Introduction: Still Life

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.

Late one summer evening in Atlanta, a 20-year-old man walked into a suburban superette and paused to examine the magazine rack. When the store’s only other customer made her purchase and left, the youth strolled to the checkout counter, pulled a .357 revolver out of his jacket, pointed it at the clerk and ordered the frightened boy to lie down on the floor. He grabbed the $87 that was in the cash register and ran for the door, where he collided with an elderly woman trying to enter. At the sight of his weapon she fainted to the sidewalk. Her next week would be spent in Grady Hospital recoyering from what was called a slight heart attack. The robber reached his car parked beside the curb, but even before he could get it started the police had been flagged down by an onlooker and were in the parking lot. Their quarry surrendered meekly; he was handcuffed and carried downtown. In a darkened apartment, the lights turned off for nonpayment, his wife and child were left without support. 

It was almost a routine event. An armed robbery occurs every few hours in Atlanta. The damage was relatively slight in this case: a woman temporarily hospitalized, a trembling store clerk vowing that he will quit his job as soon as he can find another way to pay his college tuition. The “suspect in custody” received 10 years in prison, but he had been there before. He was nine years old the first time he got busted, for stealing a baseball bat, and he spent three months in a Dekalb County juvenile facility waiting for the court to find him a foster home. Now his record, as the police say, is as long as your arm. 

What is to be done with the perpetrators of such crimes, the disturbed and sometimes dangerous people produced by our urban zoos and dying countryside? All that the distraught store clerk could offer was, “The guy ought to be off the streets.” But he, too, had had a few unpleasant brushes with the law and was not so sure where his armed assailant should be sent, or for how long. 

And what should society do with the thousands of less damaging lawbreakers who commit what one of our authors terms “the common cold of crime”: the drunken brawlers, check forgers, pill stealers, car thieves, stereo snatchers, hookers, winos, drug users and rip-off artists? They are the “average criminal,” and they are paraded through courthouses from Richmond to Baton Rouge by the hundreds every day. To commit, correct, corral and punish them requires an enormous job force of police, lawyers, judges, counselors, probation and parole officers, doctors and jailers — but reported crime still increases. 

In response to rising crime, many states legislate ever-lengthening sentences. Tennessee, for example, will now hold a person sentenced to “life” for 30 years before even considering him for parole. But the suspicion persists that treatment of this nature, too terrible to be comprehended by most citizens, does nothing but warp men and women beyond recognition, making them unfit to live in a free society. 

The 50 or so convicts who contributed to this volume confirm that lengthy incarceration merely encourages criminal-like behavior and engenders bitterness which ultimately will be felt by all of us who walk the street, sit in the park, run a business or own anything worth stealing. Oscar Wilde told the story a century ago when he wrote, “The vilest deeds bloom well in prison air / It is only what is good in man that wastes and withers there.” 

There is simply no escaping the conclusion that our present system breeds crime. It may slowly waste people, but the process itself promotes rather than eliminates crime. 

One drastic alternative to imprisonment is execution, and though a civilized people must balk at such an option, the spectre of state-sanctioned mass murder looms large as frustrated officials attempt to save themselves by offering simple-minded solutions to an angry public. This volume, published in October, 1978, comes on the eve of what may be a wave of executions, beginning with John Spenkelink in Florida (see page 74). If the media, politicians and public can stomach such a spectacle, our chances of rationally addressing the basic realities of crime and punishment in America are evermore remote. 

Someday, somehow, we must face the central fact that our prison system in general and the death penalty in particular are not instruments of justice. They do not apply to everyone equally. The figures show that those whom we condemn are almost without exception the poor, uneducated, underemployed, ill-defended, the misfits and social outcasts. By failing to imprison the heads of callous corporations, by letting the embezzler off with six months and then sending a poor thief to 12 years in a distant and unseen hell, we demonstrate that the criminal justice system is a cynical, schizophrenic device to perpetuate our biases in favor of the rich and our need to control the poor. The conclusion drawn by one convict who wrote us is even more to the point: 

Most people who come from a poor class environment where money’s hard to come by have been brainwashed from childhood up to believe that to be “somebody” they’ve got to have property, education and material goods. The system does not permit many of us to obtain these things legally, so we will try to get them illegally. To do otherwise is to accept deprivation, indignity and injustice, in that sense, all us in here are political prisoners because we are victims of an oppressive economic and political order. The criminal law that affects us is essentially a codification of the values and self-interest of the dominant class. 

Too few citizens now play a part in deciding how justice is practiced in our communities — and who it is practiced against. It is not sufficient to leave to the courts the job of labeling people as “criminals,” to the corrections officials the task of defining “humane treatment” for offenders, or to the legislators the responsibility of deciding how many years or how many volts it will take to deter a young man or woman from breaking the law. 

No issue is more vital than the right of people to be safe in their homes and in the streets, yet we assign the work of our protection to professionals who, the record suggests, know little more about the problem than we do ourselves. The stakes include the very life of our community, and each of us must play a part in the winning. 

We intend this twenty-fourth issue of Southern Exposure as a “reader” for reflection on why the system is failing and what we can do about it. The voices heard here are all part of the criminal justice system in one way or another; they are grouped in four sections to address four central questions: who goes to jail, what happens inside, is the death penalty necessary, are there alternatives. There are no simple solutions offered here to a system that daily confuses and threatens us. Rather we intend this book as the basis for discussion about why we are now losing the battle against crime, and as an invitation to our readers to accept their responsibility for devising a criminal justice system that is fair, protective and positive.