a language of the oppressed
and I know how to speak it well.
—Jimmy Santiago Baca,“12-26-03,” The Esai Poems
As he completed his freewheeling first book of poetry, Immigrants in Our Own Land, Jimmy Santiago Baca not only broke from rhyme and meter, but also liberated himself from a more literal confinement: prison. Functionally illiterate when he entered at twenty-one, Baca discovered Neruda and Lorca on the inside and exited after six years as a poet, already published in Mother Jones by Denise Levertov. In 1979, the same year Baca was released, Immigrants was, as well.
A staunch believer in the transformative power of language, the poet now works as an advocate for literacy in prisons and disadvantaged communities all across the country. Baca’s work challenges us: How do words take our minds and spirits to places our bodies cannot go? The stakes of this question are greater for the inmate than for perhaps anyone else.
The United States—the nation with both the highest rate of incarceration and the largest prison population—has a particularly rich history of prison writing. Through the twentieth century, American prisons produced a flood of great texts: from the likes of Donald Lowrie, Nelson Algren, and Chester Himes in the early decades; iconoclasts Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver during the ‘60s; pinto/a poets like Ricardo Sanchez, Judy Lucero, and our very own Baca; and Jack Henry Abbott and American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
While some American writers, like Henry David Thoreau and Jack London, had already established their literary credentials before writing in and about jail, others, like Baca and Cleaver, only found their voices once incarcerated. These late-blooming writers often wrote out of necessity, spinning helpless feelings and violent impulses into something positive and liberating. Recognizing this “restorative, rehabilitative power of writing,” PEN—an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the defense of imprisoned writers around the world—started its Prison Writing Program in 1971. PEN’s program holds an annual writing contest, distributes a free writing handbook, and provides mentors for inmates.
Likewise, programs dedicated to literacy and fostering creativity in prisons have sprung up from coast to coast, often in association with universities and colleges. One such program, in conjunction with the Prison Creative Arts Project, housed in the University of Michigan’s English department, publishes an annual literary journal of writing from incarcerated writers, and can boast of having Jimmy Baca on its board. The PCAP website features a gallery of astoundingly rich prose, poetry, and artwork created by prisoners enrolled in the program. A forthcoming resource, the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), established by the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, is working to catalogue original nonfiction essays written by inmates; this Internet-based, digital archive of expert prison writing is a work in progress, but brings with it great promise for growth and discoverability.
Various formal publications have arisen from these universities and their associated programs fostering the arts in prisons. In 2009, inmate-students participating in Lipscomb University’s LIFE program, in partnership with the Tennessee Prison for Women, published in a literary journal entitled Chiaroscuro. Tenacious, a similar magazine founded in Oregon in 2003, is filled with articles, essays, poetry and art by formerly and currently incarcerated women across the United States. Writer, activist, and former Louisiana state prisoner, Wilbert Rideau, edited The Angolite while on death row in 1978. The magazine, entirely produced and published by inmates, gained national recognition and won several prestigious awards under Rideau’s guidance.
The American Mercury and The Missouri Review have also featured the empowered voices and distinctive perspectives that the incarcerated bring to art and literature. The Review’s “Literature on Lockdown” blog series recently reprinted an excerpt from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s original essay for Restless Books, "The Face." To learn more about the title, or Baca himself, please visit here.
Any great prison writing resources we missed? Please let us know in the comments below!