Jimmy Santiago Baca, born in 1952 to Chicano parents in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had a deprived and unsettled childhood. He spent his early childhood first with grandparents, until he was five, and then in an Albuquerque, New Mexico, orphanage. He ran away from the orphanage when he was eleven and for the next nine years lived on the streets and in various detention centers.
In 1972, Baca was arrested and convicted for possession of heroin with intent to sell. He was sent to prison in Florence, Arizona, where he stayed for the following seven years. There, according to the Arizona Supreme Court, which ordered his release in 1979, he was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, including electric shock therapy.
Despite its harshness, however, Baca’s prison experience turned him around as a person and set his life on a new course. Poetry became his savior. In prison, he began reading and writing, first a journal and then poetry. He was encouraged by several people, including Will Inman, former publisher of New Kauri poetry magazine, who visited Baca in prison. He also submitted poems to Mother Jones magazine, where the distinguished poet Denise Levertov was poetry editor. Describing Baca as “an extraordinarily gifted poet,” Levertov published three of his prison poems in Mother Jones and began a correspondence with him.
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