The Return of Joe Prison
M.D. “Doc” Bass
Rahway, NJ 07065
“…but if the plant is sown and reared in the wrong soil, it will develop every contrary defect…”
In spite of the desperate hope that prison could somehow transform so-called ‘deviant’ or ‘criminal’ behavior into behavior more consistent with the objectives of Society, prison has the effect of further driving its victims away from, rather than toward, Society. That is, it meticulously cultivates and grooms asocial attitudes as it thoroughly fuses the thinker with his thoughts, until the developing schizoid personality blossoms into a fully matured antisocial entity.
Logically, behaviors and attitudes thought to be consistent with a particular environment would rarely, if ever, be conditioned into an individual via his separation from that environment. It follows, then, that prison—as an isolated conditioning apparatus—is hardly competent to encourage so-called ‘good’ social behavior. At most, its capacities extend themselves beyond the punitive just enough to encourage good prison behavior. The immediate concern of prison is not how one behaves in Society (That emphasis is reserved for correctional theory: “It is also hoped that a sounds disciplinary program will result in an institutional climate in which the rehabilitative process can take place.”) Prison, as a practice, concerns itself with how one behaves in prison.
The irony does not end there, however. It continues to leak out of the mandate which demands that the returning ‘ex-offender’ behave in a manner that is “compatible with the goals of Society.” But, amidst a host of abstractions, and in the absence of an agreeable definition, one legitimately wonders, “What is this thing ‘Society’?” And just how was Joe Prison, who’d been buried in a hole for some five, ten or fifteen years, supposed to have developed this compatibility? Should we discover that compatibility is a matter of aligning one’s behavior with this puzzling concept of ‘good social behavior’, then we are moved to ask, “What is good? And for whom?”
While Joe ponders the relativity of the answers, his solitude gives birth to more questions—questions that propel him deeper into his analysis. Redefining Society, he redefines himself. It is in his isolation that he comes into being. He clarifies his ideas, and he dreams…
But these ideas to which his solitude brought clarity, and the dreams he’d managed to mold out of the quicksand of Society’s vengeance—what will ultimately happen to them? Statistics say that about seven or eight out of ten times Joe continuously drags them back and forth to that hole in the ground and nurses them back to health. They were not, he painfully discovers, “compatible”. In fact, each time he limps back out into Society, the ensuing conflict of values and ideas always seems to pit Joe against his most invincible foe—the reality of power.
What follows is true. That is, it’s real. Just the names have been changed…to protect the guilty. Part of Joe’s parole agreement stipulates that he get involved with some kind of ex-offender program. So he gets involved:
Her: Let’s see, you’re Joe. Can I call you Joe?
Him: It’s cool.
Her: Good. Have a seat, then, Joe. Now, you’re familiar with how our program works, aren’t you?
Him: Not really.
Her: (She smiles) I’m sorry. Let me put it this way: We’ve learned that, generally, men who’ve experienced particularly long periods of confinement have problems adjusting; so, what we want to do is help you make that giant step out of prison into Society.
Him: Yeah? You mean there’s a difference?
Her: Excuse me?
Him: I mean, what’s the difference between prison and what you call Society?
Her: Oh, come on, now. Don’t you know? Look, you have freedom of movement, for instance…your sexual liberty…
Him: But you made it sound like somethin’ was goin’ on in prison that ain’t hap’nin’ out here. Now, as far as the sex thing goes…naw, that’s alright.
Her: No, go ahead. We want you to express yourself—I’m sure you’ve got a lot you want to get off your chest.
Him: Okay. Tell me this—you think sex is natural?
Her: Some of it, yes.
Him: I mean the thing between man and woman—is that natural?
Her: I would say so.
Him: Now, does man rule nature, or does nature rule man?
Her: Well, with today’s technology, man can sort of bend some of nature’s rules.
Him: But, Basically he’s still subject to the natural law, though, right?
Her: Basically, yes.
Him: And sex is part of natural law too, right?
Him: Then how did man’s law get to be over nature’s law?
Her: But don’t you think that man’s law kind of keeps us from abusing sex?
Him: Not really—the most it does is punish those of us who express what the law says is illegal sexual behavior. But that’s not what I meant. What I wanna know—since the freedom or, as you call it, “liberty”, to have sex wasn’t his to give in the first place—is where man got the authority to take it away.
Her: Let’s be realistic, Joe. I think you understand that when you violate the law there are certain priviledges and advantages you forfeit.
Him: So, if sex is a priviledge, that makes the law what?
Her: Well, the law is there to govern our behavior.
Him: Like you can’t govern your own?
Her: Be honest with me—what do you think it would be like without law?
Him: That depends on how people are conditioned.
Her: What’s that got to do with it?
Him: Well, how does law get to be law in the first place?
Her: Briefly, I’d say law starts with a controversial public issue.
Him: So we go an issue—now what happens?
Her: Now we have to find out how people feel about it.
Him: And their feelin’s the same as opinions?
Her: Mmm…I guess you could say that.
Him: And these opinions become law, huh, just like that.
Her: You think it was better when one man’s opinion was the law?
Him: What I’m tryin’ to find out is what was public opinion before it became public? How do a whole bunch of people get to have the same opinion about something? I mean, you ain’t born with no opinion; we don’t know nothin’ when we’re born.
Her: That’s why we have to be taught.
Him: But when you’re bein’ taught, you’re collectin’ old information that may or may not be true. Now, since you ain’t got nothin’ to compare this information to, you accept it, you go with it, and it becomes what you call your opinion—it’s your teacher’s opinion. It’s your conditionin’, if it’s anything. And conditionin’ keeps you from seein’ things as they really are.
Did you know that some of the most ridiculous laws and most deviant behaviors were a product of religious conditionin’?
Him: Square business. Law is a result of conditionin’, just like behavior. So, whether or not you got the law wouldn’t be no problem if people weren’t conditioned to think they way they do. And, obviously, how they thinks is gonna be how they act. Anyway, by the time the law does its thing, it ain’t actually stopped nothin’—it’s just makin’ a kind of counter-attack.
Now, goin’ back to this thing you mentioned about—what did you call it—free movement?
Her: Freedom of movement.
Him: Yeah. Now, how do you figure you gon’ ration somebody some freedom?
Her: It’s not a matter of rationing freedom, Joe—you’ve got to have rules and limits in a society.
Him: Then we got to use another word.
Her: Such as?
Him: Such as they gave me permission to move around a little more.
Her: And you resent that, don’t you? I mean, you resent that authority?
Him: That ain’t authority. Truth is the only authority I know.
Her: You mean I didn’t detect a bit of resentment there?
Him: Yeah. But that’s for the contradiction.
Him: Yeah, between social theory and social practice. Like, it’s common knowledge that this society survives on corruptivity; it breeds corruptivity. I mean, everybody knows it’s based on greed. And this greed is what has every goin’ through changes with each other; everybody’s vampin’ down on everybodyelse, tryin’ to get over.
What I’m getting at, though, is the fact that the reason I went to the joint wasn’t no freak accident. And the idea of bein’ a stick-up man wasn’t in my head when I was born. All the causes came out of the same society I’m s’posed to be makin’ this transition back into.
Her: But you could have just as well picked up the good that exists in Society, Joe.
Him: But the good that exists in this Society is not the true good—it’s the actual. And, dig this, to do the true good is to be deviant as long as the actual good is the norm.
Her: Now that’s an odd deduction.
Him: It’s the truth. Plus, that kind of deviancy is more of a threat to Society than anything.
Her: Oh, come on, Joe, you make it sound as though you were some kind of martyr or something—you were out there robbing people…
Him: Yeah, but that was when I was tryin’ to conform to society.
Her: And what are you doing, now?
Him: Well, I’m tryin’ hard not to conform to a corrupt and greedy society.
Her: What are you going to do then—go back to prison?
Him: See, you think it’s funny.
Her: I’m sorry. Maybe I just don’t understand the difference between the true and the actual good.
Him: Alright, dig. What is man’s relationship to Society?
Her: His relationship? Hmmm…
Him: Okay, is he expected to strengthen society, or weaken it?
Her: If anything, he’s expected to strengthen it, of course.
Him: And how’s he s’posed to do all this?
Her: By preserving the status quo, by making what contributions he can to it.
Him: Slick enough. Now, if the dude’s a failure, what can he contribute? Or if he’s just plain poor, what’s he gonna be able to contribute?
Her: Well, if you don’t have anything, obviously you can’t contribute anything.
Him: Then what would you say Society emphasizes the most, success or failure?
Her: Success, naturally.
Him: Why, because individual success becomes Society’s success, right?
Her: In the long run, yes.
Him: Solid. Now, you understand what happens when everybody’s at war with each other just tryin’ to survive, or become successful?
Her: You see competition as war?
Him: Ain’t it?
Her: Competition is just as much a part of nature as anything else is, Joe. Besides, it’s not as dramatic as you make it sound.
Him: Oh yeah? What kind of scene is the competition thing if it ain’t dramatic? When people have to compete to eat, you gon’ have a whole lot of drama, you know what I mean? ‘Cause you gon’ have a few that’s gon’ eat, and a whole lot that ain’t. Now, when you break it down, what’s gonna determine whether you get to eat or not? What determines whether you become one of the winners or one of the losers?
Her: Let’s see…What determines…I guess your fitness to compete, for one thing; determination, tools and credentials—all that might help you win.
Him: Is everybody in this society in good shape; does everybody have those tools and credentials?
Her: Things aren’t perfect—I’ll be the first to admit that. But we’re progressing; we’re fast approaching a state of equal opportunity.
Him: Close only counts in Horseshoes. Besides, you’re still gonna have losers.
Her: But you don’t know that. Suppose they’re successful?
Him: And s’pose they ain’t?
Her: Well, Society makes provisions for some of those who live at the bottom of the ladder, doesn’t it?
Him: You mean it throws crumbs around the foot of the ladder—It gives consolation prizes to the losers.
Her: That’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
Him: Listen. If a man’s hungry, and you offer him crumbs, does that mean he ain’t hungry no more? Is that gon’ keep him from wantin’ to rob, steal, or execute all kinds of larceny to get him some food? At the same time, do you think the winner’s desire to have more is gon’ be satisfied just ‘cause he won?
Her: But what’s wrong with being a little ambitious?
Him: Ambition is just a word people use when they want to justify their greed.
Her: Just because a person is one of the winners doesn’t make him greedy, now…
Him: Well, like Nietzsche said, “Every delight craves eternity.” Now, if he could somehow manage to fill that bottomless pit of desire, things would be cool—but that’s just the problem. Plus, Society’s over here on the side-lines jumpin’ up and down and hollerin’, “AMBITION!” “SUCCESS” “MORE, MORE!” So, the ambitious get in there and punch it out, struggling to get more, ‘cause Society wants them to strengthen it. Now, in order to do that, they gotta keep on bein’ successful; and in order to stay successful, they gotta keep on strugglin’. Now, is this gonna decrease or increase their desire to possess?
Her: So, what’s wrong with that?
Him: I think it was Emile Durkheim who said, “an unquenchable thirst is a perpetually renewed agony.” And, as far as we know, desire is unquenchable. Now, you tell me how each man’s desire to posses strengthens Society as he competes and engages in conflict with other men.
Her: Well, competition is essential to progress. I mean, without that impetus, our technology and our quality of life would remain stagnant. We’d still be sort of primitive.
Him: You know, you could take some of those same words and use them as a justification for every war that has ever taken place—does that make was a good thing? Plus, you’re usin’ the word ‘primitive’ like it ain’t had nothin’ to do with man’s most natural and uncorrupted state; as though technology is the definition for civilization.
Now, since you said that, I can show you the difference between the true and the actual. This conflict, this ‘necessary’ competition you spoke on, that’s the actual good. That’s what’s actually hap’nin’, see? And Society says this is good. Now, the true good—whether it’s been practiced or not—is the most positive relationship that can exist between men…
Her: And women.
Him: Yeah, I better clean that up before you attack me with some of that ‘male chauvinist pig’ stuff (He smiles). But, like I was sayin’, the true good, even though it might only be an ideal, it’s still the only real good, cause it’s the positive. Everybody benefits, you dig?
Now, the reason this society resists the true good is because it’s structured to protect the interests of those who stand to lose the most in a society that promotes the most positive good.
Her: And what’s that?
Him: That’s where the wealth is equally distributed, where people aren’t split up into classes that associate their value with their valuables. That’s where there’s balance and harmony—not conflict.
Her: So you think everyone should share the wealth? Some people have sacrificed and struggled real hard to get where they are…
Him: Yeah, and some have exploited and killed and swindled and stole and tricked…
Her: No, I mean there are those who actually started at the bottom and worked their way up. Nobody gave them anything, except maybe a few problems. Why should they have to give a up a part of what they’ve struggled to get to someone who just happens to be a loser? Besides, what you’re talking about isn’t even reality, it’s some utopian fantasy.
Him: Wait a minute, now. I can see you callin’ a dude a loser if he just played the game and lost. But if the game is rigged, and it’s set up so he can’t help but lose, then he’s not really a loser, because he ain’t even had a chance to win.
But, like you said, why should the winner share? Bein’ on top is the glory of winnin’, ain’t it; sharin’ is the winner’s prerogative, right? And I can’t tell you what you should do with your winnin’s. All I’m sayin’ is that there’s a reason the true good is, as you’re sayin’, out of touch with reality. And that’s because the actual is convenient for those with the power and influence.
Her: I see. You know, Joe, it just hit me.
Her: The thought that you’re probably suffering from the side effects of incarceration.
Him: What side effects you talkin’ ‘bout?
Her: Well, it took us a while to admit it, and maybe because we didn’t hav ea reasonable alternative, but we began to realize tat the concept of prison as punishment was defeating the concept of rehabilitation, because men were coming out more bitter and hostile than they were when they went in. After long periods of confinement, many of them would actually be out of touch with the reality of Society. Being isolated like that and couped up with your own thoughts, I guess it would sort of put you out of touch with reality. And I can imagine that it’s tough for you, Joe, but unless you can adjust to the reality that Society doesn’t function according to your ideas, you’re going to have problems, and you know where that leads, don’t you?
Her: Back to prison.
Him: But we’re all in prison, can’t you see that?
Her: See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It sounds like you’re back in your cell bouncing your thoughts off the walls, and playing with some of your fantasies. It might be nice to dream every now and then, Joe, but this is the real thing—this is it. You’ve got to start thinking in terms of how you’re going to deal with it.
Him: So that’s what you hear, huh?
Her: Well, let’s say I hear your bitterness and your dissatisfaction for the way Society is—you sure that’s not rejection you feel? Maybe you really want to be a part of Society, or maybe you’re afraid to compete because you’re afraid of failing. I’m not going to try defend Society—maybe it isn’t exactly sensitive to your particular needs and desires; maybe there is a corrupted element, and it’s not always fair, but if you could change it, how would you change it from the outside? The system will resist you even more as an outsider, and eventually try to eliminate you to save itself.
Him: What are you sayin’—that I got to get in the pot in order to change to soup?
Her: Listen. Do you understand the parity concept?
Him: The what?
Her: The concept of parity. It’s one of the principles of force and power.
Him: Run it.
Her: Well, according to the parity concept, you cannot expect to effect any change unless you have the power that is equal to or greater than the force of the resistance. Now, in this case, if you don’t have any power, you have to join forces with those who are working within the system to get any changes made. There is power in numbers, you know.
Him: A system’s about the same as a pattern, aint it?
Him: So, by bein’ part of the system, I’d be part of the pattern of Society. And, like I said before, that pattern is greedy, possessive, corrupt, and all that. Now, how am I gonna change the course of the river if I’m gon’ be caught up in its current?
Her: You think you can change it by swimming against the current?
Him: Well, I know that if I’m gonna do anything to change the course of the river, getting’ out of the water is my first move.
Her: I think your connection in your analogy is beginning to fade.
Him: How you figure that?
Her: Well, the system, Society—whatever you want to call it—is a little more flexible than something as fixed as the course of a river.
Her: Sure. It has its share of dissidents and radicals; its militants. There are a lit of people dissatisfied with the system, but it makes room for them, too—we don’t ship them off to concentration camps…
Him: Bet some money…and that’s just it—the ones you talkin’ ‘bout are part of the system, too. Besides, if they get too radical or militant, the system will move on ‘em—I mean, you said that.
Her: But you can’t ignore the fact that they’ve been responsible for some of the social changes that have come about so far.
Him: Listen. The system ain’t gon’ let nothin’ go down that’ll help destroy it; and you can believe that when it sees a threat, it moves on it. Now, the few radicals that ain’t been sucked up into the system are—whether they know it or not—helpin’ to promote the system and the idea of how flexible and tolerant the system is every time the media glamourizes them and the police don’t move on ‘em.
Marcuse said a thing on repressive tolerance—you hip to it?
Him: Well, at one point he said, “certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerable an instrument for the continuation of servitude.” So, the move is to absorb resistance through tolerance, and pave the road—like he said—for the continuation of servitude.
Her: Joe, I didn’t mean for us to get into an intellectual skirmish—all I’m trying to get you to understand is that, in reality, the only way to change Society, or the system…
Him: Is from the inside. But we already know what Society’s reg’lar thing is, right?
Him: So, how can I change it to something different if I get all tangled up in it?
Her: What’s your alternative, then—violence?
Him: See now, that proves you ain’t payin’ attention. Violence is part of Society, too. I mean, that’s how it flexes its muscles. And it’s got to flex its muscles to show its strength—you understand what I’m sayin’? ‘Course now, power can change hands through violence; and in that case—like Krishnamurti says—the means becomes the end. When power comes by way of violence, then it stays or goes by violence; it survives through violence. So, as long as there’s an emphasis on security, violence is always gon’ be a part of Society. And what change have I made if I bring some more violence?
Now, the way I see it, real change can only come about when man starts to dig himself. I mean, when he starts to check out this greed, ambition, competition and what it does to the head, he’ll automatically see a need to break away from that kind of pattern. See, when you talk about change, you’re talking about shiftin’ things around a little. But it’s still in the same pattern; ain’t nothing changed. Man’s values have to change before there’ll be any real change.
Her: I see. It sounds like you’ve given this some thought.
Him: A little.
Her: (Laughing) Too bad you can’t have any power. Anyway, let’s deal with something a little less philosophical and closer to home.
Him: Like what?
Her: Like money. I mean, you’re ideas sound good, but you can’t eat them.
Him: You got that right. But, you know what I found out—most people usually willin’ to donate to a good cause.
Her: (Smiling) You thinking of starting a crusade?
Him: Sorta. You got some money, don’t you?
Her: A little.
Him. Good. Give it up.
Her: What?! You mean give you my money?
Him: Would you rather I took it?
Her: But you can’t just take my money!
Him: No, that, I would say, is a matter of opinion.
Her: You’re not serious…are you?
Him: As serious as cancer, baby. Just consider it a donation for a good cause.
Her: What cause?
Him: ‘Cause I’m broke—ain’t that good enough?
Her: I don’t believe this. You know, you’ve got a lot of nerve…
Him: Yeah. And ambition…and tools… (he opens one side of his jacket)
Her: But you tried it that way before, and what happened?
Him: Well, like they say. “Perserverance is the pathroad to prosperity.” Besides, we can be more objective, I think. Why don’t we call it parity? Where’s your’s?
Her: I’m not in the habit of carrying guns around.
Him: Then how do you expect to persuade me not to take your money?
Her: I don’t understand why you’re taking mine, anyway—I’m only one of the little people.
Him: Yeah, I guess it is kinda rough on the small guy; but to really appreciate the value of success, I think I better start at the bottom and work my way up—know what I mean?
Her: But what happened to that bleeding heart of yours; what happened to all that talk about the most positive good and real change…
Him: Oh, those were just some ideas that used to bounce off the walls of my cell. Right now, I got to get in tough with the reality of Society. Look, if it’ll make you feel better, take this—that ought to get you home…