Born in New Mexico, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca recounts his long saga of imprisonment, beginning in childhood and stretching into adulthood. Throughout this beautifully written memoir, Baca describes his experiences in and outside of prison, and how he moved from being a victim of the system to a survivor through the written word.


It is important that the tie among incarceration, individual illness (mental/physical) and social sickness be made. When U.S. prisons are overwhelmingly filled with men and women of color from poor communities, and when the majority of those crimes is non-violent, we must ask ourselves what kind of national health we as a country really want. Warehousing the poor in the dehumanizing conditions of prison creates illness--soul sickness born of violence, rage, despair, depression.

Baca insists that what happened to him as a young person in orphanages and detention centers created the person who later ended up in prison, illiterate and angry. Baca explains that prison was hardly new to him when he finally ended up in one. It had been socially scripted for him from the beginning: "I had visited it a thousand times in the screams of my father and my drunken uncles, in the tight-lipped scolding of my mother; in all the finger-pointing of the nuns at Saint Anthony's orphanage; in all the finger-pointing adults who told me I didn't belong. I didn't fit in, I was a deviant. . . . treated as a flunky by schoolteachers, profiled by counselors as a troublemaker, taunted by police, and disdained by judges, because I had a Spanish accent and my skin was brown. . . . By the time I arrived . . . a part of me felt I belonged there" (4).

This memoir is reflective and analyzes the effect of the prison industrial complex on the lives of men and women. Baca describes prison as "the most frightening nightmare I have ever experienced" (5). Learning to read and write provided Baca the means to stave off insanity through long months in isolation and years in the system. He recalls his own family dynamics throughout the book, looking at the root causes of family violence. Readers are also introduced to many fellow prisoners and their stories.

For medical students and personnel, this book raises the question of how health can be maintained within a system designed to break down hope, to punish unrelentingly, and in effect, to create the very criminals it purports to prevent. If medicine is about health--individual and social (and we can't really have the former without the latter)--this book is an important document of how our systems of incarceration maintain and reproduce illness within a specific sector of U.S. society.

The book is also hopeful, for Baca's use of reading and writing--his ability to construct a counter narrative to the one created for him by society and prison officials--allowed him to be a witness rather than a victim. "I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren't available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the "it" of their lives, to celebrate those who don't have a place in this world to stand and call home." (244).

Discovering this role allowed Baca to survive incarceration and to emerge as a nationally known prize-winning poet. Here he tells the story of how that happened and why it is so important to pay attention to those inside the walls.



Place Published

New York



Page Count