A growing number of sociologists say that imprisoned men are hardly half of our man problem. Many men outside of prison leading supposedly normal lives have some troublesome issues as well. More on them momentarily.
Several years ago I began teaching English in a Georgia state prison. Every class I have taught has had 28 inmates, all of whom were there for either murder or armed robbery. Nothing I have ever undertaken has been as interesting as prison teaching.
When you think of prisons, think sociology, psychology, religion, family values, government and interpersonal relationships, and you will begin — but only begin — to understand the social intricacies of prison life.
My own journey to prison doors and to recognition of our man problem began early in life. Seeing prisoners in striped pants laboring beside the highway gripped my heart and set me to thinking. Don’t get me wrong. I was not and am not a softie on crime. After several years of working closely with inmates and making lasting friendships, I still believe in capital punishment. It has not required a balancing act to be “tough on crime” and still care about the criminals amongst whom I have been working.
Because I couldn’t get the image of roadside prisoners off my mind, and because of the biblical injunction, “I was in prison and you visited me not,” I carried into adulthood a nagging thought about visiting those in jail. To assuage the nagging, I attempted to visit a college professor acquaintance when she was in the county jail, only to learn that she had been released. Later I attempted to visit a neighbor who was jailed, but was not allowed to see him.
The tugging never left, so when I was approached to teach in prison, I quickly agreed to it. My education in our man problem intensified.
It’s the first day of class. There is no guard, and the door is closed. The inmates seem more nervous than I am. They’re not afraid of me; they’re afraid of English. I’m not afraid of them; I’m afraid of failure. It takes fewer than 15 minutes, however, for teacher and inmates to start building genuine friendships.
What brought the inmates to prison was crime. The question is what brought them to crime. Teachers are not to pry into inmates’ lives, but voluntary testimony after testimony at break time indicated that absent fathers were the chief cause of unchecked, youthful waywardness. Need of “feeling like a man” was often the impetus for the first break-in, the first drug deal gone bad, or the first gang-related activity. Analyze and research all we wish, the preponderance of testimony I gleaned can be reduced to two words: no dads.
Americans are a bit familiar with prison dynamics and the fact that America leads the world in the percentage of incarcerations. What we seldom think of is what men outside of prison are thinking and doing.
Studies of men from ages 19-34 reveal that large numbers of them are on strike. In fact, “Men on Strike” is the title of a recent book by psychologist Helen Smith. She decries how young men are being affected by such male duds on television as Bart Simpson, Raymond from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Al Bundy from “Married With Children,” and other husbands and fathers portrayed as absolute idiots.
In defense of men, Smith writes, “Men are discriminated against, forced into hostile environments in college, and held in contempt by society. Maybe there is no incentive to grow up any more.”
Another female defender of men, Christine Summers in “War Against Boys,” claims it’s a bad time to be a boy in America. Like Smith, she laments the loss of “male space” and the fact that men are not among men at their workplace anymore and are criticized if they try to form an all-male group for male fellowship.
One could argue that even if Smith and Hoffman are right, 19 to 34-year-old men should still “man up,” cease boycotting marriage and fatherhood, and just be a man. That’s easy to say to a generation raised on inane, insipid television and educated at universities where it is more and more dangerous to be male.
With so many men in prison, we best figure out some way to teach manliness to those outside prison who are wallowing in trepidation. Society needs more than a few good men.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.