Jimmy Santiago Baca is a New Mexico native of Apache and Chicano ancestry. Born into a broken home with an alcoholic father in Santa Fe County in 1952, his parents abandoned him when he was two. After living with a grandmother for a few years, he was consigned to an orphanage. He ran away when he was thirteen.
He came to live among the homeless on the streets in various locations. When he was twenty-one, he was arrested. Convicted of drug possession on trumped up charges, he was incarcerated in the notorious Arizona State Prison at Yuma.
Overall, Baca eventually spent a total of six and one-half years in prison--three of them in solitary confinement.
In his prison cell, Baca--just like Kevin Cooper in California a decade later--taught himself to read. And he began to write poems. Even while he was still imprisoned, his poems began to be published, earning Baca, in time, broad and enduring recognition.
In 2001, Baca published A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet (New York: Grove Press), an autobiographical account of his prison experience. In it he tells the powerful story of how, in prison itself, he found his freedom.
Baca set himself free by discovering the difference between merely reacting to what his jailers and their minions had done and were continuing to do to him, and actively resisting it. Put differently, he freed himself in passing from striking back against those who so assailed him, to ignoring them--living in their irrelevance, as I would put it.
During some episodes in his imprisonment, Baca had to resort to violence in order to preserve himself and his simple human dignity. In the always-violent atmosphere of prison life, such acts of violence are sometimes necessary if one is not to become a virtual slave of prison toughs and bullies, who try to raise their own status by degrading other weaker or more isolated inmates.
Despite such occasional episodes, however, Baca became a model prisoner--at least by the standards of those who maintain and run prisons. He did as the warden, guards, and other prison personnel asked or told him to do, always complying with their wishes as fully as he was able.
Supposedly as a reward for such compliant behavior, and recognition of his achievement in teaching himself to read and write, he was eventually encouraged by his prison counselor to think that he would be allowed to enroll in school to earn his GED. So he petition the prison review board to grant him such permission.
However, the review committee subjected him to humiliation and denied his request. In A Place to Stand, Baca describes how he initially experienced their rejection, writing that he "was almost on the verge of begging them to reconsider."
Perhaps sensing that such a submissive request would only open him to more risk of humiliation and disappointment at their hands, Baca did not follow that first, compliant impulse. Instead, he did something else, something neither he nor the review committee was expecting. He did not beg them to reconsider. Rather, he writes: "Feeling a great emptiness overwhelm me, I raised my eyes to the counselor [the one who had advised him to petition the committee] and blurted, 'You promised--you stood in front of my cell telling me how great I was doing!' I felt my whole body swell with an explosion of rage."
The counselor showed his true identity in reply. "He leaned forward," writes Baca, and said: "It's a fucking prison and don't you forget it. You're here to be punished."
However, Baca refused to grant the committee's judgment any legitimacy. Later, back in his cell, he reflected on what had happened to him.
“I can still see myself,” he writes. “I've gone over and over it. All I remember is hearing myself yell, ‘I know what I was! But I'm trying to change! I'm just asking for a fucking chance!’ But the simple truth was, from the warden on down to the guards, they had the power of life and death over me. And I truly thought they were going to keep me in prison forever.
"What was wrong?" he asked himself. "I had no answers then," he continues, "but looking back today, I know what happened: I know in my soul that if I had gone along with their classifying me as they wished, simply ignoring my request for school, that I would still be in prison today."
Baca's refusal to accept the judgment of the review committee embodied a rejection of their claim to the right to judge him. Thereafter Baca simply no longer complied with the orders and directives his guards and their prison superiors gave him.
What proved especially effective was Baca's refusal any longer to come out of his cell as expected to do the daily work he was assigned, for the ridiculous sum of a mere 12 cents per hour he and the other prisoners were "paid" for that work. Baca writes:
Over the next week I quit making my bunk and cleaning my cell. As usual, every time the bull came down the tier, he placed a write-up on the bars for breaking institutional rules. When I looked at the pile of pink slips, I had the feeling I was fucking everything up. I also knew that by simply refusing to take them off the bars, I was deflating the importance of what they represented. For the next few days, when the tier guard stood in front of my cell with is clipboard at count time and barked out my number and I'd turn my back to him like he wasn't there, he'd place another write-up on the bars and move on. The cons wondered when I might get up and stand for count time, but I never did.
To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an uproar, from my friends to the guards.
Thus did Jimmy Santiago Baca at last find his freedom, even in his the midst of his continuing confinement, locked alone in his prison cell.
Jimmy found his freedom in the simple practice of non-compliance.