The solitude of prison forces the mind to grapple with many things
Letters from the inside
The letters quoted below were all written from prison, and that’s the only reason they sit together. To be clear, by listing them here I am in no way—not even a tiny bit!—equating the wildly disparate actions of the letter writers that led them to be imprisoned. That would be terrible. Thanks for your understanding.
My life was wasted and spent foolishly, brought shame and suffering on my parents and siblings and will end soon—Advice is a cheap commodity some seek it from me about crime—I know only thing for sure—If you want to make crime pay—“Go to Law School.”
Brittany Best of Luck in the future to you and Molly and Michaela.
Crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger
Letter to 17-year-old Brittany Tainsh
24th February 2015
(Source: Boston Globe)
The solitude of prison forces the mind to grapple with many things, to seek out many whys and wherefores, and to try to get to the heart of certain truths.
Prison is not just an individual cell, or the work that’s done there, or a television. You have personally experienced this same pain, so you should know that it is total isolation, being shut up in a place where the locks and keys are in someone else’s hands. It is the cries of anger, the outbursts of rage of the other unfortunate people also locked inside. The sleepless nights, the soul reduced to a primitive state.
One’s mind is muddled, one’s heart beats madly on its own.
Letter to Italian President Sandro Pertini
(Source: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life)
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
16th April 1963
(Source: University of Pennsylvania)
Tell Mother to order for you a Monthly Magazine I get here, Called ‘Fortune’…as to my estimation I think it is the most sensible Magazine written. Well Son, there isn’t much I can write, but chin up, always, and at any time, there is something you need or want, please don’t forget Son, that whatever you ask for, it will be done irregardless. I know Maggie gets out to your College suite often, as that sure breaks up the old Blues, and when you see her again give her a couple dozen kisses Capone style and a first class hug. God bless you my dear Son, and it’s short time Son, I will be with you in less than a year.
Letter to his son
16th January 1938
(Source: RR Auction)
How strange it is that I am always in a sort of joyful intoxication, though without sufficient cause. Here I am lying in a dark cell upon a mattress hard as stone; the building has its usual churchyard quiet, so that one might as well be already entombed; through the window there falls across the bed a glint of light from the lamp which burns all night in front of the prison. At intervals I can hear faintly in the distance the noise of a passing train or close at hand the dry cough of the prison guard as in his heavy boots, he takes a few slow strides to stretch his limbs. The gride of the gravel beneath his feet has so hopeless a sound that all the weariness and futility of existence seems to be radiated thereby into the damp and gloomy night. I lie here alone and in silence, enveloped in the manifold black wrappings of darkness, tedium, unfreedom, and winter—and yet my heart beats with an immeasurable and incomprehensible inner joy, just as if I were moving in the brilliant sunshine across a flowery mead. And in the darkness I smile at life, as if I were the possessor of charm which would enable me to transform all that is evil and tragical into serenity and happiness. But when I search my mind for the cause of this joy, I find there is no cause, and can only laugh at myself.
Letter to Sophie Liebknecht
(Source: The Rosa Luxemburg Reader)
When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else—the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver—would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.
Letter to Bosie Douglas
(Source: De Profundis)
Brother! I have not become downhearted or low-spirited. Life is everywhere life, life in ourselves, not in what is outside us. There will be people near me, and to be a man among people and remain a man forever, not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever misfortunes may befall me—this is life; this is the task of life. I have realized this. This idea has entered into my flesh and into my blood.
Letter to his brother, Mikhail
22nd December 1849
(Source: Letters of Note)
Disasters will always come & go, leaving their victims either completely broken or steeled & seasoned & better able to face the next crop of challenges that may occur. It is precisely at the present moment that you should remember that hope is a powerful weapon & one no power on earth can deprive you of; & that nothing can be as valuable as being part & parcel of the history of a country.
Letter to Winnie Mandela
6th June 1969
(Source: The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela)
We have to raise the demand that prisons in their present form be abolished. As an inevitable by-product of a male-orientated society and consequently still largely male-oriented movement—which women however are increasingly contesting—sufficient attention has not been devoted to women in prison.
I have often heard the rumor that as compared to men’s prisons, women’s institutions are humanely benign, the gravest problem being the tendency to ‘baby’ the women captives. This is a myth which must be immediately smashed. Perhaps it is true that white middle-class women, if they are arrested at all, are given preferential treatment, but for the vast majority of women prisoners—who are Black, Chicano and Puerto Rican—the notion of mildness in the midst of coercion is a blatant misrepresentation.
Letter to Ericka Huggins
22nd May 1971
On December 8, 1980 I shot and killed John Lennon. Before this, earlier in the afternoon, I had asked him to sign his Double Fantasy album. He did this also signing the date: 1980. I then placed this album behind the security guard's booth where it was found after my arrest. I have tried unsuccessfully for years (and 2 attorneys) to get this item back, seeking to place it at auction and donating the money to a children's charity. I felt it was the least I could do. Now, is there any way to assess the value of an item such as this? I have often wanted to write a dealer (Charles Hamilton comes to mind) concerning this but haven't. I guess listening to you convinced me I could trust you – I'm somewhat of a recluse.
Is there a value that could be assigned to an item like this? Is this something that could only be determined at auction? Please let me know your feelings on this.
Letter to a memorabilia expert
10th April 1986
(Source: Letters of Note)
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