Reading Robert Johnson, Reading Folly:
from Robert Johnson's Justice Follies: Parody From Planet Prison
Dr. Paul S. Leighton
“Once we become a world of knaves, there will be no room for satire. Fortunately, every age including our own (so far) has been content merely to remain on the brink of complete knavery, total disaster, and absolute ruin… Satire was therefore not only possible but also needful.”
“I offer this piece… with the knowledge that satire or parody is increasingly difficult to write in our time. The eleven o’clock television news and the front pages of our newspapers compete with our imagination’s attempts to create the bizarre. Reality is now not only stranger than fiction, but a stranger to common sense.”
There’s an old joke about a sailor shipwrecked on an uncharted island. At first, the sailor is apprehensive about the inhabitants, fearing they may be savages. But his explorations soon lead to a gallows for executions and he is relieved: “Ah, civilization!”
Justice Follies would be appropriate reading for the sailor and for everyone who laughed at the sailor’s reasoning – this book is for people who would like a thoughtful, laugh-out-loud look at punishment, justice and civilization. (Perhaps that’s … punishment, ‘justice’ and ‘civilization.’) Indeed, Robert Johnson told the story of the sailor in the introductions of the first editions of his books on
prisons and the
penalty. Justice Follies draws on the same subject matter and the author’s expertise, but the lineage here goes back more directly to his book of poetry – the aptly titled
Poetic Justice – than to the award winning academic texts.
To fully appreciate Justice Follies, the sailor and other interested readers should have a modicum of cultural awareness. They should know about: the game show Wheel of Fortune, the children’s program Mister Rogers Neighborhood, some Sinatra songs, Barbie and Ken, Huxley’s Brave New World, garage sales and the inspirational power of cult B-movies. They should also know that the butt of the various jokes and skits in this book are not the hapless victims (inmates afraid of rape, poor women mounted on a game show wheel to have their sentences determined by a turn of fate) so the appeal of Justice Follies is not ghoulish or macabre. Instead, Johnson is pointing to the folly of a ‘civilized’ prison system that ignores the serious problem of sexual victimization in prison, and he highlights the
knavery of television entertainment about crime that misinforms as it panders to the audience. As with all satire, humor is necessary to convey the social critique and make it palatable – or, as Harris explains: “the formula for satire is one of honey and medicine” because “people pay no attention to moralizers.”
Of course, not all satire is intellectually rewarding or has ‘medicine’; much of it is aimed less at reducing knavery than reproducing it for an easy laugh. But Harris quotes earlier wisdom: “The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling." By the end of the book – maybe even by the first few pages – readers will be convinced that Johnson is a true satirist. His thoughtful concerns about punishment in our ‘advanced democracy’ are coated in sweet and flowing prose. Indeed, he has that Irish gift for verse and actively works to improve the gift. He took on poetry after a number of successful academic books to grow as a writer, and much of the present collection is the outcome of what he describes as fun creative writing.
Usually, ‘fun’ is not associated with prison or executions. Johnson, though, has spent countless hours in prison, not because of any misdeeds on his part, but to study prisoners, guards, wardens, death row and execution teams. Looking upon the tragedy wrought by the criminal and upon him, you “got to laugh to keep from cryin’,” as Johnson notes in Songs for Aging Convicts; and while
Justice Follies is about laughing, the material is compelling because the author has run the gamut of emotions from seeing this comedy of errors through many eyes. Indeed, people may think that Johnson has developed a keen sense of humor and a deep sense of humanity in spite of his immersion in the profane world of prison, but it is because of this time that he has the foundation for this project – a profound connection with the real people who occupy all aspects of the system and an appreciation for parts of life too many of us take for granted.
Readers who dislike analysis of humor – who like to laugh at the sailor’s comment about civilization and go no deeper – may wish to skip the rest of this section. While Johnson’s humor easily stands on its own, the writing is rich with layers that some additional but brief commentary may help reveal. Without trying to get too scholarly, my discussion of a few pieces is meant to shed additional light on the justice system so readers can fully appreciate Johnson’s expose of its folly (“A costly undertaking having an absurd or ruinous outcome”).
Johnson’s facility with words and extensive experience allow him to draw nuanced vignettes of our institutions of justice from many different perspectives. Saint Burnout, for example, explores the career trajectory of the prison guard. Inspired by a B-movie, Saint Francis of the Cell Blocks, Chuck gives up his scams and becomes a prison guard, inspired by the good works of a fictional chaplain (Francis DeVain, saint in training), although he ultimately ends up
a Top Goon in an Empty Room – the alienated head of the Goon Squad, used to take control the most problematic inmates and situations. Just as the obstreperous inmate Ghengis Con enjoys the fighting, Chuck realizes the
corrosive world of prison has made him a demented warrior as well: “’I’m the Rolls Royce of Role Models,’ he used to say, in what now seemed another life, located about two wives ago, if memory served.” One of his wives comments that Chuck is a prisoner, too, reflecting the sense in the research that guards feel like uniformed prisoners with high levels of occupational stress that has bad effects on their marriages and lives.
The story also works as a metaphor for America’s history with prisons. Early institutions, called Reformatories and Penitentiaries to herald their mission, were bold experiments in rehabilitation and some of the largest physical structures in the New World. Visitors from Europe spent weeks on tiny boats to come to study American prisons, and Alexis de Toqueville’s original interest was prison even if he is known, perhaps ironically, for
Democracy in America. Now, rehabilitation is dead, and criminologists describe prisons as violent warehouses that are an inspirational model for no one. Johnson notes that Chuck “is an aging idealist whose dreams have gone sour, souring his life in the process.” While many Americans do not see the negative effects of our ‘incarceration nation,’ the monetary and human cost represent enormous lost opportunity; everyone else in the world sees the irony of the self-proclaimed leader in human rights also having the highest incarceration rate and (until March of 2005) a willingness to execute juveniles to boot.
But even if prisons are souring life here in the U.S. and our reputation in the world, no one listens to a moralizer, so let’s quickly turn to something funny…
Support for the death penalty in the U.S. is so widespread that even Barbie can get involved with executions, in addition to her least-common-denominator support for world peace and the environment. That a non-biodegradable plastic doll can be an environmentalist highlights the opening quote by Postman about the difficulty of satire. But her comment about Ken’s affair with Pamela Anderson seems more believable: “She’s plastic. What do you see in her?” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as the affair takes a tragic twist, the jury finds Ken cold and shallow, condemns him to death and Barbie joins the execution team:
“There’s no work like death work,” she was heard to say, proud that she’d passed her “termination examination” with flying, coordinated colors. “I even let them strap me in,” she said with a giggle, referring to the rehearsal drills, featuring members of the team as stand-ins (or lay-ins) for the condemned. It made sense to practice on Barbie, since she and Ken are pretty much the same size. “We like to keep things realistic,” said the chief executioner, “so we’re ready for anything. We hadn’t worked with little people before”
While written with great humor, Johnson exposes a deeply problematic aspect of executions that few consider. It’s not just an executioner but a whole team, its members carefully chosen not to be sadistic or take glee in the execution lest their behavior set off a desperate condemned man who literally has nothing left to lose. (There’s a little less concern with the effeminate and ‘Republican-tame’ Ken.) The team, composed of people with mixed feelings about capital punishment, practices to ensure professionalism in the technical aspects of executions – dynamics Johnson compellingly describes in his book
Work. They also take turns practicing on each other, with final runs done with the person who has the closest physical resemblance to the condemned. The real teams, while feeling like family, do not have a smiling Barbie in their pockets at the end of the process, and instead are left with bad dreams and worse memories. Barbie’s team reflect on the lesson “be careful where you play house or you’ll end up in the death house” and many involved in actual executions have renewed appreciation for the saying “there but for the grace of God go I.”
If Barbie is an unusual vehicle to explore the misadventures of our justice system, so is children’s television host Mr. Rogers. Part of the humor is from the juxtaposition of trying to do a G rated show from a violent prison warehouse, where talk is about shanks (homemade knives), sex, and rape – and coarse language is an honest expression of the harsh reality. A succession of guests allows Johnson to raise a number of issues and create sketches of prisons denizens like King Con[vict]:
Sure, I understand, but no one understands me.
I’m no monster, just a guy yearning to be free
A bully with a battered heart
A predator kept apart
A man yearning simply to Be.
Having engaged the humanity of the criminal, Johnson does not stereotype King Con’s natural enemy, the Warden: “Warden Frank Gordon, no relation to Flash, is just a down-to-earth guy, graying, decaying, along with his charges. He exiled himself to the prison service early on, not quite sure why, but now quite sure he wanted better from life than a life in prison.”
The final guest is Ranger Granger who talks about catch and release fishing, an odd topic perhaps, but one thoroughly engaging to inmates: “Many of them feel they were fished out the ghetto, hooked by chance” after taking stuff dangled in front of them (in stores and TV), like juicy bait on a shiny hook. By the standards of fishing, the U.S. criminal justice system seems unsportsman-like in catching and imprisoning two million people, almost all
poor and mostly disadvantaged minorities. The bountiful ”catch” in the U.S. gives us the highest incarceration rate in the world, at a cost of $25,000 per inmate a year, for miserable places the public sees as plush county clubs; all those involved in the ”catch,” inmates, guards and warden all ”grey and decay” eventually, and few come out any better. This juggernaut continues to expand, even if its growth requires cuts in state budget expenditures for education and crime prevention (apparently the small fish represent a greater threat to a free and civilized society than widespread ignorance). To avoid being ignored as a moralizer, let me just say
briefly that this is the height of folly. [Those interested in the longer
version of the critique can check out my essay, Mopping
the Floor While the Tub Overflows]
Of course an examination of folly would not be complete without including the media, which (frighteningly) is the source of ‘information’ for large numbers of citizens and shapes their thinking about the ‘reality’ of crime and punishment. Wheel of Torture is a satirical look at how coverage of crime demands personal responsibility while denying fundamental aspects of social context that shape the behavior. The game show host and his assistant, Veri White, run through the case of a minority woman whose children burned to death because of a fire set by an arsonist while she was at one of her two jobs. Economic coercion is downplayed as the host emphasizes her (poor) choices (to live in a high crime neighborhood) given the prosperity in America. Veri’s cleavage serves “as a segway to commercials on The Good Life in Modern America.”
Johnson notes that the play is based on actual cases, with names changed to protect the victims of the justice system. Once again, Johnson finds humor in a difficult and tragic situation, this time with a deft critique of media not found in the other notable example of punishment game shows, Schwarzenegger’s movie
Man. Indeed, Wheel of Torture illustrates the point made by a writer who worked for a show like COPS editing raw footage into a final segment, guided by a note on the bulletin board to look for: “DEATH, STAB, SHOOT,” etc. (See Postman’s comment about the difficulty of satire.) The article pointedly comments on what’s too ‘real’ for ‘reality’ television and gets left on the cutting room floor: a cop closing an interrogation with the comment, “that’s the first white guy I’ve felt like beating the fucking shit out of” and arrested prostitutes commenting that they needed extra money because the dead beat dad didn’t pay the child support.
Just as such comments make one think about social justice and need to be edited out for the sake of entertainment, the host of Wheel of Torture whips the audience into a righteous frenzy through a narration that downplays annoying bits of reality that interfere with the audience’s delight in shouting: “Slutty whore, Slutty whore/ She chose to be poor/ Show her the prison door.” The article by the video editor (reprinted in my
Criminal Justice Ethics book) notes:
By the time our 9 million viewers flip on their tubes, we’ve reduced fifty or sixty hours of mundane and compromising video into short, action-packed segments of tantalizing, crack-filled, dope-dealing, junkie-busting cop culture. How easily we downplay the pathos of the suspect; how cleverly we breeze past the complexities that cast doubt on the very system that has produced the criminal activity in the first place. How effortlessly we smooth out the indiscretions of the lumpen detectives and casually make them appear as pistol-flailing heroes rushing across the screen.
In both the real ‘reality’ television shows and Johnson’s Wheel of Torture, the media protect us from complexity and thought, while pandering to our preexisting beliefs about Good, Evil and the American Dream.
Brave New Prison also examines the media, especially the Punishment-Entertainment Complex in the outsourced world following the Year of the Younger Bush. Saint Burnout tracks the decline to prison to its current problematic state, and Brave New Prison parodies its future. America starts closing schools and opening kiddy prisons (‘Cells R Us’), which is less of a concern to the rich here in the country than to the international community. The key to the new and improved prison, called a Fun Time Facility, was reverse psychology: TV is not a privilege but becomes omnipresent in prison, along with PlayStation. “It was an easy move from a prison that trafficked in television addiction to a prison the offered meds on demand,” including Levitra.
At the close of the story, rising inequality and a prison crisis are resolved through “prisons that offer a life of pointless pleasure, going nowhere. Fun, fun, and more fun. Very American, really.” One wonders if de Toqueville and others would be attracted to this new experiment with prison, although Huxley would no doubt be proud at the tribute to his Brave New World. While Orwell was concerned about the censorship of truth, Postman notes that Huxley’s vision was one where “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” As such, Brave New Prison is not (just) a parody of the public’s irrational and wrong concern about the comforts of prison. Fun Time Facility has no library where a future Malcolm X could be educated and become a leader; where knowledge is power, the emphasis – captured in the title of Postman’s book – is on
Amusing Ourselves to
Having read Justice Follies and learning a little about the targets of its satire, the sailor may well be convinced that this civilized society is indeed on the brink of knavery. While he may flee civilization for his real home, many who are residents and taxpayers may wonder, So what now? Has the satirist failed us by not providing a detailed map to Virtue?
Harris reminds us that “satire is inescapably moral and didactic (in the best sense of that unfortunately slandered word) even when no definite, positive values are stated in the work as alternatives to the gross corruptions depicted by the attack. The satirist does not need to state specific moral alternatives to replace the villainy he attacks because the morality is either already present in the lip service his target pays to virtue, or it is apparent by implication.” It is indeed enough to have brought the folly to light, to have added to the public recognition of it. Those who have been awakened can think about the next steps and build on the implicit morality that the path away from knavery, disaster and ruin is almost anything other than what we are doing now.
NOTES – for the compulsive, academic, and those with both interest and time on their hands:
1. The quote from Harris is from “The Purpose and Method of Satire” available (and recommended) at
. The quote from Postman is taken from the introduction to his essay “The Naming of Missiles” in his book
Contentious Objections: Stirring Up Trouble About Language, Technology &
2. Some samples and more information about Poetic Justice is available on my website,
StopViolence.com, in the Sept 11 section. Specifically,
the poems are Village
Takes A Child, Nine
One One, Living
Free Is The Best Revenge. All of the poems link to each other and an
acrobat.pdf file that contains additional samples from the book.
3. St. Burnout mentions the term ‘newjack,’ which is also the title of a book by a journalist who spent a year as a guard. The book gives great insight into the world of prison and the decay of dreams; there is a
thoughtful excerpt Conover did for the New Yorker that’s available from his website, Ted Conover.com.
4. Death House Barbie makes a mention of A.M.
Holmes; readers who don’t get it should check out her story in the pink-paged Mondo
Barbie. (Those who like it might consider the more twisted and better written Holmes’ book
The End of
5. There's an interesting review of Running Man at a
Maoist website. It does a good job of highlighting the apolitical nature of
the movie, in which Arnold is a hero for going against the orders of a
repressive government. For example:
The movie itself does not pay much attention to the revolutionaries' ideas. The viewer gets the impression that they are resisting the "police state" and the ICS network, that they defend the food rioters whom the Butcher of Bakersfield allegedly killed, and that they have complaints about restricted consumption choices (Mic's banned music, the network's broadcasting reality TV shows 24 hours a day, seven days a week), but that's it. "The Running Man" never shows Ben advancing beyond the idea that unarmed food rioters should not be killed--to the idea that the conditions that create subsistence food shortages in the first place should be eliminated. "The Running Man" never even shows the revolutionaries as having this idea.
The review also critiques ideas like false
consciousness, but at the end has a 'Buy This DVD at Amazon' link. The coding
indicates the Maoist site is an affiliate of Amazon and thus makes money off
each purchase through the site. Re-read Postman's comment about the difficulty
of writing satire....
6. For a thoughtful and readable critique of the incarceration binge and an examination of realistic crime prevention strategies, see Elliott Currie’s
Crime and Punishment in
America. Another good starting point would be What Every American Should Know About Criminal Justice on my website StopViolence.com.
Robert Johnson's most recent work is Sunset
Sonata (2009), available from Brandy
Lane Publishers and Amazon.com.
Subsequent to Justice Follies,
Robert Johnson has written Burnt
Offerings, available from Bleakhouse
Publishing, which is a small, independent press devoted to creative
writing in the service of social justice. Their goal is to publish works that
shed a humane light on the nether world of penal institutions, as well as
other repressive settings, practices and beliefs. Existential themes—such as
suffering and loss, atonement and redemption—are central to works published