Mi amigo was a revolutionary turned thespian that would stand up to injustice wherever and whenever he encountered it. He was a bard of sorts emanating from the barrios of Colorado with a pen full of red hot ink ready to tell stories, acting abilities and a desire for prison reform, especially after he had gotten a glimpse of prison life. He was intimately involved in the Chicano Movement, during America’s social revolution in the 1960’s, before he was convicted and sentenced, with an even more deep desire to create social justice after he served his time. He had committed the tragic mistake of arguing with a border guard on the Texas/Mexican border during La Raza Unida Conference in El Paso, Texas, at a time when the COINTELPRO Program was at its height. The rest became history.
My carnal had been introduced to the World of Los Pintos/as, those women and men whose bodies rot in prisons and whose minds remain fertile ground for either institutionalization or creative resistance. One of the Pinto Project founders, José Gaitan and other pintos challenged prison administrators to develop programs for prisoners as a rehabilitation model. What began as an inchoate suspiciousness of the function of prisons and punishment and its relationship to the US capitalist economy resulted in a deeper understanding of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). What began as a project to increase the knowledge base and employable skills of Pintos/as to avoid recalcitrant behavior ended up in raising prisoner critical consciousness related to the PIC, which has now evolved into a money maker for industrialists and businesses in cahoots with the federal government and the creation of a cadre of wealthy entrepreneurs. Critically questioning the dominant narrative about work related activities in prison as they intersected with labor, capital, production, increased marginal profits and labor exploitation raised serious questions about how racism had been built into America’s legal structure, especially since America’s prisons are filled with Brown and Black people.
In “The Angela Y. Davis Reader” edited by Joy James, Davis a longtime activist for female prisoner rights argues that, “The prison is a key component of the state’s coercive apparatus, the overriding function of which is to ensure social control.” A specific kind of law and order prevails in prisons and although the system would have you believe that holding cells have been updated and modernized, the grotesque caricature of prisons has worsened. A potpourri of torture techniques have also been introduced into penitentiaries that house international criminals; according to Davis, they include “forcible administration of psychotropic drugs, isolation, sensory deprivation, arbitrary beatings and sanctions, use of rumors and prisoner snitches and a selective reward system involving pornography.” Many of the aforementioned techniques are reserved for political prisoners; a placa that many argue can be placed on Chicana/o political activists who crossed the line.
The railroading of working class Chicanas/os into America’s prisons to feed the prison industrial complex is relentless; but when the time comes to release prisoners from the dungeons of imprisonment, many of their labels have changed from “inmate, to convicts” that follow them in social life.
In La Pinta: Chicana/o Prisoner Literature, Culture and Politics, B. V. Olguin provides analyses of poetry through historical and cultural lenses. The montage of prison poetry created by brilliant literary minds like Raul Salinas, Ricardo Sánchez, Jimmy Santiago Baca as well as female poets like Judy A. Lucero have resulted in the development of critical consciousness about the economic role that prisons play in America. The number of women incarcerated has doubled since the 1990’ while their work classified as gynocritical literature have added depth to the body of literature used in colleges and universities. Racialized criminal injustice takes on a different meaning when viewed through the lenses of colonialism and poetic discourse. When compared with the vitriolic stories portrayed about criminals in America’s prisons, one has to wonder about the veracity regarding the stories told on television and movies.
Focusing the limelight on prisons that illegally house political prisoners doesn’t set well in a free society. Through the creation of prison poetry, communities have an opportunity to analyze what has been construed as criminal behavior through an alternative perspective. Do we have Chicana/o criminals in prisons? Absolutely! But we also have political prisoners. I think my friend was a political prisoner.
Dr. Ramón Del Castillo is an Independent Journalist.
© 7-4-2014 Ramón Del Castillo
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