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Writings from Prison

January 11, 2010


My dad taught his eight children, “You can get into more trouble in five minutes than you can get out of in a lifetime.” I have known several people for whom Dad’s warning became a prophecy of their lives.

After I returned to Spartanburg in 1980, I met a young man at the County Jail who was charged with murder. The circumstances of his crime were a drug deal gone bad. In a moment of rage, he got into a lifetime of trouble. After he was sentenced and sent to the state prison system, I was able to visit him infrequently. I received a card from him every Christmas and every Easter for the next twenty years.

His correspondence was, at first, bitter and sullen. Over time the tone of his writing changed. Toward the end of his life, his entire attitude had been transformed. He wrote with a joy and a sense of gratitude that was genuine. He died in prison. When I conducted his funeral I spoke about the healing and renewal that I had seen reflected in his writing.

Writings from prison have made an important contribution to literature. O. Henry honed his skills at the Ohio State Penitentiary. A remarkable variety of written works has come from a diversity of famous incarcerated Americans. They include Jack London, who spent a month behind bars for being a vagabond; Robert Lowell, who served a year for resisting the World War II draft; Malcolm X, who got seven years for burglary; and Native American, Leonard Peltier who is still at the United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

On the international scene, Nelson Mandela wrote from Robben Island prison in South Africa. Jewish writers of the Holocaust include Primo Levi, Isaac Singer, Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, and Viktor Frankl.

Any list of the best books written in prison would certainly include the following.

Le Morte d’Arthur was penned by Sir Thomas Malory during his imprisonment in the 1450s for theft. Malory filled the years he spent awaiting trial recalling the tales of chivalry that he collected into this classic.

 Don Quixote was written by Miguel de Cervantes who was jailed two or three times. In his prologue, he acknowledges that his great work emerged while he was confined to a cell.  The author’s imagination wandered over the dusty roads of Spain with his poor knight.

Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory narrating Christian’s journey to the Holy City, was written by John Bunyan during the twelve years he was incarcerated in Bedford jail for public preaching. His book certainly outlasted his sermons.

De Profundis was authored by Oscar Wilde in Reading Jail, where he spent two years after being found guilty of gross indecency. The volume is Wilde’s explanation for his life and conduct.

To Althea, from Prison by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, was composed from his jail cell. During his seven weeks in Fleet Prison he produced what have become the most famous prison lines in English poetry:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,

Nor Iron bars a Cage;

Mindes innocent and quiet take

That for an Hermitage.

Justine, a sensual novel by the Marquis de Sade, was written entirely from prison.  The infamous Marquis spent much of his adult life in prison and wrote most of his novels there. The first draft of Justine was written in the Bastille.

A Hymn to the Pillory turned personal disaster into triumph when  Daniel Defoe wrote this satire in Newgate Prison while waiting to be put in the pillory. Defoe was constantly in debt and was imprisoned for his failure to pay his creditors. His most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, may have had its beginnings during one of his confinements.

The Apostle Paul wrote several of his letters during his two-year confinement in Rome. Paul regarded his shackles as a minor concern. He used his time in prison to write letters of encouragement that, for nearly two thousand years, have been regarded by Christians as scripture.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young theologian, who was among those who opposed Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. The Gestapo banned him from preaching; then teaching; and finally any kind of public speaking. Bonhoeffer was apprehended in March 1943. He wrote numerous letters while imprisoned. These were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by piano wire outside of his cell He was only 39, yet his writings continue to inspire to this day.

Father Alfred Delp, Corrie Ten Boom, Chuck Colson, and many other prison writers could be added to our list. One more must be mentioned.

This weekend, many will observe Martin Luther King Day. The civil rights leader was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, after a peaceful protest against segregation. As I have done for several years, I will read again “King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was an open letter written in response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen. The pastors agreed that social injustices were taking place but expressed the belief that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts and not taken onto the streets.

King responded that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” 

Prison writings have a common theme.

Freedom is never to be taken for granted. It is to be cherished.

Kirk H. Neely

© January 2010

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