Liberating Imprisonment

I have walked down a road called freedom, seeking a thing called freedom in a land and country that, after emancipating me, re-enslaved me by another name and misused me in its prison leasing system. [. . .] Why I was drawn to reading mostly about history, American history, which African-American history is, I don’t know. But in doing so, I found an inner strength that I did not know that I had within me. I found a spiritual inner strength that I did not know that I had within me. I found a voice that I did not know I had within me. I found a reason not to quit, not to give up, not to surrender that I did not know that I had within me. I found a will and willpower that I did not know that I had within me.


                                                                                                --Kevin Cooper


Kevin Cooper is an inmate at the San Quentin California State Prison.  He has been incarcerated ever since he was arrested and charged with a 1983 quadruple murder. Two years later, in 1985, he was given the death sentence.

During Cooper’s trial, the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense that might have exonerated him. Subsequent appeals of the verdict and the sentence, however, have not yet led to any retrial, let alone any release from confinement on death row.

San Quentin State Penitentiary

San Quentin State Penitentiary

In the article by Cooper that contains the lines cited above, he tells the story of how it was in prison that he at last found his way to freedom--or, rather, his way back to the freedom that defines his very humanity. It was only in prison that he came to discover the truly "inalienable" freedom that had always belonged to him, but that he had never known he could make his own until his experience during his long imprisonment finally let him realize it was there to be claimed.

Once he came to that realization, the only choice he had left was to reclaim what was his: his very power--his capacity, his freedom--to choose.  At that point in his life-journey, he had no choice left but to choose to choose.

* * *

The freedom that, in prison, Kevin Cooper learned had all along belonged to him, just waiting for its rightful owner to claim it, showed itself as a truly inalienable freedom. It displayed itself as a defining freedom, just waiting to be claimed by its sole rightful owner, that could never truly be taken from him under any circumstances, even imprisonment in some so called "penitentiary."

That is the distorting euphemism by which such places of forced confinement as the California State Prison at San Quentin are called: penitentiaries.

Taken in its etymological fullness, the word penitentiary means "a place for the paying of penance". In that original sense, a penitentiary is a place set aside for making amends for something for which one has come to feel regret. A penitentiary in that original sense is a place for repentance and for experiencing the reconciliation with oneself and others that only the paying due penance for wrongs one has done can achieve.

Prisons, on the other hand, such places as San Quentin, where Kevin Cooper still sits behind bars, are no such places of repentance, penance, and reconciliation. They are, rather, places of punishment.

That is, prisons are places where vengeance is enacted through the taking of revenge--places where resentment acts itself out.

Prison means "place of confinement, of captivity."

A prison is a place where people are confined against their own will. It is therefore not a place for repentance, penance, and reconciliation. It is, rather, a place where punishment can be inflicted, supposedly to avenge some offense that the punishing party has succeeded in attributing to the party being punished. 

Kevin Cooper's case demonstrates that those who erect prisons and then lock people up within them may, altogether irrespective of the prisoner-builders' own intentions, end up liberating the very persons they have so imprisoned.

Those whom such prisons are designed to hold captive may, through that very captivity, find their way to an inexhaustible capacity they never even knew they had until then. In and through their very confinement, they may find themselves set free at last--inalienably so: never again at risk of being held captive by any captors.

Henceforth, their capacity will always exceed their captivity, springing open their prison doors, no matter how tightly locked they may remain.

Blessed be such capacitating captivity, such liberating imprisonment.

Read the article by Kevin Cooper here:

Kevin Cooper

Kevin Cooper