Since the mid-1980s I have been involved in a program that sends prison inmates food, clothing, and books. Over the years, I have befriended most of the prisoners I have had the pleasure of knowing, and I have come to distrust just about everyone who works in prison administration. That being said, I must register my displeasure at reading the excerpt from Jimmy Baca’s A Place to Stand [December 2002].
Earning respect from fellow prisoners doesn’t necessitate viciously beating another inmate. And taking a stand doesn’t require the sort of self-destructive non-cooperation with staff that Baca writes about. From the introduction, I expected a tale of principled struggle against arbitrary regulations meant to break the human spirit. What I read was a self-serving denial of wrongdoing, and Baca’s outrage at the staff’s decision to deny him a privilege he thought he deserved.
For his ability to rise above the brutality of prison life to become a gifted writer, Baca deserves respect and perhaps even admiration. But after reading the excerpt and the poems that followed, I see that he retains the bitterness of his experiences and continues to blame others for his own poor judgment.
In his letter [Correspondence, March 2003] concerning Jimmy Baca’s “A Place to Stand” [December 2002], Charles Boles downplayed the real suffering of another human being. Unless Boles himself has dwelled behind prison walls and experienced Baca’s bitterness, he should remain silent.
Baca’s description of prison life was very realistic. There was not one variation from the cruel reality of the American penal system. Earning respect from other prisoners does, in fact, necessitate “viciously beating another inmate,” as Boles put it. It is perceived by convicts as an act of self-defense not just against a man who’s trying to steal the last thing a prisoner has — his manhood — but against a tyrannical system. The same holds true for taking a stand (even a self-destructive one) against staff, who have the power to do anything they want to a prisoner. It is the only way we can be heard. Prisoners live in a world in which they have no rights, only privileges, and the focus is survival. Besides, didn’t Baca deserve an education? Doesn’t everyone on this planet deserve an education?
I think if Boles spent a little time inside prison with society’s rejects and scapegoats, he would undoubtedly experience the very bitterness that he criticized Baca for having. With no more compassion than Boles displays, I cannot believe he was involved in a prison-based ministry. Instead of nonchalantly registering his displeasure, he should consider the millions of prisoners, here and abroad, who cannot register theirs because it is silenced.
As for Baca, he is every prisoner’s hero; he overcame, rising above prison to become a published writer. His story and others published by The Sun have afforded me the most consolation I have had in seven years of confinement. Furthermore, Baca gave me hope and inspiration.
Boles and others like him should stop judging us; we’ve already been judged.
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