The Importance of Hope Even for Those Behind Bars in A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca and the Poetry and Life of Kathy Boudin

Categories: Literature

Hope Behind Bars The life of a prisoner is not one to be envied. Nearly all facets of daily life are controlled by external forces. Robbed of life’s liberty, one is left to ponder the reasons to maintain hope while surrounded by four walls: Hope for oneself, and hope for those who face a similar fate. Hope is a powerful thing. While it can’t physically save a life, it can sustain a person’s livelihood, even in the darkest of times.

Countless stories exist from prisoners sharing their accounts of life on the inside. But the common thread that ties together the most widelyread prison texts is the idea of hope. Through Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir “A Place to Stand”, as well as the poetry and life of Kathy Boudin, one can truly appreciate the importance of hope, even for those destined to live behind bars.

Jimmy Santiago Baca spent his young adult life seemingly stuck in a revolving door of institutions.

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Having never learned to read or write, he was sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison at the age of 21, stemming from a drug charge. Over the course of his memoir, “A Place to Stand”, Baca grapples with two identities; There is ‘Baca the gangbanger’, and ‘Baca the reader’. As he struggles through the arduous process of learning to read, sounding out words letter by letter, he posits, “guys like [himself] hung out and bullshitted all day” (Baca 100). He had no use for reading because he was ‘Baca the gangbanger’, the rebel who was only teaching himself using a book that he had just stolen.

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He saw himself at the time solely through the lens of the gangbanger identity, not as a man destined for anything different or better. Though he taught himself to read, it was not from a need for self-improvement.

Rather, Baca’s wake-up call came much later, as his former girlfriend, Theresa, comes to visit him in prison. Though she has moved on romantically, Baca is stuck in the past, expressing his continuing love for her, despite her denials. It is Theresa who incites Baca to improve himself, asking “how [does he] ever expect to get out of [prison) if she doesn’t] follow the rules?” (198). This confrontation leads Baca down a path of introspection. Having spent significant amounts of time in solitary confinement for violence and assorted rule-breaking, Baca reflects on his past and serves the rest of his time efficiently, and within the guidelines set by the prison. He continues to learn, and writes poetry. He maintains some hope for his future.

It is this hope that Baca holds on to, against all odds, while in prison. He has hope, not for his fellow inmates, and not for his family, as he has none. But he does have hope for a better life for himself.

While serving time in solitary confinement, he allows his mind to wander to happier memories through his “desire to fight to remain human” (Baca 149). Without hope, Baca does not believe that one can truly be human. But it is with this renewed hope that he is able to survive prison, to survive a life otherwise robbed of humanity. A man of less than 30 years of age, Baca had the opportunity to better himself and maintain hope for his life beyond prison. He had hope for a better life for himself, and he fulfilled that hope.

For Jimmy Santiago Baca, his sentence had an expiration date.

At some point, he would regain his freedom, rejoin the world of those who are not incarcerated, and have an opportunity to continue his life.

However, some inmates are not so lucky. Inmates like Mumia Abu Jamal receive death sentences, occupying a cell indefinitely, until law enforcement officials decide that it is time to end his life. Poet Kathy Boudin, a prisoner herself, serving a lengthy term, wrote of the concept of hope and hopelessness for prisoners on death row. Her poem “For Mumia: I Wonder” openly asked how one maintains hope when facing down that sentence.

Boudin lived out her prison sentence by making consistent efforts at self-improvement. An underground radical before her imprisonment, she had graduated from college, but her only known activity after that involved the Weather Underground and occasional trips to the Soviet Union or Cuba. However, while she was incarcerated, Boudin sought a better life for herself. She spent a significant amount of time writing, finding in that some hope for herself, winning the PEN prize for poetry in 1999. But she also had hope for her fellow inmates, those in similar situations, founding programs while in prison that were designed to help mothers and children. Boudin’s hope for others even extended into her writing, penning a poem for Mumia Abu-Jamal while he was awaiting his own execution.

Capital punishment is final. Knowing that one will die without having another moment of freedom is enough to make one lose hope. When confronted with a death sentence, Boudin wondered, “… how you grow your life / In a row they call death” (Boudin). However, over the course of the poem, she realizes the opportunities that one has to maintain hope. The hope that one has on death row, after all appeals are exhausted, no longer exists for oneself, but for the others around him. To help others who may still have a chance at freedom can provide enough hope to be sustaining while on death row. In a position where the outlook on life is bleak at best, Boudin contended, “that life is full / when you are full of life” (Boudin). Maintaining some semblance of hope, even if the grimmest of circumstances can improve the quality of whatever life one may lead. Even on death row, Boudin maintained, one can have hope for the betterment of others, even without hope for oneself.

Hope is the driving force that sustains people. Without it, life seems bleak, any negative circumstance more foreboding. While in prison, and faced with a significantly austere outlook, hope is even more important. For the writers mentioned in this essay, hope drove them toward self-improvement. Today, Baca is an anti-prison activist, and writes memoirs and poetry reflecting on his prison experience, but he did not return to prison after serving his sentence. Meanwhile, Kathy Boudin is a professor at Columbia University, having removed herself from the life of radical extremism and crime that led to her sentence. Even Mumia Abu-Jamal receives a happy ending, having written essays for the Yale Law Journal and segments for NPR. His sentence was commuted in 2012 from death to life-without-parole. But while in prison, he realized the importance of hope for himself and for others, speaking about prison life in multiple radio broadcasts. Hope helped each of these prisoners retain their humanity and live a life beyond the walls.


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The Importance of Hope Even for Those Behind Bars in A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca and the Poetry and Life of Kathy Boudin. (2022, Apr 05). Retrieved from

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