Alternative Law Journal
by Jimmy Lerner; Broadway Books, 2001; 394 pp; US$24.95 hardcover.
The idea of the prison is to most members of the community a foreign one. Our understanding of that world is shaped predominately, in the absence of personal experience, from cultural and tabloid representations. Due to the 'other world' status of the prison, our knowledge of its operation is limited. Indeed, criminologists have often bemoaned their inability to set up an 'anthropologist's hut' on a prison landing to explore the nature of the prison subculture. In this context, the genre of prison memoirs is crucial. American prisoner Jimmy Lerner's work You Got Nothin' Coming: Notes from a Prison Fish is an intriguing example of that genre. He has created a vision of the prison world that is startling and perspicuous in its understanding. Lerner's description of prison life with its excessive masculinity, profanity and distinctive argot is represented in meticulous detail. What also emerges is the author's transformation as he adapts, as a means of survival, to the norms and values of the prison order.
Lerner is not typical of your average American (or Australian) prisoner. He comes to prison at the age of 47 for the offence of voluntary manslaughter; an offence the circumstances of which are described in painful detail. He is white, educated and a 'fish' (first time convict). Moreover, he comes from distinct strata of American society. That class could perhaps be described as 'middle America', and the author notes ironically that, prior to his incarceration, his life was exactly like that: wife, two children, two cars and employment as a middle tier executive with a telecommunications company. Of greater irony, perhaps, is that it is that section of American society which has clamoured, under the spell of law and order rhetoric, for harsher, lengthy punishment of offenders that has led to the United States imprisoning more than 2 million of its citizens.
Lerner's critique of the prison environment is not as explicit as that, although he does note the chronic over crowding, fractured race relations and the lack of any credible programs for the rehabilitation of prisoners. At its core, the work is more an attempt by a person to make sense of an extreme environment where normal relations based on reciprocity and the provision of rights and allocation of responsibilities, as exist in civil society, are not translated to the prison environment where, as a convict, 'you got nothing coming'. It is with these descriptions of prison life as a type of Hobbseian perpetual war that Lerner is at his strongest and his description of the vulnerability of a young inmate to sexual assault is truly haunting.
The dramatic nature of Lerner's transformation from middle class citizen to a convict 'fish' is engagingly portrayed. The book is divided into three distinct parts titled the 'Abyss','Inferno' and the 'Fall'. The choice of words, whose evocative style is almost religious in nature, typifies the description of the subjective, emotional world of the author as he undergoes his punishment. That descent, with its fear and loathing, into the prison, or what another American prisoner, Jack Abbott, has described as the 'belly of the beast', is narrated in intimate detail. The stages of humiliation that are endemic to the process of imprisonment are rendered graphic. Moreover Lerner makes problematic some of those protocols (for instance, the strip search) which seem designed more to subjugate the prisoner and confirm his or her 'convict' status, rather than for the purpose of security and good order of the prison.
The processes of the prison have a profound impact on the author. Early in the book, in somewhat condescending and patronising terms, Lerner appears to mock African-American culture and is keen to attach the label of 'white trash' to other prisoners. He also decries what he perceives to be the most singular malaise afflicting prisoners: the failure to take responsibility for one's actions. However, in order to survive, Lerner is aware that such condescension is a recipe for doing 'hard time' and that the middle class values he has brought to the prison may need to be jettisoned. Thus he gradually becomes immersed in the prison sub culture with its subterranean mores and values, with perhaps the most symbolic example of his immersion in the prison world being his adoption of the phraseology of his fellow convicts and a commitment to some of the values that they adhere to.
Ultimately Lerner's portrayal of American prison life is sympathetic and engaging. Importantly, and this perhaps was not intended by the author, through the strength of the character development of the prisoners and a thoroughly detailed description of their life, prisons and prisoners are made to seem a little less foreign. This is perhaps the book's most distinctive, and possibly unintended, feature. It may perhaps even encourage policy makers and the general community to consider whether prison and its increasing use, both in the United States and Australia, is the most appropriate means of dealing with criminal behaviour.
Richard Edney is a Melbourne criminal lawyer.