Incarceration: The Growth and Impact of Prison Literature
Not so long ago, punishment for crimes was enacted on the body. Torture, hanging, the guillotine, used to await those who transgressed society’s laws. In America, as well as elsewhere in the world, some of these corporal punishments still exist. Even so, focus has largely shifted from punishment of the body to punishment of the soul. As the twentieth century philosopher Michel Foucault writes in his seminal book Discipline and Punish: “The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations,” (Foucault 16). In recent years, the mental and psychological toll of incarceration has become painfully clear. Solitary confinement alone, leads to serious mental problems for many incarcerated people. The Human Rights Watch organization found that one-third to one-half of prisoners in secure housing units and special management units suffered from mental illness, (Human Rights Watch 2003). The philosophical and ethical problems that arise within prison systems are expansive and hotly debated. The purpose of this website is not to wax poetic on the moral implications of incarceration. That is a discussion for a different time. Instead, the goal of this site is to simply offer a platform for incarcerated poets and writers to share their work. The world may choose to listen, ignore, judge, condemn, or praise. I do not know. What I do know is the restorative and healing power of poetry and writing. As a poet and writer myself, I know how meaningful being heard can be. Many of the incarcerated I have spoken with have expressed a feeling of being forgotten. One man shared how he has no family to write to, no loved ones to share his writing with. Writing can heal, but it helps when people listen. This website will offer an opportunity for incarcerated people to be heard, as well as a short testimony and history that explores the importance of writing and the arts in prison.
In 1973, at the age of twenty-one, Jimmy Santiago Baca was arrested for drug charges. After pleading guilty, he was moved to Florence State Prison in Arizona to serve a five year sentence. Before his time in prison, Jimmy could not read nor write. He taught himself how to read during his sentence, and began writing poetry. Today, Jimmy Santiago Baca is considered one of America’s greatest living poets. His experiences in Florence State Penitentiary, as well as his childhood and early life are captured in his autobiographical nonfiction novel A Place to Stand. While in prison, Baca wrote this poem:
prison confines and destroys—
it does, I know, no need to argue
the point, just look at these
infamous edifices thrashing out,
human beings like bait sardines,
but I can not stand on this.
Yes, the great iron hand of prison
crushes all in its grasp,
the mind and soul become
filled with rotten fruits,
a gunnysack crumpled in a dark cell.
But to control your mind and soul
is to become a stronger hand,
embanking gently loose clods
of a ravaged and confused past
to the river of your heart
and clear streams of your soul
full and freely, into rich fallow beds
of freedom, waiting for you
even in prison,
even in prison, many will not understand this,
but I will say that we can
not today, tomorrow, or next month,
but at the very moment
one decides upon it.
Jimmy Santiago Baca 23 April, 1977
Through all the hardships that Jimmy faced in prison, the attempts on his life, the fights, the time in solitary, the unjust treatment by the system, poetry was his refuge and salvation. He writes that “the only thing that made sense anymore was poetry,” (Baca 208). It is safe to say that writing and poetry saved Jimmy’s life. He may have spent the rest of his days in prison if it were not for poetry. Writing gave him the strength and purpose to carry on. Today, Baca’s work emphasizes social justice issues regarding the marginalized and disenfranchised, specifically those in regards to the prison system. In a system with an 80% recidivism rate after five years, and a long history of causing more harm than rehabilitation, Jimmy Santiago Baca shows us the importance writing and literature can have on incarcerated persons.
Literature and incarceration have always had an entangled history. Some of our most valued and influential writers spent time in jail or prison. Tradition has it that the apostle Paul wrote the letters to the Ephesians, the Philippians, and the Colossians, while under house arrest. Henry David Thoreau, spent a night in jail for six years of delinquent poll taxes. An experience that apparently influenced his later social theories of government. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” after he was arrested for choosing to ignore an injunction against parading and picketing that had been issued by a circuit judge. And, of course, Jimmy Santiago Baca and other writers like him have shed new light on our systems of punishment through their poetry and prose.
Those who have experienced incarceration, have witnessed the extremes of our society. They have seen first hand the cruelty of human creatures. They know well that justice is not blind. Many incarcerated people know what it means to do what is necessary to survive. They know what it means to be marginalized, disenfranchised, forgotten.
I have never been incarcerated. These are merely observations from discussions I have had with men who have been, and currently are incarcerated. I do not know what affects incarceration really has on a person, because I have never experienced it. Even so, I can confidently write that many of the men I have spoken with, have dealt with more hardship, known more pain, and have seen more of the spectrum of human experience then I ever have. Their writing deserves to be read. Their stories carry the weight of honest experience. There is nothing cushy about the work I have read from incarcerated people. It seems to me, that their experiences have made clear the value of writing and the clarity it brings. Their frustration, confusion, regret, and pain is laid plain on the page. Truly, there is an earnestness in the work of incarcerated people that most writers spend years trying to convey.
When considering the past, present, and future, it is impossible to ignore the importance of incarcerated persons and their literature. The past is filled with examples of great writers and social influencers who were incarcerated. The effects incarceration had on them directly influenced and informed their work. Presently, there are more than two million people incarcerated in America (World Prison Brief). Millions more have been incarcerated, a mark that does not easily wash away, especially for those with felony convictions. We can not simply ignore the injustices that occur in the prison system. Let us not turn a blind eye to the stories of the millions who have been incarcerated in this country. I believe the future of literature and writing in this country will be influenced by the work of incarcerated persons. I hope this website will help their voices be heard.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Vintage, 2009.
Human Rights Watch (2003), Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness 149 n. 513 (New York: Human Rights Watch.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand. Grove Press, 2001.
“United States of America.” United States of America | World Prison Brief, 1 Jan. 1970, prisonstudies.org/country/united-states-america.