he had served time for stealing a car. But five months later (that is, the moment that Sinclair recounts), he was sitting in a stolen car. In other words, being in prison had not done much to change his behavior. He was now committing the same crime for which just five months earlier had had served time. But even more than this, Sinclair’s crimes got worse and in 1965, he shot and killed a man in Baton Rouge in the process of robbing a convenience store (Sinclair and Sinclair, 2001).
For this crime, and at the mere age of 20, he was sentenced to death. Awaiting his execution, he was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Fortunately for him, in 1972, the Supreme Court made a decision that abolished the death penalty. As was the case for all prisoners in the death row, Sinclair’s sentence was reduced to life in prison. With his sentence reduced, Sinclair’s rehabilitation in prison started. Eventually, Sinclair became, alongside Wilbert Rideau (who had also been moved from death row to the life sentence), the editor of The Angolite, the penitentiary’s prison new magazine. The publication became a vital prison publication that won two major awards for journalism: the Robert F. Kennedy and George Polk awards (Sinclair and Sinclair, 2001). In the end, Sinclair’s book is the story of crime, punishment and rehabilitation.
On the surface, the book seems to confirm Johnson’s (1987) arguments of the ability of imprisonment to change a person and help them change for the better and learn to cope with the pressures of life; that the punishment in prisons can be a good thing for the imprisoned. Indeed, Sinclair himself says that the death row taught him patience and changed his habit of impatience and recklessness when, pursuing a goal, he grew frustrated. However, one need to look at the book closely to see that Sinclair’s story does not fit with the premise that Johnson (1987) preaches in his book.
But most importantly, Sinclair’s rehabilitation eventually became his undoing. For example, in the mid-1980s, Sinclair got word to the FBI about the prison’s board selling pardons. Sinclair held that the money trail went as high as the governor’s office. This story led to investigations that saw the chairman of the board, Howard Marsellus eventually went to prison (Sinclair and Sinclair, 2001).
Now, this prison is far from that which Johnson (1987) paints. Most notably, this prison does not focus on the rehabilitation of the prisoners. But it is not just about the absence of concrete programs for rehabilitation. It is also about the absence of an environment that could promote such rehabilitation, even a personally driven one. On the contrary, Sinclair paints the picture of a highly politicized prison system, a man-eat-man jungle where only the strongest (by physical strength or influence) survive and the rest fall. In such a place, politics becomes a channel for self-gratification and satisfaction.
As a result of this, Sinclair became a pariah, even split ways with Rideau, his co-editor, the prison hierarchy and the Governor Edwin W. Edwards who was at the time considered the most powerful politician in the state (Sinclair and Sinclair, 2001).
In the end, Rideau’s and Sinclair’s rehabilitation had nothing to do with the prison environment. If anything, the environment did not help it. These were individuals with a history of violence and in an environment that promoted it, thrived on it in fact. Most importantly, there was no longer death penalty, the ultimate sentence. Therefore, the rehabilitation of the two may have come in prison- and it is doubtful that they would have change if they had not ended up in prison- but the promises of a supportive staff and environment do not apply here. Furthermore, the story of the war-zone prison is not just told by Sinclair, but by other people as well.
These two books are similar in some ways, such as the ability of the prison system to lead to the rehabilitation of individuals and make them better people. Johnson (1987) explores the theoretical aspect of this, while Sinclair and Sinclair (2001) provide a true-life example, with Billy Wayne Sinclair and his co-editor Rideau being the principle models. However, the books remain completely different on whether this rehabilitation is the primary goal of the prison system management or it is a rare coincidental turnout.
Johnson (1987) may seem genuine in his belief in his view of the prison environment (as manifested in the interaction between the prisoners and the staff). However, his belief that prison staff and the prisoners are not at odd with each other seems more utopia than reality. His belief that the guards and officers are not hostile and prejudiced against prisoners seems to lack support, especially from other literatures. It may be true that when prison management focus on rehabilitation they can indeed help offenders learn to cope with the pressures of the world. But the question is whether prisons have the will- let along the capacity- to implement such programs effectively. Most literatures do not seem to support this premise. There have been many stories by either personal accounts of current and former prisoners and even investigations by other individuals that show the prisons are a different place from what Johnson (1987) describes. There have been stories of racial prejudice in prisons, especially white guards hating non-white prisoners, seeing them as inferior and, therefore, not worthy of fair treatment. Moreover, this prejudice means the prison guards, most prominently, and owing to poor education and rural background, do not understand the perspectives of the prisoner’s cultures and subcultures. With the guards being the main tool of control in prisons and, therefore standing between the prisoners and other staff, it becomes hard to see the realization of Johnson’s (1987) collaborative environment).
Despite himself being a model for prison rehabilitation, Sinclair is not proof of Johnson’s (1987) premise. Sinclair seems to be the product of both luck and individual effort. No one in the prison held his hand and sought to teach the difference between good and bad and how to live and cope in and with society. If anything, Sinclair details the very things Johnson (1987) does not seem to foresee in or expect of prisons. Although it may be hard to say whether Sinclair and Rideau would have changed into the model citizens they have become if they had not faced death only to have a second chance, it is equally hard to deny that their rehabilitations are the result of their own personal efforts. In fact, the prison, with all the violence and murders, worked against them. It could have sucked them in but they fought it, refusing to fall prey to it.
In the end, the picture of prison system that Sinclair and Sinclair (2001) paint seems to be the historical nature of prisons- in the US in this case. Although Johnson (1987) acknowledges the need for reform, his recommendations are more for improvement rather than radical changes. This sense of denial on Johnson (1987) may be expected of one who has never visited a prison, so that he is looking in from the outside, the outside perspective distorted by too much theory and, maybe, hope. Sinclair, on the other hand, has lived the American prison life and knows. That is not to say Sinclair and Sinclair (2001) are indisputable. However, their story seems to confirm what other personal accounts says, which earns them more credibility than Johnson (1987).
Johnson, R. (1987). Hard Time, Understanding and Reforming the Prison. Boston: Brooks
Cole Publishing House
Sinclair, B.W. & Sinclair, J. (2001). A Life in the Balance: the Billy Wayne Sinclair
Story. New York: Arcade Publishing