Don’t Step On My Blue Suede Institutions

In prison, the convict term for what we in the free world call a model prisoner is–‘institutionalized.’ In other words, an inmate who follows all the rules and gets with all the programs and toes every line and derives a certain comfort from having every detail of his existence managed for him, was said to be institutionalized. Real convicts didn’t consider themselves institutionalized because in their minds they still maintained enough personal integrity and autonomy to be capable of breaking the rules.

Of course this was a fine distinction since everyone who exists and functions within any institution, be it a prison or a school or a company or corporation, a religion or our government is by definition institutionalized.

Being institutionalized means that you accept the norms and behaviors of the institution and are satisfied to live accordingly, breathing the particular air mixture provided by the institution and drinking the purple beverage. When you eat the king’s feast, you dance the king’s dance. You become a creature of the institution. Many times you become attached to an institution for purposes of survival. Marriage comes to mind. It is easy to convince yourself that you owe your very existence and identity to the institution. You feel that your life would mean nothing if not for your job or your marriage or your rank or your family or your addiction. Talk to Patty Hearst or any junky or religious nut. It is easy to identify with and become attached to, even love that which holds you prisoner.

The most institutionalized person The Poet’s Eye has ever observed was an old man named Henry. He was the first person I met when I arrived in prison. I got to know him because he seemed to be everywhere. He appeared to have the run of the place. Nobody payed much attention to him. He was like the furniture, just an accepted part of the institution. In that very regimented environment, Henry came and went pretty much as he pleased.

Henry had been there a long time. I was in my mid thirties and he had been locked up longer than I had been alive. It was the only world that he knew. There were no family members on the outside waiting for him; no wife or girlfriend wrote letters to Henry. He had outlived all the boys from the hood and most of his row dawgs. But he seemed content within the confines of his known universe. He had his routine down, the food wasn’t too bad and he received minimum healthcare. His social life was richer than most of his contemporaries in the free world living alone. He had made peace with his life and was cheerful most of the time. Henry had found his institutional niche.

Then one day tragedy rained on Henry’s parade. He had discharged his sentence. They had to turn him loose. “Yep, saw Henry on the chain bus this morning. Got his 19, he’s goin’ home.” Word got around fast as word has a way of doing within any institution. By lunch everybody was talking about Henry because he was so ubiquitous and his family of inmates wondered where he was and how he was doing. He had been shipped from the Wynne Unit just outside of Huntsville to the main unit downtown where all inmates were released since it was across the street from the bus station where they could cash their 200 dollar checks and buy a bus ticket and get the hell out of town, thank you very much.

Just after dinner time, word hit the grapevine that Henry was back. He had turned up on the front steps of the Wynne Unit. It was the only home he knew. According to the rules of the institution they couldn’t let him stay of course. so they shipped him to some other institution where he soon died because his world had vanished. Henry was the poster child for institutionalization.

This writer is not here to condemn nor to decry institutions. Institutions are the building blocks of our society. Institutions such as language and money and which side of the road we drive on make our civilization possible. Like most of man’s contrivances, institutions can be dedicated to both noble and corrupt purposes. Institutions can be useful and functional or they can be oppressive and settle into bad habits. This is because the strength of an institution is also its weakness. Institutions are slow to change. One of the purposes of an institution is to provide stability. We like them because they are comfortably predictable. But they can change. In fact, one of the marks of a successful institution is it’s ability to change and adapt to the environment of the times. Our American society owes its very existence to the institutionalized methods of change described in our Constitution.

But our world is changing much faster than our institutions. Even the most cursory examination of history tells us that things get really fun every time the realities of people’s lives don’t match their institutions. This is often called Revolution. Since institutions are, like any other organism, primarily concerned for their own survival, they are reluctant to make any changes which might result in the loss of their power or prosperity even if this failure to change or adapt will surely guarantee their extinction. In short, it is the nearly impossible task of the institution to change while it stays the same. The survivors are those who can accomplish this and with alacrity. Given today’s pace of change, the race favors the fleet.

The Poet’s Eye sees that many of our institutions are doomed because the functions they were devised to perform are no longer relevant to our lives. This is to be expected in the Darwinian jungle of institutions where only the fit survive. 45 rpm recordings were once an institution, the industry standard, and not that long ago. Now nobody has the equipment to play one. They have become an irrelevant species because better technology has evolved and replaced them. These are the facts of life for both species and institutions.

It is sad, however, to see beloved institutions like our Constitutional system lose their races with the contemporary. Already our government has been almost rendered quaint because other institutions usually called corporations are more efficient, better equipped and managed and more focused on a single goal, however selfish that goal may be. Corporate institutions wield inordinate economic and political power. We witness a glaring example of this in the recent government bailouts of unsound financial institutions. Viewed against the backdrop of the healthcare reform charade and farce, a sensible observer must wonder exactly who is working for whom. Will our government or the insurance mafia prevail in the struggle for institutional survival? Or are they both mastodons trumpeting in the throes of extinction? Will they both perish for continuing to demonstrate their irrelevance by not serving the needs of the people who ostensibly created and own them? If they do, we will surely be able to create new ones to replace them. Inventing new institutions is easy. The hard part is getting rid of the old ones. Ask Henry or Louis XVI.

You can burn my house
Steal my car
Drink my licker
From an old fruit jar

Do anything that you want to do, but uh-uh,
Honey, lay off of my shoes
Don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.
Well you can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.
—Carl Perkins

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One Response to Don’t Step On My Blue Suede Institutions

  1. Barbara says:

    The 45 rmp is a fine example of what you’re talking about. Of course there are still those who saved their old machines and every 45 they ever owned. Try to take away their machines and you trample, rather than merely step on, their blue suede shoes

    Very thought provoking and well executed piece,

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