I recently re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and it never gets old for me. As many know, Malcolm X spent nearly seven years locked behind bars and converted to Islam while he was imprisoned. Upon his release, he became committed to the social and political uplift of black people and was an inspiration to millions.
The following is an excerpt from the Autobiography of Malcolm X that recounts some of his experience of captivity and confinement. I included this excerpt in a zine that I developed for the Black/Inside exhibition. You can download the entire publication HERE (PDF). It includes first-hand accounts from black prisoners writing about their experiences of incarceration.
I GOT TEN YEARS.
The girls got one to five years, in the Women’s Reformatory at Framingham, Massachusetts.
This was in February, 1946. I wasn’t quite twenty-one. I had not even started shaving. They took Shorty and me, handcuffed together, to the Charlestown State Prison.
I can’t remember any of my prison numbers. That seems surprising, even after the dozens years since I have been out of prison. Because your number in prison became part of you. You never heard your name, only your number. On all of your clothing, every item, was your number, stenciled. It grew stenciled on your brain.
Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars – caged. I am not saying there shouldn’t be prisons, but there shouldn’t be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget. He never will get completely over the memory of the bars.
After he gets out, his mind tries to erase the experience, but he can’t. I’ve talked with numerous former convicts. It has been very interesting to me to find that all of our minds had blotted away many details of years in prison. But in every case, he will tell you that he can’t forget those bars.
As a “fish” (prison slang for a new inmate) at Charlestown, I was physically miserable and as evil-tempered as a snake, being suddenly without drugs. The cells didn’t have running water. The prison had been built in 1805 – in Napoleon’s day – and was even styled after the Bastille. In the dirty, cramped cell, I could lie on my cot and touch both walls. The toilet was a covered pail; I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t stand having to smell a whole cell row of defecation.
The prison psychologist interviewed me and he got called every filthy name I could think of, and the prison chaplain got called worse. My first letter, I remember, was from my religious brother Philbert in Detroit, telling me his “holiness” church was going to pray for me. I scrawled him a reply I’m ashamed to think of today.
Ella was my first visitor. I remember seeing her catch herself, then try to smile at me, now in the faded dungarees stenciled with my number. Neither of us could find much to say, until I wished she hadn’t come at all. The guards with guns watched about fifty convicts and visitors. I have heard scores of new prisoners swearing back in their cells that when free their first act would be to waylay those visiting-room guards. Hatred often focused on them.
I first got high in Charlestown on nutmeg. My cellmate was among at least a hundred nutmeg men who, for money or cigarettes, bought from kitchen-worker inmates penny matchboxes full of stolen nutmeg. I grabbed a box as though it were a pound of heavy drugs. Stirred into a glass of cold water, a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers.
With some money sent by Ella, I was finally able to buy stuff for better highs from guards in the prison. Smuggling to prisoners was the guards’ sideline; every prison’s inmates know that’s how guards make most of their living.
I served a total of seven years in prison. Now, when I try to separate that first year-plus that I spent at Charlestown, it runs all together in a memory of nutmeg and the other semi-drugs, of cursing guards, throwing things out of my cell, balking in the lines, dropping my tray in the dining hall, refusing to answer my number – claiming I forgot it – and things like that.
I preferred the solitary that this behavior brought me. I would pace for hours like a caged leopard, viciously cursing aloud to myself. And my favorite targets were the Bible and God. But there was a legal limit to how much time one could be kept in solitary. Eventually, the men in the cellblock had a name for me: “Satan.” […]
[M]y sister Ella had been steadily working to get me transferred to the Norfolk, Massachusetts, Prison Colony, which was an experimental rehabilitation jail. In other prisons, convicts often said that if you had the right money, or connections, you could get transferred to this Colony whose penal policies sounded almost too good to be true. Somehow, Ella’s efforts in my behalf were successful in late 1948, and I was transferred to Norfolk.