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  • ... we are reaching the point, if we have not passed it already, where the largest public housing program in America will be our penitentiary system.

  • The outer prisons are made by the community to contain those who have dared break its laws. The inner prisons each man makes for himself because of what he feels are his transgressions.

  • The character and mentality of the keepers may be of more importance in understanding prisons than the character and mentality of the kept.

  • Prison walls are meant not only to keep convicts in, but to keep the would-be investigator out.

  • Society created the prison in its own image; will history, with its penchant for paradox, reverse those roles?

  • ... the prison system, inherently unjust and inhumane, is the ultimate expression of injustice and inhumanity in the society at large.

  • Those of us on the outside do not like to think of wardens and guards as our surrogates. Yet they are, and they are intimately locked in a deadly embrace with their human captives behind the prison walls. By extension so are we.

  • California is now close to spending more on prisons than it does on higher education — surely the death warrant of a civilization.

  • Autumn and spring are the worst times, because it's very cold and the heating is not functioning at all. The cell becomes riddled with damp, and your clothes are permanently clammy. Luckily, they let you have newspapers in PKT [unit for political prisoners], and we spread them under ourselves during the day. They make really excellent insulation. And to think we had been underestimating the value of the Soviet press all our lives.

  • ... you must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate. Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it would flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul. You will no longer be yourself, your identity will be destroyed, all that will remain will be a hysterical, maddened and bedevilled husk of the human being that once was.

  • All this [Soviet labor camp for political prisoners] brings about one marked change in your physical appearance; by the end of your first year, you will have what are known as 'zek's eyes.' The look in a zek's eyes is impossible to describe, but once encountered, it is never forgotten. When you emerge, your friends, embracing you, will exclaim: 'Your eyes! Your eyes have changed!' And not one of your tormentors will be able to bear your scrutiny. They will turn away from it, like beaten dogs.

  • [After her release as a political prisoner:] The taste of coffee turned out to be quite different from the way I remembered it. It was strange to feel the strap of my old watch on my wrist. The second hand scurried round, tapping out the moments, like a chicken trying to find its way out of an eggshell that stubbornly refuses to crack. What's the time? What's the season? An eternity has passed since I came home, but the clock says that it is only five hours. Should I try on those of my clothes which Igor couldn't bring himself to give away because I had made them myself, feeling that it would be like giving away a kitten to a stranger? Should we put on a cassette with our favourite songs? Should we just light a candle and sit together in silence, our arms around each other, watching October sliding down the other side of the window?

  • It's been an age since they marched us away under guard / When we wouldn't give in or agree. / We have mastered the lesson of loss — / Don't cry, don't make a sound!

  • Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo — obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other.

  • Today the United States has the highest prison population in the world, over 2.1 million people. ... We lock people up at a rate that is seven to ten times that of any other democracy.

  • I am not saying people shouldn't be held accountable for terrible acts. But holding people in prisons does not necessarily make them responsible or accountable. It makes them bad. It makes them evil. It puts an end to any process of transformation. It hardens them spiritually and psychologically.

  • We are incarcerating more people on a per capita basis in California than any country in the world other than South Africa or the Soviet Union.

  • [Incarcerated in an asylum by her family for thirty years:] I don't belong in the midst of all this, you must get me out of this place; after fourteen years, today, of such a life, I cry out for freedom.

  • It is useless to try to help the lives of a community without consulting the individuals whom you hope to benefit ...

  • I lost all consciousness of any cause. I had no sense of being a radical, making a protest against a government, carrying on a nonviolent revolution. ... I lost all feeling of my own identity. I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again ...

  • The Administration pinned its faith on jail — that institution of convenience to the oppressor when he is strong in power and his weapons are effective. When the oppressor miscalculates the strength of the oppressed, jail loses its convenience.

  • [Upon being jailed:] ... you put me in here a cub, but I will go out a roaring lion, and I will make all hell howl.

  • Jail is a good experience but it has its drawbacks ... all the disadvantages of married life with none of its compensations ...

  • It might be hard to believe, but the air in prison is different. There's like one thousand people sucking on the one little piece of fresh air until it turns stale.

  • I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.

    • Mother Jones,
    • in Mary Field Parton, ed., The Autobiography of Mother Jones ()
  • There comes a time for the jailer when he realizes that he is a prisoner too, and his guilt draws a heavier punishment because it has not been named and judged and has not had a sentence set for its expiation.

  • The murderous deed of the criminal was against conscience, the torture or the murder of the criminal by the official is with conscience. Thus the conscience is diseased and perverted, and a new class of imbruted men created. We have punished and punished for untold thousands of years, and we have not gotten rid of crime, we have not diminished it.