Prison was not a place for defeat, it was a place for study, for preparation. Fidel Castro wrote while in prison: "What a tremendous school this prison is! Here I have rounded out my view of the world and determined the meaning of my life. I don't know if it will be long or short, fruitful or in vain, but my dedication to sacrifice and struggle has been reaffirmed."
—Assata Shakur, Hauling up the Morning, 4
. . . un proceso de transformación mental; see it occurring, feel it surging within, it's at once amazing, extremely difficult to grasp, painful and frightening!!!
—Salinas letter to Joseph Sommers, November 4, 1971
From 1957 to 1972 Raúl Salinas spent approximately 12 years in four of the most notoriously brutal prisons in this country: Soledad State Prison (California), Huntsville State Prison (Texas), Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary (Kansas), and Marion Federal Penitentiary (Illinois). Just as there is a clear relationship between his pre-prison experience of social marginalization and his eventual incarceration, there is also a direct link between his prison experience and his development as a writer responding to the real conditions of his existence, in and outside of prison. This transformation led him initially to engage his fellow convicts, and eventually prison authorities, friends, and political activists in the outside world.
Spanning a period covering more than a decade, the nucleus of this collection is comprised of work previously published in prison newspapers and journals as well as letters to family, friends, allies, and organizations. But this collection includes not only Salinas' own words but also letters written to him from outside and within prison, as well as daily logs of the 1972 Marion Prison Strike, political manifestos, and two in-depth interviews conducted with Salinas after his release—one immediately following his release and the other thirty years later, on the occasion of Stanford University's acquisition of Salinas' archives.
As the documents herein will demonstrate, the process of transformation that Salinas underwent, one that he writes about with so much emotional fervor in the second epigraph above, was a process that was both solitary and communal. The emotional, spiritual, and political substance of this transformation is mapped out in his writings and makes his life one worthy of study, one that offers us lessons about society and the human capacity to persevere, adapt, and rebuild oneself. As documentation of one man's transformation from "social criminal" to an agent of social change, this collection is an invaluable "hidden transcript." Though Salinas is renowned in certain literary and political circles, he is not so exceptional a figure that he is known by all. Rather, what we have here is a portrait of someone who is exceptional in his ability to be representative of a good portion of the more than two million people currently caught up in the criminal justice machinery of this nation.
The publication of these writings makes a contribution in multiple arenas simultaneously. This work is both literary and historical in nature, providing us first-hand insight into a tumultuous period of this nation. From the inner sanctum of some of our country's most notorious iron cages, this work shows that though isolated, often severely cut off from human contact for extended periods of time due to solitary confinement, Salinas and fellow prisoners found ways not only to sustain communication but to systematically cultivate meaningful relationships and alliances with those involved in facilitating change in a society experiencing the upheaval of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
Since 1968 Salinas' writing and activism have earned him international recognition as a spokesperson for a diversity of political causes, ranging from prisoner rights and national liberation struggles to gang intervention and youth arts advocacy. He first received acclaim for his literary work in 1969 when he was a prisoner in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Since then, in addition to being widely anthologized, Salinas has published three collections of poetry: Un Trip thru the Mind Jail y Otras Excursions (Editorial Pocho-Ché, 1980; Arte Público Press, 1999), East of the Freeway: Reflections de mi pueblo (Red Salmon Press, 1995), and Indio Trails: A Xicano Odyssey thru Indian Country (Wings Press, 2005). In 1994 Salinas' personal archives, dating from 1955 to 1994, were obtained by Stanford University.
A biographical overview of Salinas' life helps to illustrate how he is both representative and exemplary in his contributions to prison literature and social history.
From Pachuco to Pinto: A Biographical Sketch of the Artist as a Young Man
Raúl Salinas was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934 and raised in East Austin, where he attended Catholic primary school and public high school through the eleventh grade. In interviews he has noted that he was a good student; he was clearly capable of mastering his lessons, but he was also a young rebel who often rejected strict rules and behavioral guidelines. His father left his family when he was very young, and he credits his grandmother and mother with teaching him Spanish and nurturing a love for literature in him. During his childhood the city of Austin's racial segregationist policies were being codified and enforced, thereby assuring that East Austin would be comprised exclusively of ethnic minorities. The Spanish-language names of downtown Austin streets bear testimony to an area that was predominantly Mexican until residents were forced to move to a less desirable hilly area east of the central business zone. The construction of Interstate 35 in the 1960s, a highway that functions as the barrier between downtown and the East Side, only concretized an already existing dividing line. It was within the barrios of this consciously marginalized community, comprised of several African American and Mexican neighborhoods, that Salinas first learned his "place" in society. Though there were tensions between the Black and Chicano communities at times, there was also overlap, cultural exchange, and camaraderie. As an adolescent Salinas was drawn to the many famous nightclubs in East Austin's Black community, where he thrived on the live rhythm and blues and jazz played there. This music, along with the Mexican corrido, conjunto, and orquesta traditions, was an important cultural and artistic influence in his life, one that would eventually manifest itself in his music (he played saxophone) and poetry.
When Salinas dropped out of school at age seventeen, unable to see its relevance to his future, he went to northern California and picked fruit for several years in the fields surrounding San José. It's important to note that Salinas "came of age" in 1952, the same year that John Clellon Holmes published in the New York Times "This Is the Beat Generation," one of the first articles to identify this nascent literary movement. Though situated in the Southwest, Salinas identified with the rejection of cultural and social conventions promoted by the young artists associated with the Beat movement. Like them, he had headed toward California looking for a way out of the oppressive conventions and expectations of society and family in the post-war boom period. Unlike the Beat poets, however, he was not college educated, not middle class, and not part of the white mainstream (though he did have a close relationship with his white stepfather, Samuel "Posey" Hill, and Melba Schuman, a white elementary school Spanish teacher). He could, however, identify with the Beat's street sensibility, their embrace of open literary forms, and their down-and-out stance. As a streetwise young man, he continued to find himself drawn to non-conventional, non-mainstream music venues, and he, like Malcolm Little, soon developed a hipster lifestyle that included the consumption and selling of drugs. At this stage in his life, Salinas embodied a culturally specific counter-cultural pachuco lifestyle, one that had its variants in other minority communities as well as in the margins of mainstream culture. While not radical, these cultural practices did resist the ideological and cultural conformity promoted in the 1950s. These "rebels without a cause" searched for individuality and alternatives in their rejection of mainstream American values and culture.
Busted through a state drug sting operation in 1957, Salinas was convicted in a Los Angeles County court of "violating the health and safety code for sale and possession of marihuana." He was sent to Soledad State Penitentiary, aka the "Gladiator School," later that year. Not counting his adolescent stints in juvenile detention centers, Soledad would be his first home behind bars, where he would remain for three years. It was here, a place with few distractions and few options for entertainment, that he began to write extensively for the first time. In addition to correspondence with family and friends, he began to experiment with poetry. Elsewhere I have examined in detail how these poems represent Salinas' early efforts to reflect on his individual life and demonstrate his embrace of literature, poetry in particular, as a therapeutic vehicle for identifying and transcending wounds inflicted by individual circumstances.
Salinas' early literary influences in prison were those that he could get his hands on. Not surprisingly, what was most available to him was similar to what he had access to in the educational system, primarily British and American anthologies. In these he was particularly attracted to the likes of Emerson, Longfellow, Whitman, Williams, and e. e. cummings. And just as he was attracted to these poets who explored the dynamic relationship between society and the individual, he was also profoundly impressed by the politics and poetics of Latin American writers he discovered in this period. In the Spanish-language poems of Latin Americanists like Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda, his developing aesthetic was exposed to a wider range of expression, and the social critique of these politically engaged writers was the most explicit he had encountered.
In 1959 Salinas was released from prison on parole. He was to remain out until November of 1961, when he was again busted on possession of marijuana, this time in Austin. He was sent to Huntsville State Prison, where he stayed until May of 1965. In Huntsville he joined the choir, which was the organizational unit that brought him together with other prison "intellectuals," men who enjoyed reading books, magazines, and newspapers, keeping up with current affairs, and exchanging ideas. This same group became part of the core that formed the production team of the monthly prison newspaper, The Echo. The editor of The Echo, Bart Edwards, soon learned of Salinas' in-depth, first-hand knowledge of jazz and convinced him to write a jazz column ("Quartered Notes"), which became a regular feature for a year and a half, until he was paroled. These early writings were penned under his childhood name of Roy Salinas; not until he was in Leavenworth did Salinas reclaim his birth name of Raúl, and later, inspired by e. e. cummings, he began using the lowercased, one-word raúlrsalinas, to sign his work. In November of 1964 Salinas wrote an editorial in The Echo that was excerpted and commented upon in The Beaumont Enterprise on Christmas Day of that same year. A critical examination of President John F. Kennedy's drug policy, "So much mystery, so much misunderstanding" was Salinas' first extra-prison acknowledgment as a writer. In this period, Salinas began to develop a journalistic style and identity that would be more fully realized in a subsequent period of incarceration. Upon release from Huntsville in 1965 he was still a novice poet, but his identity as a writer had begun to crystallize as a result of his reviews of the jazz scene, his first published poems in The Echo, the op-ed essay in The Beaumont Enterprise, and his numerous letters to family and friends, which he has always considered part of his literary production. But Salinas' literary output at this stage in his life remained linked to his confinement. After his release from both Soledad and Huntsville, his writing ceased; back on the streets, his attention and skills were diverted elsewhere.
When Salinas was sent to Leavenworth on a felony drug charge in 1967, he initially continued to be involved in illicit drug trade in prison, but here he met Ramón Chacón, a convict from South Texas who introduced him to the writings of Ernesto "Ché" Guevara and Frantz Fanon. He also met Standing Deer (alias Robert Wilson) and Rafael Cancel Miranda, a Puerto Rican independentista who had been imprisoned for participating in a 1954 armed protest in the chambers of the U.S. Congress in order to draw attention to the colonial status of Puerto Rico. Through his interaction with these men and others, Salinas began to question his involvement in the drug trade and organized crime. More importantly, he began to see how race and class functioned in prison and the outside world to keep people from discovering constructive solutions to individual and group empowerment. In his "extra-literary" endeavors we can see his intellectual development—including the acquisition of language and legal skills. For instance, his relationship with Cancel Miranda and Oscar Collazo helped him hone his knowledge of Spanish, learn about the Puerto Rican independence struggle, and begin developing an international perspective that enabled him to better comprehend the historical ravages of colonialism on his own community. In seizing control of their education, Salinas and his comrades underwent a radical transformation that involved reading works by leading intellectuals of Third World independence movements. This is evidenced by the lists of books and magazines they read; letters requesting specific titles are contained in Salinas' archives. As he and fellow convicts became more aware of the systematic disempowerment of ethnic minorities and working-class people in the United States, they began to order political literature from the outside, such as The Guardian, Grito del Norte, P'alante, The Black Panther, and The Militant to further their education and consciousness-raising. Thus the abundance of political literature in the "free" world during this time of social unrest in the United States became their educational texts.
Moreover, a multiracial cohort of convicts interested in exploring racism, class analysis, and national liberation began crystallizing. These convicts were brought together by the shared experiences of prisoner abuse, such as inadequate health care, guard brutality, disproportionate sentencing of people of color, unfair parole board reviews, indeterminate sentences, and the illegal blocking of prisoner access to legal materials (law books and documentation regarding their cases, in particular) that would enable them to challenge their incarceration. Their emerging commitment to prison reform required that they seize control of their education and begin to challenge the denigrating practices of prison culture. Racism, violence, and the exchange of contraband were destructive elements of this culture, and prison guards actively fostered these practices for their individual gain as well as for a means of prisoner control. A divided population whose hostilities were directed at one another rather than at prison authorities was preferable to a united population who recognized its own manipulation and the injustice of the legal system. In banding together in a multiracial alliance that raised questions about social justice, these prisoners became more than just teachers to one another; they sought to forge a safe house within the prison, one that rejected prisoner-on-prisoner violence, the domination of the weak by the powerful, and racism. As is seen in the collection of writings in section 1, Salinas' journalism experienced a decided shift in this period. Perhaps even more fascinating than this shift from music and sports to political analysis, is the way his transformation was documented in his letters (section 2) as he underwent a spiritual, intellectual, and political metamorphosis.
Within the multiracial alliance of fellow prisoners, unification did not mean that they failed to recognize the importance of validating and "recovering" group culture and history. Rather, Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, and whites sought to understand the specificity of violence, injustice, class inequality, and white supremacy for each group. In 1968, a group of Chicano convicts arranged to have a course titled "The Cultural History of the Southwest" taught by Francisco Ruiz of Penn Valley Community College in Kansas City. What had been an informal education process became formalized as they assumed control of their education and turned an institutional constraint into a political opportunity. This course lasted two years and had a consistent presence of 25-30 students. It was from this class that the newspaper Aztlán de Leavenworth was produced. Aztlán's first issue was published on Cinco de Mayo 1970. Each issue contained photos of the students in "The Culture History of the Southwest," with an article by a student on Chicano-Mexican history and culture, political editorials, reports from other prisons and prisoners, as well as updates on ex-prisoner activities, reports on visits by students, faculty, or cultural artists, and a poetry and art page. It was in the inaugural issue of Aztlán that Salinas' signature poem, "Un Trip Through the Mind Jail," was first published and widely distributed.
Salinas became a clerk in the education department during this period and was elected by his peers in this emerging cadre of organizers as the editor of Aztlán de Leavenworth. Chicanos Organizados Rebeldes Aztlán (CORA) was centrally formed out of this group and became the organizing vehicle for prisoner rights issues. The ideology of CORA and thus of Aztlán was shaped by Third World anticolonial movements and the cultural nationalism of the Chicano Movement. In the first issue, an unsigned editorial explains the paper's philosophy by referring to the National Chicano Youth Liberation conference in Denver where El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán was penned as an effort to provide a political and spiritual focus for the Chicano Youth Movement. The lead editorial, written by Salinas, notes that the conceptualization and the production of the paper was a group effort and had two primary goals: "to Destroy and Rebuild". Unlike the often ideologically inconsistent counter-cultural stance of many of the Beat poets, the context and conditions of Salinas' confinement shaped him into becoming a "rebel with a causa" in an era rife with revolutionary potential.
It can be argued, then, that the value of Salinas' literary work lies not only in some traditional notion of "good writing," but in its value as a critical voice from within the depths of the penal system, a voice that is not so much exceptional as it is representative. It is representative inasmuch as his pre-prison life and his incarceration are all too typical of the prison population; his experiences of social disenfranchisement, undereducation, participation in the lumpen economy, and migrancy and other forms of displacement are indicators of experience and social location that are shared between him and many other prisoners. Because his post-prison life is marked by the linkage between his political involvement and his identity as an author, it is clear that Salinas' entire corpus of writings need to be taken into account in order to understand the influences and direction of his writings, for they defy any single generic structure.
As is evidenced by Salinas' work included in this collection, it is the circumstances of his writing that matter as much, if not more, than the form, style, or "quality." Taken as a whole, this mixture of genres across time and space testifies to the enormous potential for transformation of all prisoners, given the right circumstances and commitment. From a post-1990s perspective, one can hardly examine a body of writings that are at once autobiographical, politically insurgent, interventionary, and representative, and which taken collectively reveal the experience of conscientización, without giving serious consideration to the genre of testimonio. The testimonio-like nature of Salinas' oeuvre can be instructive.
Outside the Prison Machine
Salinas gained his release in November of 1972 with the help of faculty and graduate students at the University of Washington at Seattle. Unable to return home to Texas or California due to parole restrictions, Salinas chose to be exiled in Seattle where his friends Joseph Sommers, Tomás Ybarra Frausto, Antonia Castañeda-Shular, Elda Cisneros, and Armando Mendoza lived and worked. He secured work at the university, received financial aid, and became a UW freshman at the age of 38. Immediately following his arrival, he joined a multiracial, Latino-led coalition of community groups intent on assuming control of an abandoned school building. Successful in their effort, they formed El Centro de La Raza. Within a year he was teaching courses in Chicano literature as an adjunct faculty member at UW. He also entered the still-emerging Chicano literary movement as he attended the first annual Flor y Canto at the University of Southern California and numerous other literary festivals in the Southwest.
As a student, Salinas immersed himself in the Native American fishing rights struggle in the Seattle-Tacoma region, working with the Nisqually/Puyallup peoples. After attending school for three years, he began working fulltime at El Centro de La Raza. It was here that his international vision and his ideas regarding Indian-Chicano unity were cultivated. In 1975 he traveled to Cuba for the first time as a member of El Centro. Later that year, as a staff member of El Centro's Indian-Chicano Education Project, he met and worked with AIM member Leonard Peltier. Though not in the forefront of AIM's battles on the Pine Ridge reservation in 1975, Salinas provided tactical support from Seattle. In 1976 he was co-coordinator of the Trail of Self-Determination, a seven-month cross-country educational caravan led by the Survival of American Indians Association, whose purpose was to offer an alternative perspective on the U.S. bicentennial. They arrived in D.C. on July 4 of that year. In 1977 Salinas co-founded the national Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Four years later he would be selected as part of an International Indian Treaty Council delegation sent to represent Leonard Peltier at a Human Rights Symposium in Geneva.
In the latter half of the 1970s, Salinas also began to travel regularly to San Francisco. If Seattle became his political base, the Bay Area became his literary one when he began working with Editorial Pocho Ché to publish some important early works of Chicano literature. His first book, an early classic of Chicano literature, Un Trip thru the Mind Jail y Otras Excursions, was published in 1980. Salinas' collaborations with Alejandro Murguía and Roberto Vargas, both of whom were directly involved with the Sandinista national liberation struggle in Nicaragua, broadened his knowledge of and participation in the International Solidarity Movement.
In 1981, after completing the terms of his parole with the Texas Department of Corrections, Salinas moved back to Austin. Here he secured work teaching critical media studies courses through Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and was involved with the League of United Chicano Artists (LUChA). Almost immediately he established Resistencia Bookstore/Casa de Red Salmon Press at his home in a shotgun storefront on Austin's East Side. The store remains open to this day, though it has since relocated to the city's near south side. In 1985 Salinas moved to St. Louis for a year to head the national office of the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. As part of his ongoing work with the International Indian Treaty Council, Salinas traveled to Nicaragua, Libya, Cuba, and Panama. He continues to work on their behalf, and has, more recently, made trips to Chiapas, Mexico, as well as Vieques, Puerto Rico, in their name.
From 1989 to 1992 Salinas worked as a youth counselor with South Austin Youth Services. This work led him to become a specialist in gang intervention and conflict resolution, skills he continues to practice and speak on both formally and informally. Salinas' return to Austin presented him with the difficult challenge of continuing his role as activist, political spokesperson, and people's poet in an environment where he was known to have more savvy about the streets than political insight. He thus had to learn how to negotiate his old identity and relationships with his new direction in life. A popular poet and speaker on social justice issues at universities and political and cultural venues, Salinas has always been lesser known and lesser appreciated in his home community. But this fact needs to be balanced with the reality that his has been a strong and steady cultural and political force in Austin, especially through Resistencia Bookstore, a haven for emerging writers and young leftists seeking guidance from an experienced activist. Resistencia has been home base for local chapters of AIM, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, the Comité en Solidaridad con Chiapas y Mexico, SOY (Save Our Youth) arts program, a read-in of Live from Death Row (part of the Free Mumia Campaign), as well as numerous ad hoc political issues committees addressing local, state, national, or international crises.
In addition to publishing his second volume of poetry, having his archives acquired by Stanford University, and seeing Trip through the Mind Jail reissued by Arte Público Press, Salinas has produced two spoken-word CDs that have allowed him to showcase the musical dimensions, jazz in particular, of his work.
The goal of this brief profile of some of the more important moments of Salinas' prison experience has been to illustrate how his political consciousness was shaped in relation to his prison experience as well as the larger context of anticolonial struggles and the civil rights movement. His immersion into political activism as a prisoner continues to shape his poetics even as the cacophony of jazz and beat influences are more harmoniously synthesized in his most recent spoken word texts.
Salinas' contributions as a cultural worker are wide ranging. Today, in addition to conducting grant-sponsored youth writing workshops, he teaches courses from time to time at St. Edwards University and maintains a busy schedule on the reading circuit. Additionally, he has won many accolades for his work, including Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy in the City of Austin, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Distinguished Writer Award, the Luis Reyes Rivera Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2004 National Association for Latino Art and Culture (NALAC) Lifetime Achievement Award. His work with youth and his many contributions to community arts have been acknowledged in a Senate Resolution from the State of Texas.
Against the Jail Machine: Salinas' Contributions to Prison Literature and Social History
In the second edition of his groundbreaking study of prison literature, H. Bruce Franklin states that Jack Abbott's release and re-imprisonment following the publication of his collection of letters to Norman Mailer (In the Belly of the Beast) effectively captured readers' fascination regarding the penitentiary's impact on convicts. Franklin summarizes Abbott's thesis by asserting that "our penal institutions force each prisoner to become either a broken, cringing animal, fawning before all authority, or a resister, clinging to human dignity through defiance and rebellion" (xiii).
Prisoner rights activists within and outside the walls confront a conservative popular discourse that pathologizes prisoners and emphasizes the punitive dimensions of imprisonment over its reformative potential. In contrast to this denigrating and often dehumanizing discourse, in leftist studies of prison literature it is common parlance to refer to the prison experience as an educational one, as is evidenced by Assata Shakur's words in the opening epigraph. The analogy made between incarceration and education hinges upon the notion that, in isolation from the larger social world, many prisoners develop, discover, or refine their political consciousness. In contrast to the perceived disconnection of the university ivory tower from society, where the primary function of education is to reproduce the managerial class that preserves the status quo, the politics of knowledge in prisons often functions to produce counter-hegemonic intellectuals. Ironically, this re-education about the social circumstances that lead to incarceration takes place under brutal conditions in which the worst social forces and prejudices are intensified. This otherwise invisible spiritual and moral process of conscientización that many prisoners undergo, a process that precipitates a new way of seeing and acting in the world, is made tangible by Salinas' writings during his years of incarceration. In these works we witness Salinas' transformation from "social criminal" to political activist—a transformation that eventually led to his punitive transfer from the Leavenworth, Kansas, federal penitentiary to the control unit of a Marion, Illinois, federal prison in 1971. As many activists in the anti-war and civil rights movements began to face the threat of counter-intelligence programs (COINTELPRO) and other forms of government repression, convicts involved in prison reform work were also labeled as "dangerous" and subsequently marked for special repressive measures, including punitive transfers to specially designed behavior modification units. Franklin has noted that there are two overlapping groups of prison authors: "the political activist thrust into prison, and the common criminal thrust into political activism. The distinction between these two groups tends to dissolve as the definition of crime, from both sides of the law, becomes increasingly political" (242). Salinas' transformation and subsequent transfer illustrate the degree to which the prison system fears, and thus finds it necessary to contain through super-repressive means, organized and politically conscious prisoners.
Upon reading Salinas' oeuvre it becomes clear that his writing functioned as a tool of resistance against psychological and physical containment. More importantly, in describing his prison experience, Salinas also often refers to it as an educational one, with each move to another institution portrayed as a different and progressively more difficult degree program. This radical transformation that many prisoners undergo is often lost in popular accounts of the prison experience. Prisoners in contemporary literature and film are almost always rendered reductively by the Hollywood film industry. In popular films of the Chicano prison experience, such as American Me and Bound by Honor (aka Blood In, Blood Out), the representation of prison resistance is always articulated in continuing forms of criminality (drugs, sex, violence, organized crime, etc.), and a search for identity is often framed as a struggle for or against racial supremacy. Lost in these sensationalized representations are the kinds of consciousness-raising and inter- and intra-group alliances made inside and outside of the prison, particularly during the civil rights movement and prison rebellion years that frame the time of Salinas' incarceration. The intensified racism systematically fostered in prisons operates to thwart the development of an oppositional consciousness among prisoners by exploiting pre-existing social divisions. However, as much prison literature demonstrates, this struggle for survival and power need not be overdetermined. Originally a prisoner of social crimes (narcotics possession and distribution), Salinas' prison experience exemplifies the ways in which a convict is transformed by and transforms the Prison Industrial Complex.
Both in the context from which it emerged and now, Salinas' writing needs to be seen as an intervention in the ahistorical and often dehumanizing popular discourse surrounding prisoners and crime that all too often preempts any critical discussion of the faults and limitations of the criminal justice system. As part of a prisoner rights movement, he and his cohorts began to forge a radical cultural praxis that linked issues of identity with notions of power and justice, and thus cultural practices and "cultural studies" became vehicles for education and mobilization. Salinas' poetry, journalism, letters, and political archives reflect a diligent, protracted, yet deliberate process of conscientización, a feature that undermines the framework of pathology that stamps the popular representation of prisoners.
Few would argue that prison literature is not political, fraught as it is with issues of power. Most prison literature is testimony to the author's struggle to retain dignity and sanity in a context that forces a convict to conform or resist. Much of this literature can be said to have a similar intention as testimonio literature, whose goal is to render the "often invisible" abuses of power visible as it seeks to realize a politics of solidarity. In this regard "the artistic achievement of this literature [must be approached] with an aesthetic radically different from most aesthetics applied in the university and the university-dominated cultural media. In truth, it may not be going too far to say that the prison and the university provide the contradictory poles defining the field of aesthetics . . ." (Franklin, 235).
Prison literature, especially that which might be labeled "protest" literature, is by definition speaking from the margins. The issues of location and politics are important for here the function of literature becomes crucial. As Georg Gugelberger has argued with regard to testimonio in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourses in Latin America, reading and teaching prison literature is imperative, or should be. Situated at
the cross roads of all the discourses of institutional battles in recent years: postcolonial and/versus postmodern; genre vs non-genre; interest in autobiography; the function of the canon; authenticity/realism the debates on subalternity; discussions on authorship; othering discourse; margin/center; race/class/gender; minority discourse; Third World writing; questions of disciplinarity." (7)
And I would add issues of self-representation, violence, and social control among others. Moreover, though it doesn't share the same status as testimonio in these pro-penal legislation days, prison literature, like testimonio, runs a similar risk of being romanticized or reduced to mere art (or evidence of "culture," "intellect," or humanity from an unexpected source) and de-politicized when it is ripped from its context.
The politics of knowledge, culture, identity, and representation remain crucial to the creation of a body politic that is invested in creating a more humane society. Salinas and his comrades in struggle sought to acquire a knowledge of politics, find individual and collective fulfillment, and advance human liberation. In doing so, they found it necessary to systematically undermine and counter a dehumanizing and divisive prison culture.
The Jail Machine in the Twenty-First Century
It is this systematic process of dehumanization that is at the core of the notion of the prison as a machine intent on cranking out neatly packaged "good" citizens, no matter the cost to one's sense of personal dignity. Whether these human warehouses are called correctional institutions, reform schools, behavior research or modification centers, adjustment centers, penitentiaries, prisons, or jails, the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex has but one goal: to isolate, contain, and modify the bodies, minds, and spirits of its residents to accept "their" subordinate place in society. This philosophy is predicated on the notion that prisoners are defective human beings who have proven their antisocial nature through their crimes.
In 1972 a backlash against the prisoner rights movement was initiated that is directly responsible for the proliferation of prisons and prisoners in this country. Todd R. Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, notes: "Beginning in 1972, the prison population started a pattern of unrelenting growth in annual increments (from a base of around 200,000), lasting for over a generation and continuing today." The result is a 500 percent increase in incarceration, and more than 2 million inmates in prisons and jails, with the burden of the increased incarceration falling most heavily on poor African American and Hispanic communities. According to a fact sheet from The Sentencing Project, "There are now 6.6 million Americans incarcerated or on probation, or parole, an increase of more than 258 percent since 1980."
With the world's most imprisoned population (690 per 100,000 population), the United States must come to terms with a policy gone awry. As we witness the incarceration of huge sectors of entire populations—Black males have a 29% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 16% chance; white males have a 4% chance; 46% of prison inmates in 2001 were black and 16% were Hispanic—we must understand that we have created policies that are undermining our future and exploit and further magnify social prejudices against people of color, youth, the poor, and the undereducated (68% of state prison inmates have not completed high school; 36% of jail inmates in 1996 were unemployed prior to entering jail; 64% of jail inmates in 1996 had monthly incomes of under $1,000 in the month before their arrest).
Perhaps the most important purpose served by the publication of this collection will be its contribution to an increased understanding of the human potential that lives behind the walls of prisons. Put another way, it is my hope that this collection will help undermine the mask created by a discourse of dehumanization that the mainstream media and political, legal, and judicial officials have imposed on this segment of our society. We must acknowledge prisoners as members of the human family, as our fellow citizens, if we are to rectify the social conditions that create their incarceration. We must be willing to ask what is wrong with a society that is so ready, willing, and able to disregard so much human capital. What does our current political economy of incarceration say about the nature of the freedom of which we would deprive others?
Today, with few exceptions, there is very little public attention given to the ever expanding Prison Industrial Complex as a significant portion of our population, most of whom are very young, are incarcerated for longer periods of time with little regard for rehabilitation. They are victims of a judicial system hell-bent on addressing the symptoms of a society gone awry and not the underlying causes that drive people to live outside the law. What we can learn from this collection of writings as well as the work of many other prison writers, is that in the same way that prisons serve as a microcosm for the larger world, it is also true that insights into human nature, the enormous capacity for love and justice, can transcend even the most repressive circumstances. Perhaps we can learn to foster those qualities, those virtues, and in our own way, contribute to the formation of a more just society.
raúlrsalinas and the Jail Machine is organized into four major sections that are designed to enable readers to follow the trajectory of Salinas' transformation as a writer and emerging activist-intellectual. With this purpose in mind, each section represents a particular genre of writing that, more or less, is organized chronologically. In section 1 we begin with Salinas' journalism because though he did write letters to his family during his earlier period of incarceration in Soledad, few of those early letters to family have been saved. Moreover, it is only after Salinas started contributing to The Echo that he began to forge a "writerly" identity that would shape his presentation of himself and his experience in ways that are self-reflective and less formulaic. His journalism, like his letter writing, documents an evolving sense of self and society. This critical sense of self shapes not only what he writes about but also how he writes. Yet, even from his first jazz column in January 1964, we see that Salinas was already aware of the role of music in expressing social discontent and the importance of an avant garde for innovative forms of expression. Presented here are nine of fourteen of Salinas' jazz review columns. A significant span of time elapsed between the Christmas 1964 overview of Kennedy's drug policy and the first issue of Aztlán de Leavenworth published on May 5, 1970. By 1970 Salinas had undergone a major ideological transformation due to his contact with political prisoners in Leavenworth, his extensive reading, as well as his educational and organizational experiences obtained through CORA. His contributions to Aztlán, New Era, and Entrelíneas demonstrate a major evolution of his political consciousness during his time at Leavenworth.
In section 2, "Flying Kites to the World," we gain insight into Salinas' most intense period of transformation through his correspondence with a wide array of people. A kite is prison slang for any type of written correspondence. Kites that reach the outside world are one means for a prisoner to send some part of himself over the forty-foot walls surrounding most prisons. The term also signifies a prisoner's sense of isolation and his tenuous relationship to the outside world, one subject to all manner of whimsical interruptions, be it censorship or getting "lost" in transit. Because receiving and sending correspondence was under intense scrutiny, and often a privilege subject to revocation by prison authorities, and because correspondence with the "free world" was the most reliable means of establishing and maintaining relationships with non-prisoners, these letters reveal many dimensions of a complex human being undergoing personal and political change.
Salinas' letters to politicians, activists, family, and friends involve careful negotiations between his former life and his current self. These relationships are often paradoxical: they reveal someone who is simultaneously fragile and intense, someone seeking connection and commitment even as he expresses deep uncertainty and fears. They are letters fraught with newfound power and cautious restraint. The selections included here are intended to provide a multifaceted view of Salinas, as he communicates with immediate family and strives to connect to activists, academics, lawyers, politicians, journalists, cultural centers, and political organizations. His candor and acute political insight, as well as his emerging reputation as a poet, command respect from his audience. Many recipients of his letters formed a lasting friendship with him. We are fortunate to have here some exchanges which illustrate the intensity of his dialogue, analysis of his situation, reflections and reports from progressive social movements on the outside, and Salinas' meditations on his radical metamorphosis. The letters are by and large organized chronologically, though there are four sets of exchanges with individuals that I have grouped together since there is a revealing strand of dialogue in each one that merits concentrated attention. Also included is correspondence with prison officials and other legal documents outlining Salinas' life as seen by "official transcripts" of his prison experience. These documents making up his prison dossier, in and of themselves, tell us little about Salinas' personal growth and transformation. Rather, the flattening out of his life that occurs here is presented as a means of reminding us of how a meaningful life can be lost in institutional bureaucracy. Comprising the bulk of the collection here, these letters began with exchanges with his family in 1968 and end in 1974, a little over a year after Salinas' release from Marion.
"Flying Kites to the World" is followed by section 3: "The Marion Strike: Journals from 'el pozo.'" The daily log of activities and statements about the strike reproduced here offer a harrowing first-hand look at prisoner resistance to institutional brutality carried out by guards and the draconian regulations defining the nation's most notorious control unit at the time. As noted in a 1992 report by the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, the term "control unit" was first coined at the United States Penitentiary (USP) at Marion, Illinois, in 1972 and has come to designate a prison or part of a prison that operates under a "super maximum security" regimen. Marion was opened in 1963, the same year Alcatraz was closed. Designed to be the new "most repressive" prison, the Bureau of Prisons designed the facilities and programs at Marion with the intent of being able to control the most dangerous and most politicized prisoners in the country. After implementing a behavior modification program entitled CARE (Control and Rehabilitation Effort), in the late 1960s the BOP began transferring the nation's "most dangerous prisoners" to Marion. Raúl Salinas and several other prisoners were moved from Leavenworth to Marion in April of 1972. This transfer signaled official recognition of Salinas as a dangerous mind, not for the social crimes for which he was originally sentenced to prison, but for his activism from within prison that marked him as a disruptive agitator. Describing it in vivid detail, a press release about the strike, transported out of the prison under cover on August 5, 1972, documents the initial events leading to the strike and provides an introduction of sorts to the daily log of "The Marion Story," as the strike came to be called by besieged prisoners. This daily log of developing events was maintained from July 15 to November 3, 1972. The materials in section 3 complement the story of Marion as told in the press, by journalists and prisoners alike.
Finally, the collection ends with two post-prison interviews of Salinas in section 4. The first took place almost immediately after his release and illustrates a critical mind preoccupied with his contributions to the prisoner rights movement by way of exposing inhumane behavior modification practices of the federal government. The second interview was conducted by Ben Olguín and myself upon the occasion of Stanford's acquisition of the Salinas archive. This is twenty-two years after his release, and though his experiences had broadened immensely, the poet's sense of purpose, his world vision, as well as his artistic sensibility were more finely honed, not dulled, by the years of struggle, resistance, and transformation.
This project was made possible by the preservation of Salinas' archives as part of Stanford University's Special Collections. What appear here are materials that tell an important story, one that extends beyond Salinas' own life. Every effort has been made to transcribe and present these materials in a manner that preserves the integrity with which they were originally created—even though they were created in conditions that were less than ideal. Some of these works, particularly the newspapers, letters, and journals, now exist as faded and torn mimeographs, typewritten or carbon paper copies, and letters handwritten in pen or pencil. Our goal was to present these with as little editorial alteration as possible in order to respect and preserve the context and circumstances of their production.
A consistent motif in Salinas' creative work is that of the journey. The travels and travails of his own life are grist for an extraordinary tale. This person's singular journey from individual alienation to rage to resistance is linked to social movements that occurred inside and outside of prison, and thus his story is also our story. And we must claim it as such if we are to embrace the belief that justice is a realizable vision, not merely a lofty ideal.