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The Prison Problem


A peculiar mystique exists in our society concerning prisons, penitentiaries and jails.  We have developed a unique folklore which preserves the legends and myths of hard men behind hard steel.

Prison lore is popular stuff in the arts. We celebrate their viciousness, their shame and sometimes their accomplishments in word and song.

We counted the days with Carl Chessman; we learned to pick the guitar playing Folsom Prison Blues; and we were there when Edward G. Robinson, Cool Hand Luke and Steve McQueen made their getaway.

In the not-too-distant-past, some of us drove through Alabama and Georgia and saw the road gangs from the prison camps, working in shackles and chains, guarded by the archetype of the rotund, Southern sheriff whose pronouncement, “You’re in a heap of trouble, boy,” helped sell countless Dodge automobiles. 

And who can forget the admonition of the chain gang captain to Paul Newman: “What we have here is failure to communicate?”

More recently, many of us sat though the Homeric-inspired movie, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou,” filmed in Mississippi, and watched the actor, George Clooney, on his Odyssey-like quest for redemption as he walked among the other imprisoned shadowy shapes in denim pants and striped shirts, perhaps wondering just how much our penal system had progressed from that depicted on the screen.

Apparently, not much.

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