The Psychology of Men Behind Bars
Incarceration can have profound effects on the psychological nature of any individual. There have been many critiques to the prison system based on how they affect prisoners psychologically. This essay will focus on Etheridge Knight’s poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital of the Criminally Insane” and Oscar Wilde’s poem “Ballad of Reading Gaol”. This essay will argue that prisons are detrimental to the well being of their prisoners, because they psychologically condemn the inmates as much as they physically condemn them. To demonstrate this, this essay will consider the depictions of each speaker’s experience with the prison system and how they were affected psychologically. For “Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital of the Criminally Insane”, the essay will discuss how Hard Rock’s change in personality had a psychologically devastating impact on his fellow inmates. For “Ballad of Reading Gaol”, the essay will discuss how Oscar Wilde’s intense experiences in jail cause him to feel strong emotions about the unjustness of his situation, and the prison system as an entity. Then, the works will be compared based on the state of mind of both prisoners. Finally, the dynamic of the genre of “prison poetry” will be elaborated upon, to demonstrate a further understanding as to why authors are justified in expressing their emotions in the way that they do.
In Etheridge Knight’s poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison From the Hospital of the Criminally Insane”, it is evident that the prison, which Knight is an inmate of, is a psychologically detrimental environment. The poem begins with a description of the character, Hard Rock, who becomes a symbol of psychological condemnation throughout the poem. He is described as a black man who was “Known not to take no shit from nobody” (Knight, 1), and who had scars to prove his experience in defending this title. He is described as an inspirational figure to the inmates of the prison. He is their hero. He is their maverick. He is “the cloak of their exploits” (Knight, 1). The prisoners enthusiastically recollect one time when Hard Rock revolted against the guards, describing an instance when he “Smacked the captain with his dinner tray” and received an inordinate amount of time in solitary confinement as punishment. Hard Rock stands for what the prisoners are too afraid to express. He is not afraid of what the guards will do to him if he acts out against what they stand for. His constant acts of rebellion serve as psychological comfort to the rest of the prisoners. After watching Hard Rock display acts of rebellion, the prisoners become overexposed to the harsh repercussions of his actions. As a result, they become desensitized to the attempts of the guards to suppress their emotions. This leads to an increase in hopefulness and confidence that they too can one day build up enough courage to be like Hard Rock and act out against the institution. After watching Hard Rock, the prisoners begin to see the guards as less of a threat. Hard Rock continues to be rebellious, however, the institution does not break his spirit. As a result, the rest of the inmates feel a sense of empowerment. They feel that if the institution cannot destroy the spirit of Hard Rock, then their spirit cannot be destroyed.
The inmates have strong feelings of anger and hostility towards the institution and have a natural inclination to rebel against what they feel to be unjust. However, they are too afraid because of the strict, harsh and brutal environment that is induced by the guards, who represent the institution. The following excerpt describes the inmates after they realize that Hard Rock’s spirit had been killed: “We told ourselves that he had just wised up, Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long, And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed. He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things...
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