Review of Can’t Jail The Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S.

Common mythology has it that there are no political prisoners in the United States, the land of the free. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The argument could be made that a good portion of the nearly two million US citizens in prison are political prisoners, that is, that their imprisonment serves political purpose. Contrast, for example, the minimum required sentencing for possession of crack, used mainly by poor blacks, with that for powder cocaine, used mainly by affluent whites (and at least one current presidential candidate). More to the point, if you commit armed robbery, you’ll likely go to prison, yet if you cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Latin America, an airport in DC may be named in your honor.

But even under a rigid definition of political prisoners—people imprisoned because of their political beliefs—the list of American political prisoners is long.

This important book provides autobiographies of more than fifty of these prisoners. The entries, which include black and white photos, are brief, uncompromising, and deeply moving in the dedication they represent. A few contributors include Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Sundiata Acoli, members of the MOVE 9, Mark Cook, numerous Puerto Rican Independentistas, and Marilyn Buck.

The book is not without problems. It is the fifth edition of a book that first appeared as a photocopied set of pages in 1988. Many of the entries have been updated, but much of the information is old. It was put together not by a publisher, but by the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, and clearly was assembled on a small budget. Proofreading is poor. The writing quality of the entries varies wildly. The design is plain to the point of distraction.

But to linger on the shortcomings is to miss the point. In fact the simplicity and sincerety of the book is among its strongest points. Story piles upon story to shake the reader from complacency, and to make clear that there are many people out there who believe they can make the world a more just and better place, and who are willing to make great sacrifices in order to achieve it.

This is a worthy book that will stir people to action.

Originally published in the September/October 1999 issue of “The Bloomsbury Review”

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