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Understanding the Role of Prisoner Intellectuals

March 2, 2011


Lingering inside a mismanaged, overcrowded prison system—and quietly floating atop a raging sea of unharnessed violence and wholesale despair—lives a shining group of prisoners who manage to keep the fire of their sanity, dignity and intellectual dexterity glowing despite living in corrupt institutions that nourish, glamorize and facilitate dark tendencies.

The 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 prisoners 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 is warranted.

Forgotten in this hype are scores of reformed and self-taught prisoners. 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 resistance.

The 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 Antonio Gramsci.

Antonio 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, the Fascist premier of Italy [1922-43]. While in prison, Gramsci wrote Prison Notebooks, a collection of notes and essays. His 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 socioeconomic revolution. Gramsci believed that 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.

Great 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 Qutb’s life and works continue to rally today’s resistance activities in Iraq and in the broader Middle East.

Most educated African-American prisoners boast that George Jackson had a profound impact on their decision to take corrective steps toward rehabilitation. Jackson was sent to prison for a petty robbery that netted less than a hundred dollars. During his incarceration he spent most of his time reading and “chopping it up” (raising the sociopolitical awareness) with his fellow convicts, which earned him the ire of prison authorities. In his own words:

“For 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.”

Jackson and two other prisoners—John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo—were charged with the murder of a white prison guard, John Mills, that happened just moments after another white prison guard, O.G. Miller, was exonerated on January 13, 1970, for the racist shooting death of three Black prisoners—Cleveland Edwards, Alvin Miller and W.L. Nolen—at Soledad State Prison. While in solitary confinement, Jackson authored Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson 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 21, 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.

Prisons 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 prisoners. 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 prisoners 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 prison staff.    The torture and sadistic photos documented at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison is not uncommon in U.S. prisons. Future leaders and thinkers are projected to emerge from prisons.

Consequently, counterintelligence 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 and developments.

In 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 Malcolm X.

Dennis S. Boatwright
Mid-Michigan Correctional Facility
8201 N. Croswell Road
St. Louis, Michigan
USA 48880

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