‘What we have here is a failure to communicate’


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.

As other editorials in this newspaper have succinctly pointed out, the Mississippi prison system is dysfunctional and broken.

I would also add to this list of approbations what sounds like the catalogue of an impending apocalypse: overcrowded conditions, lack of supervision, domination by gangs, rampant corruption, lack of adequate medical care, outdated facilities, unexplained deaths and escapes, innate danger for prisoners and guards alike, and essentially a lack of control.

We don’t need Alexander Solzhenitsyn to tell us that we have a “Mississippi Gulag Archipelago.”

There’s got to be a Pulitzer Prize in there for somebody.

While the visceral, oldschool part of me says, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” the more lucid, informed part realizes that the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” attitude should have died with the Code of Hammurabi back about 1754 B.C., a “stele” (fingertip) carving of which is in the Louvre in Paris.

It’s not all “Eisen und blut” (iron and blood), Chancellor Bismarck of Germany said back in the late 19th century.

We must have compassion. Not all prisoners are natural born killers, bandidos, and bandoleros.

Incidentally, Bismarck is the guy who came up with the concept of Social Security adapted by Roosevelt’s New Deal.

No, modern penology, or the study of the punishment of crime and prison management, emphasizes rehabilitation, deterrence, incapacitation, and retribution, in that order.

Unfortunately, experts and the literature will tell you that’s not happening.

If you go to prison in the United States, not only in Mississippi, there’s a better than average chance that you will come out a more accomplished criminal than a rehabilitated citizen.

In fact, in 2018, the recidivism rate for released prisoners was around 76%; that is to say, within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested and returned to prison.

I do a good bit of public speaking, and one of the “warm up” jokes that I often tell is about a preacher who goes to Parchman and addresses a group of prisoners.

He begins:

“My fellow citizens,” but stops as he realizes that, in Mississippi, you lose your right to vote and essentially your citizenship if you commit certain crimes.

Starting over, he blurts out, “My fellow convicts!” Well, he thinks, that doesn’t sound too good, either.

After all, he’s the preacher, not a convict. Finally, he just announces, “I’m so proud to see all of you here!”

It’s a rhetorical stretch, but my point is that we all have a stake in solving the prison problem in Mississippi.

I believe the governor is making an earnest effort: closing the infamous Unit 29, recognizing the need for additional staff and improved pay, reopening one of the closed “private” prisons, etc., but it troubles me that his budget for 2020, the one he put together as Lieutenant Governor,  contains no new money for prisons.

Two disclaimers:

1). I have never been in prison; however, I had a high school teacher who would have sent me there if she could have figured out how. Funny thing. That’s where her son ended up. There you go.

On the other hand, I did serve a term as the chaplain of the Naval prison in Long Beach, California, toward the end of my military career, so I do have some insider knowledge.

2). I am much more familiar with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) than I am with the civilian justice system.

There are some major differences: a civilian has rights; he must be told these rights; cannot be taken into custody without probable cause; can probably post bail; and is innocent until proven guilty.

A military member, on the other hand, with some exceptions for the Air Force, is considered guilty until proven innocent; has no right to silence or to an attorney not provided by the military; no search warrant is needed if a crime is suspected; and even if found innocent, can still be charged with “conduct unbecoming.”

I’m not even sure the 5th Amendment’s Due Process Clause  applies.

When you live under the UCMJ as I did for 36 years, you begin realizing that we all live under the law and that it’s better to “toe the line;” otherwise, there’re consequences.

There’s a constitutional principle found in English common law that states: “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.”

In international law, it is known as the “Lotus Principle,” based on the 1926 shipwreck of the S. S. Lotus.

In his novel, “The Once and Future King,” T. H. White reworded the law in a way that sounds familiar to anyone who served in the military: “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.”

My first encounter with this unique code of justice was when a friend of mine got 15 days in the ship’s brig on bread and water for fighting.

They call shipboard jails “brigs” because of the Navy’s historical use of twin-masted sailing ships – or brigs – as prison ships. 

It’s a wonder I didn’t end up in that brig myself because I felt sorry for the kid and dropped candy bars to him down through the ventilation ducts in the overhead of the cell.

He was already real skinny, and I was afraid he would get sick.

There’s a small, overlooked monument on the old Navy Yard in Brooklyn, New York, that commemorates the thousands of American prisoners who died on British prison ships, or “hulks,” as they were referred to, during the Revolutionary War.

Even today, human bones occasionally wash up from wrecks of the hulks that were anchored in the bay off the yard.

The 40 terrorists currently being tried at our naval base in Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba, including the self-confessed master mind of the 9/11 attacks, are being tried by military tribunal, a modified version of the UCMJ.

I think Gitmo is getting a bad rap as a “concentration camp,” especially in Europe.

I was there before Castro closed the gate to the city and remember it as a pretty good Caribbean liberty town.

I can remember buying bananas right off the “bum” boats and eating them on the pier.

For your information, there’s nothing derogatory about the term “bum” boat. You find them in ports all over the world.

They are simply small-scale entrepreneurs who load their wares on little boats and sell them to sailors, merchant seamen, cruise ship passengers, etc.

I once bought a suit from a tailor on a bum boat in Hong Kong. My wife said the material was too “shiny.”

I was also passing through Gitmo in 1964 when Castro shut off the base water supply, forcing us to bring in massive desalinization equipment which, I suppose, is still in use.

The cognoscente (those “in the know”) can tell you that, its own way, a ship is somewhat like a prison. You are definitely confined and can’t go anywhere once it gets underway.

Samuel Johnson said that “A ship is like a prison with the possibility of drowning.”

The most I was ever underway without touching land was 276 days, which is nowhere near the record, held by some aircraft carriers. 

That’s the bad thing about being on a nuclear-powered ship – they only have to go into port to refuel about every 10 years.

I know our prisons and justice system have their problems, but when you travel around, you quickly see that we are not the only ones.

Try getting in jail in some parts of Mexico, where you have to provide your own food, medical care, and security. 

We left a kid I knew in a Turkish jail because he, drunk, lowered a Turkish flag and raised it back up, upside down – a big no-no in Turkey.

I still have a box of business cards, in Japanese, printed by American sailors who got crossed up with the Japanese justice system in Yokosuka, Japan.

The Status of Forces Agreement couldn’t get them out for criminal offenses against Japanese civilians. Japan is one of those countries where you are presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, as the former head of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, recently found out.

This week, as I was thinking about this issue, I gave my community college English Composition class an assignment to write an essay on “How Would I Reform the Mississippi Prison System.”

I was interested in what Generation Z would have to say, and I got a list of the usual suspects as responses: reduce sentences for non-violent crimes; stamp out corruption; separate inmates according to the severity of their crimes; implement training opportunities to reduce recidivism; pay guards more, etc. 

I was also moved by how many of the 28 or so students put a personal face on the issue.

When you think about it, most of us know someone, have known someone, or will know someone who spends time in prison.

So, what’s the answer to the prison problem in Mississippi?

Throw more money at the fences?

Unionize the guards?

Legalize recreational drugs?

Suspend the so-called “truth in sentencing” laws;

Dress all prisoners in pink like that sheriff in Arizona?

More Johnny Cash concerts?

Beats me.

It’s going to take someone smarter than I am to figure it out.

But I know this: when some white collar bozo can steal a gazillion dollars of public or private money and only get a year or two at some federal “Club Med,” and ole Billy Bag O’Doughnuts gets 10 years, day for day, for getting caught with a baggie full of marijuana, something has to change.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via email at: villefranche60@yahoo.com and read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com