HAGERSTOWN -- The pathways to hell are strewn with prisons, harsh sentences, false beliefs that ''toughness'' causes reform, that the iron club of ''justice'' will crack criminals' skulls and allow in the light of reason.
That will not happen. Here is what will:
Drive slowly past Maryland's newest prisons. See the beautifully sculpted, spacious grounds. See the well-shaped bushes, the vaguely pretty buildings, the campus-like aspect. See the multitudes of prisoners walking along the paths. Hear their laughter, their chatty voices. An idyllic life? Do not be deceived.
The coming "penalcaust"
A ''penalcaust'' is coming, a prison holocaust, made in large part by the new laws you were misled into clamoring for: no-parole sentences, an emphasis on ''time served,'' oppressive rules, a cessation of college programs.
What of the people to whom these things are done? What are their thoughts, their quiet whispers to others like themselves? I hear their words, you do not.
Behind many youthful faces are masks of pure hate. Their hatred is formless, unfocused. It is not amenable to reason, to persuasion. Compassion has never been given to them and they know little of that emotion.
Among them are men who have committed ''drive-by'' murders, shot through children to kill their true targets. They slaughtered witnesses to their crimes, even when such witnesses could not identify them. They delight in powerful guns that cause catastrophic wound channels.
These youths are not sentimental. ''Tear-jerker'' movies leave them stony-faced, hard-eyed. They mock displays of mercy, which to them is an alien concept.
While they cannot intelligently enunciate their bitterness, they can feel, they have their peculiar thoughts, expressed in terrifying acts.
Prison officials are happy to bend to your will and repress prisoners. They feel as you do. They think themselves wise in the ways of prisoners. Their belief is false. They do not comprehend the new breed, as you do not.
Kid gloves, iron fists
You shriek for rough treatment of those who know of no other kind. You demand a spartan prison life for those who have known nothing but a bare existence. You cry: ''Take off the kid goves!'' for those accustomed to iron fists. You scream: ''Kill them in our death chambers,'' but these guys do not expect to live long: They jeer at the Grim Reaper; to them, self-destruction is inevitable. You roar: ''Come down hard!'' Big deal: Everyone has done that to them.
The perpetual crackdown proves to them that ''normal society'' is their enemy. Drugs have worsened their paranoia. They are mental and emotional zombies. They are freed everyday.
The prisons of Maryland are scattered statewide like the crucifixes erected along Old Jerusalem's main highway. You know not what you do.
If Satan travels the modern-day Old Jerusalem Road, he smirks broadly at the figures on crosses strewn along the road to Hell. He laughs -- because you have rejected Christ's teaching of redemption. You have forgotten that Jesus searched for the straying sheep, who needed him most.
You have written prisoners off as irredeemably lost, which has become the direst of self-fulfilling prophecies. You didn't truly try to save.
Nathaniel Johnson Jr. is an inmate at the Roxbury Correctional Institute.
Pub Date: 1/24/97