Reflections on prisons – Honoring Malcolm X & Ho Chi Minh

May 19 marks the 96th anniversary of the birthday of Malcolm X and the 131st for Ho Chi Minh. Although one was Black and one was Vietnamese and the two were from different generations and experiences, what they had in common – that continues to inspire many today — was sacrificing their lives for the liberation of oppressed peoples from racism, colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism.  

Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh both spent part of their lives imprisoned, in the U.S. (1946-1952) and pre-revolutionary China (1942-1943), respectively. In honor of these two great revolutionaries, we share the following quotes from Malcolm X, reflecting on both his personal and political views on prisons, and Ho Chi Minh’s spoken word from “The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh.”   

When I was in prison, I read an article — don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.

It is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come.

“If you’re born in America with a Black skin, you’re born in prison, and the masses of Black people in America today are beginning to regard our plight or predicament in this society as one of a prison inmate.”

While I was in prison, I was indulging in all types of vice, right within the prison. And I never was ostracized as much by the penal authorities while I was participating in all of the evils of the prison, as they tried to ostracize me after I became a Muslim.

“The prison systems in this country actually are exploitative, and they are not in any way rehabilitative.”

“They [prisons] are not designed to rehabilitate the inmate, though the public propaganda is that this is their function.”

[People] earn extra money [in prison] selling contraband, dope and things of that sort to the inmates, and so that really it’s an exploiter.” 

— Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 – Feb. 21, 1965) (

Hard Is the Road of Life

Having climbed over steep mountains and high peaks.

How should I expect on the plains to meet greater danger?

In the mountains, I met the tiger and came out unscathed:

On the plains, I encountered men, and was thrown into prison.

The Flute of the Fellow-Prisoner

Suddenly a flute sounds a nostalgic note;

Sadly the music rises, its tune is close to sobbing:

Over a thousand miles, across mountains and rivers,

Journey’s an aching grief. We seem to see a woman

Climbing a far off tower to watch for someone’s return.

A Comrade’s Paper Blanket

New books, old books, the leaves all piled together. A paper blanket is better than no blanket.

You who sleep like princes, sheltered from the cold,
Do you know how many men in prison cannot sleep all night?

Autumn Night

Before the gate, a guard with a rifle on his shoulder. In the sky, the moon flees through clouds. Swarming bed bugs,  like black army tanks in the night. Squadrons of mosquitoes, like waves of attacking planes.

I think of my homeland. I dream I can fly far away. I dream I wander trapped in webs of sorrow.

A year has come to an end here.  

Clear Morning

The morning sun shines over the prison wall,

And drives away the shadows

and miasma of hopelessness.

A life-giving breeze blows across the earth.

A hundred imprisoned faces smile once more.


Autumn night. No mattress. No covers.

No sleep. Body and legs huddle up and cramp.

The moon shines on the frost-covered banana leaves. Beyond my bars the Great Bear swings on the Pole.

On the Way to Nanning

The supple rope has now been replaced with iron fetters.

At every step they jingle as though I wore jade rings.

In spite of being a prisoner, accused of being a spy,

I move with all the dignity of an ancient government official!

After Prison a Walk in the Mountains

The clouds embrace the peaks, the peaks embrace the clouds,

The river below shines like a mirror, spotless and clean.

On the crest of the Western Mountains, my heart stirs as I wander

Looking towards the Southern sky and dreaming of old friends.


For prisoners, there is no alcohol nor flowers,

But the night is so lovely, how can we celebrate it?

I go to the air-hole and stare up at the moon,

And through the air-hole the moon smiles at the poet

Ho Chi Minh (May 19, 1890 – Sept. 2, 1969)


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