Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane

by Etheridge Knight

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What is the relationship between crime and punishment in “Hard Rock Returns to Prison”?

In this poem, crime and punishment are both intimately connected to the power dynamics between Black and white Americans. Hard Rock's crimes are not described, but he offers hope to his community because he is a "doer." In response, his punishment is extreme: he is tamed and "gelded" like a stallion. The point of the punishment is to strip Hard Rock of the ability to commit the crime of holding power.

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The relationship between crime and punishment as presented in this poem is an exploration of the power dynamic between Black and white Americans, as examined through a criminal justice system which privileges white people and seeks to curtail the power of Black Americans.

The opening paragraph indicates that Hard Rock, in his time of criminality, was a man "known not to take no shit," in that he resisted authority, and the result of that resistance had been "scars." We never know what actual crimes Hard Rock committed before he was sent to prison. What we do know is that there is an equivalency drawn between these "scars" in the first stanza and the "deep bloody grooves" cut by the "whip" of fear across those in Hard Rock's community, as described in the last stanza. Hard Rock's crime, in some ways, was simply to be a "Destroyer" who offered hope to his community. He did things others "dreamed of doing," and this rebellion against the accepted power dynamic results in his being punished until his eyes are "empty" and he can barely say his own name.

The punishments inflicted by the doctors on Hard Rock are certainly all described in terms of power, and "taming" Hard Rock as if he were an animal. Like a stallion, he has been "gelded" and part of his brain removed. Those at home want to believe that Hard Rock enacted punishments of his own on the prison guards, biting the screws when they tried to put him in "the Hole," solitary confinement. However, when they see him doing nothing in reaction to those who come to test whether he is "really tame," they are forced to realize that he has been "crushed." He has been mentally incapacitated as a punishment for the crime of being powerful.

The relationship between crime and punishment in this poem, then, is very much intertwined with the relationship between Black and white Americans and with who is allowed to hold any power.

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