Linking Lyrics (2): Prison Reform in Mr Bonjangles’ Shoes

The second song in this series is Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr Bojangles. Follow this link for the Lyrics and this link for the original version. For some background information on this project please check out the introduction. Please do get in touch if you have comments or want to contribute/make song requests!

As I write the second instalment of this series, the dust is settling in the morning after the UK General Election. I do not think that it is necessary for me to speculate on what has happened yet as my coffee is brewing in a state of a Hung Parliament. Instead I want to touch on a long-standing social topic that has been completely side-lined in the campaigning: Prison Reform.

Talking to a good friend last week, as we tried to discuss serious matters, the two of us inevitably digressed towards the topic of music. He described how a lazy day in Brussels had been made ‘traumatic’ by the staggering beauty of Nina Simone’s version of My Bojangles. I couldn’t let a comment like this slide without refamiliarising myself with a song so popular not only with the listening public but also within the music industry itself. On top of Nina’s incredible rendition, it has been covered by a whole host of other artists including Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jnr, Todd Snider, Neil Diamond and Robbie Williams; the sign of a very good song.

The song itself tells of an ageing dancer — Mr Bojangles — who meets our narrator in the holding cells of a county jail in New Orleans. The writer, Jerry Jeff Walker, was inspired to write this song after he met a dancer in jail who refused to give the police his real name. The lyrics have a poetic simplicity that concisely describe the engaging manner and positive attitude of Mr Bojangles while also subtly alluding to formative experiences through snapshots of his life. It opens with:

I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you

In worn out shoes

Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants

The old soft shoe

A clear picture is painted straight away: the worn-out shoes, ragged shirt and baggy pants describe a man who is poor, old and struggling. I am particularly moved by the phrase And he danced for you; a clever (or perhaps coincidental for rhyming purposes!) use of language that hints at a life of service by Mr Bojangles. He dances for others, under patronage and seems to have been ground down to the bottom of society despite his obvious talent that is described through the lyrics:

He jumped so high

He jumped so high

Then he’d lightly touch down

And so, Mr Bojangles finds himself in a New Orleans jail. His former life spent performing at Minstrel Shows — with all the racial baggage and social exploitation it carries — has not provided any security in later life. It is said that the original Mr Bojangles was himself white, but regardless of whether or not this is the case, I see the racially aggravated paternalism persistent in the tradition of Minstrel shows being mirrored in the repeating lyrics which command Mr Bojangles to dance:

Mr Bojangles

Mr Bojangles

Mr Bojangles…

…Dance

A lack of social stability and security has taken its toll on Mr Bojangles. The dancer admits he likes to drink and is forced to spend his time dancing for small change and alcohol in bars. His drinking has led to him spending a disproportionate time behind bars for, what would seem by the tone of the song, petty crimes.

And this brings us to an ongoing issue which this song, written in 1968, continues to highlight in the world today, that of outdated, petty and vindictive legal systems that disproportionately focus on the most vulnerable in society. The prison system here in the UK has come under a huge amount of criticism for its exacerbation of the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon: the reoffending rate of UK adults released from custody was 44% in 2014–2015. This means that 44% of adults released from custody are committing (and crucially being caught committing) another offence within just 12 months of release for which they receive a caution, warning, reprimand or court conviction. A staggering number if we also take into consideration what the true number would be if it was possible to record all crime. The downward spiral of reoffending seems steep with a study in 2012 showing that 46% of adult criminals convicted in 2011 had at least 15 previous convictions.

Elsewhere in the world, the picture follows a similar vein. The USA — where Mr Bojangles found himself repeatedly incarcerated — has similar reoffending trends and imprisons nearly 1% of its population. And many argue that rather than making the country more secure by segregating those seen as a ‘risk’ to wider society, such a high rate is actually making the United States less safe. Penal systems currently seem bloated, ineffective and an unnecessarily large expense for wider society.

The fact of the matter is that this is a symptom of our traditional incarceration systems failing to meet the needs of the incarcerated. There are increased rates of the mentally ill (which make up nearly half of inmates in the USA) and those with substance addictions being held in prison for extended periods. In the UK, a study in 2010 found that 29% of inmates considered themselves to have a drug problem with a further 6% saying that they actually went on to develop a problem while in prison. There have been numerous reports in the news over the past year of the worrying safety and security in prison with inmates reportedly seizing some levels of power within the prisons themselves and others finding innovative ways to smuggle contraband into jail such as through the use of drones. With high numbers of those considering themselves to be at danger — both of physical harm and of exposure to lifestyles that are not conducive to stable lives upon release — being concentrated and confined together, can we expect our current systems to alleviate the issue of repeat offenders?

So, like Mr Bojangles, many offenders find themselves personally and socioeconomically insecure upon release. Some issues that led to them being incarcerated in the first place, such as drink and drug problems, are not only overlooked by our prison systems, but might actually be encouraged by them.

Outside of the prisons, the social climate vis-à-vis criminality is not much brighter in the UK. From the outside looking in, the public tends to view inmates harshly. And this is reflected politically: against the view of the European Court of Human Rights, we refuse to grant votes to our inmates, regardless of the crime committed or length of term they are expected to serve; and despite the myriad ethical, legal and even economic arguments against it, the death penalty still has remnants of supporters. This harsh outlook towards our prisoners bleeds over into more practical policy decisions that could improve the situation, particularly for reoffenders. One such example is the Release on Temporary License (ROTL) scheme which looks to give low-risk prisoners leave to pursue jobs within the community. It seems that businesses are quite open to such schemes but the lack of enthusiasm or impetus from wider society has influenced the slow uptake of schemes by the government.

So what can be done to improve the situation in prisons around the world? Looking again at the UK and the USA as our examples, there are some who promote ways to completely do away with prisons all together. Although this is a noble and desirable long-term goal, it is much more likely to be successful if broken down into manageable stages of reform. The reduction in numbers of inmates serving custodial sentences has been an aim of the government for a while, but due to public pressures it probably is not moving as quickly as it could. Repeat offenders, for example, tend to be seen as higher risk inmates regardless of the crimes they commit. Reassigning more of these offenders to programs within the community could be one such reform. Serving one’s sentence while being more involved in the community is proven to be more successful than incarceration as it builds links between the convicted and the community, rather than breaking them down through isolation. or to Restorative Justice is another move which has shown particular promise; the convicted criminal works directly with the victim of the crime in order to pay their dues to society which repairing and strengthening bonds with their local community. Such tactics are argued to provide the offender with greater trust in local and national support structures and thus remove a key component of the pattern of reoffending. Restorative Justice schemes currently work on an 85% satisfaction rate (judged by both offender and victim) and a 14% reduction in reoffences. Through further mainstreaming, investment and willingness to broaden the scope for which offenders are appropriate for the RJ schemes, these numbers have much prospect for improvement.

The scope for Prison Reform is huge and the topic itself is fascinating. Some great places to find out in-depth views and insight are the Restorative Justice Council and the Prison Reform Trust. I wish I had the time, energy and personal insight to go into this topic in more depth; it is certainly an important social and ethical issue that requires increased engagement from everyone both inside and outside of politics.

One final aside I would like to mention is the link between criminal offenders and the creative industry. Like Mr Bojangles, prisons tend to be a hot bed of creativity in terms of music and other arts. The woes of prison have long held romantic inspiration for artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker and Johnny Cash and there are many projects around the world looking to engage with this untapped talent within prisons as a way to build confidence and direction for offenders. One such project is the #UnlockGenius campaign set up by Cut50 which is well worth checking out. The rehumanising of offenders is a crucial aspect of the criminal rehabilitation process and one that appears briefly at the end of Mr Bojangles. The dancer is held at a distance by the other prisoners and subtly ‘othered’ by lyrics in the early verses. Only after has opened up about and his past, his troubles and his friendship with his deceased dog does the structure of subordination implied throughout the song break down. A fellow prisoner finally asks him, Please, to dance, rather than demanding it as others have done of Mr Bojangles all his life.

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