the Role of Prisoner Intellectuals*
By Dennis S. Boatwright, Prisonersolidarity.org
June 7, 2007
inside a mismanaged, overcrowded prison system, and quietly floating
atop a raging sea of unharnessed violence and wholesale despair,
lives a shining group of inmates who manage to keep the fire of
their sanity, dignity and intellectual dexterity glowing, despite
living in corrupt institutions that nourish, glamorize and facilitate
existence of these unique individuals is largely unknown by society.
Their voices are muted and maliciously misrepresented by lawmakers
and status quo media outlets, whose political survival and television
ratings significantly depend upon making dreadful
perceptions of inmates seem like reality. Tough-on-crime rhetoric
is amplified to rescue endangered re-election bids. The resulting
pattern reveals itself as an endless passing of redundant crime
bills and a surge in television crime shows, such as Prison Break
and Juvies. U.S.
politicians portray sympathy. This is a winning strategy: As long
as the crime rate is above zero, theoretically, tougher legislation
in this hype are the scores of reformed and self-taught inmates.
These brilliant prisoners possess extraordinary intellectual capabilities
that are beneficial to society. Many demonstrate that they are willing
and capable of participating in scholarly discourses. The fact that
they exist should not surprise those familiar with the history of
social environment of prisons produces one of the world's most perplexing
paradoxes: They house dangerous and chronic lawbreakers, yet they
also produce great thinkers who are models of strength and integrity.
Throughout history, prisoners have played an important role in advancing
the parameters in the social sciences. Important papers and political
treatises were written by authors held in dungeons or solitary confinement.
Some of their work continues to inspire millions and influence the
direction of academic discussion today. One of these convicts is
Gramsci is regarded by many as the most influential Marxist thinker
of the twentieth century. He was jailed in 1926 for his political
activities in Italy, during the authoritarian rule of Mussolini.
While in prison he wrote Prison Notebooks, a collection of
notes and essays. Gramsci's work has become very influential in
the study of international political economy, and he is credited
with originating the concept of the "organic intellectual."
According to Gramsci, only by achieving cultural hegemony could
progressives move into the stage of socio-economic revolution. Gramsci
dominant ideologies become embedded in society, to the extent that
they begin to be considered unquestioned common sense. What's more
remarkable about Gramsci is that he wrote without access to books,
and also in code, in order to circumvent the prison censor. Gramsci
remained in prison for 11 years, until his untimely death.
thinkers and leaders often tower higher in death, than in life.
Sayyid Qutb may be counted among them. Sayyid Qutb is considered
the ideological grandfather of modern Islamic militancy. Throughout
his life, he delivered fiery speeches and wrote scathing articles
and essays condemning the oppression of Muslims in general, and
the atrocities and human rights abuses perpetuated by the Egyptian
government in particular. Accused of trying to assassinate Egyptian
President Gemal Abdel Nasser, in October 1954, Qutb was thrown into
prison and tortured. While in prison he continued his political
activities, effectively converting Egyptian jails into universities
of radical Islamic thought. Before his execution in 1966, Qutb managed
to smuggle out the manuscript of his monumental book, Milestones,
chapter by chapter. Senior intelligence officials begrudgingly confide
that Quth's life and works continue to rally today's resistance
activities in Iraq, and the broader Middle East.
educated African-American prisoners boast that George Jackson had
a profound impact on their decision to take corrective steps towards
rehabilitation. Jackson was sent to prison for a petty robbery that
netted less than $100. During his incarceration he spent most of
his time reading and "chopping it up" (raising the socio-political
awareness) of his fellow convicts, which earned him the ire of prison
authorities. In his own words:
the first four years I studied nothing but economics and military
ideas. I met Black guerrillas, George "Big Jake" Lewis
and James Carr, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Terry Gibson and many,
many others. We attempted to transform the Black criminal mentality
into a Black revolutionary mentality. As a result, each of us has
been subjected to years of the most vicious violence by the state."
and two other inmates were charged with the murder of a white prison
guard, just a few days after another white prison guard shot and
killed three Black inmates. While in solitary confinement, Jackson
authored The Soledad Brothers and Blood in My Eye. Jackson's plight
attracted international attention and his writings exposed the cruel
anatomy of the Prison Industrial Complex. Blood in My Eye is regarded
as the convict's version of Frantz Fanon's, Wretched of the Earth.
Both books have been canonized and admitted into the pantheon of
revolutionary literature. Jackson is still esteemed as the premier
penitentiary revolutionary. He was assassinated by gun tower guards
on August 9, 1971. Space constraints prevent enumeration of the
scores of other prisoners who are worthy of mention, such as Rosa
Luxemburg (The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Union),
Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice), Leon Trotsky, and numerous others.
are insulated from society's distractions, which enables time for
introspection and contemplation. This is one explanation as to why
prisons have a transformative power for certain inmates. During
isolation, some prisoners discover unusual abilities and untapped
potentials, which lay dormant inside of them. Oppressive prison
conditions account for the signature militant disposition of some
learned prisoners. In prison, some inmates also sharpen their skills
of observing variations of human behavior, including that of prison
guards. They see the best of human behavior, as well as the worst
expressions of racism being exhibited by the staff. The torture
and sadism photo-documented at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison is not uncommon
in U.S. prisons.
leaders and thinkers are projected to emerge from prisons. Consequently,
counter-intelligence measures are used to forestall this possibility.
In 1994, college grants were taken away from all U.S. prisons. This
measure was intended to stunt the academic growth of prisoners and
inhibit the development of critical thinking. Acquiring knowledge
is an expensive endeavor. Intellectually inclined prisoners need
the support of society. They need funds to procure educational material
such as news magazines, scholarly journals and college textbooks.
Prisoners do not have access to the internet. This restriction severely
hampers their ability to do research and stay abreast of new findings
this tumultuous post-9-11 world -- a world with a shortage of capacity-backed
solutions to our problems -- we need input from every segment of
society, including prisoners. If we overlook the insights of knowledgeable
prisoners, we may in fact be ignoring the next Malcom X.
Alger Maximum Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 600
Munising, Michigan 49862
article contains excerpts from a forthcoming essay, "What about
the Brothas?: Re-examining the Role of Prison Intellectuals,"
which will be published in the Summer 2007 issue of the new quarter
journal, The BottomLine.
the author: Dennis Boatwright is a self-taught Detroit
native who has been in prison since 1989. He recently founded The
Center for Advanced Pan-African Studies, a public policy think-tank
that is on the inside, and draws contributions from the brightest
and most intellectual inmates in maximum security. The group is
preparing the first issue of its new upcoming quarterly, The BottomLine.
Boatwright is multi-lingual and is an avid learner. He is being
held at a maximum-security prison, where he is kept in his cell
for 23 hours per day. Please send Boatwright a pre-embossed, stamped,
envelope if you wish to comment on this essay or would like more
information about The BottomLine. He would also appreciate receiving
copies of current academic journals, in the areas of political economy,
international relations, history, sociology/anthropology and African-American
Article at: http://www.prisonersolidarity.org/DennisBoatwrightIntellectuals.htm
following link offers tips for writing to prisoners: