Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison. Robert Johnson (Wadsworth, 3rd ed, 2002)
Robert Johnson, American University Justice, Law and Criminology professor, gives a hard look at prisons in Hard Time. He approaches them as both a scholar and a reformer, trying to educate readers: “Almost everyone has an opinion about prison, but for the most of us, it is an opinion formed on the basis of images rather than information, feeling rather than experiences.” So he offers both: as a scholar, he informs us, and then he highlights those ideas and situations that people from the penal institutions have shared with him—the true experiences.
The book is divided into three parts: Part One is the history of incarceration and its pain. Part Two is unique: it uncovers patterns of adjustment to the pain of prisons, including all the players. Part Three examines latest developments in managing prison environment, concluding with a proposal that would help mature coping adaptation to the pain of prisons.
You will note the emphasis on pain. Perhaps the lingering message of the book is that prisons are indeed full of pain, but pain can be controlled, managed, accepted and overcome with a mature social adjustment—on the part of not only inmates but also the guards, workers, management within the penal system. Prof. Johnson sees pain not merely as a physical injury, but as a mental scar. It stays with inmates and colors their lives afterwards.
His look at mental pain enlightened me: “the prisoner who has figured out how to handle the social world of the prison must also find a way to counter it psychological meaning. The problem of being confined is not simply that of being locked up with a bunch of other prisoners, but it is also the difficulty of having one’s self-esteem and identity bombarded as well, with the evidence of a failed life and a lesser human status.” Wow. He extends that inner turmoil to the guards as well: they are not policemen with shiny suits and big guns. They live under the world, with men who have little respect for them. Thus the world environment is toxic. Something has to change, or all these people will re-enter the world damaged, and perhaps do damage to others.
He sees encroaching technology as zapping what little remains of humanity within prisons. He doesn’t look at the new trend—TV visitation without human contact or touch. But how can taking away visits help inmates re-learn the positive elements of society?
His suggestions at the end combine traditional ideas and innovative ones, with the emphasis on offenders planning their own rehabilitation, cognitive thinking skills, work programs with actual wages, and a seemingly naïve collaborative training program using contracts that the inmates create and follow. Maybe these could work—if prison officials and state governments will give them a chance. I, myself, cannot hold my breath. But Prof. Johnson gives me hope, and that’s something rare in this field.