Behind Bars: 61 Poets Who Went To Jail

While freedom of speech is generally promoted today, this wasn’t always the case, and a lot of poets have caused a stir with their unfiltered approach. Controversial topics and unfavourable connections have landed many poets in hot water, so much so that a few of them have ended up behind bars because of it. Of course, there are a number of poets that have gone to jail for reasons that aren’t so closely related to their craft, such as throwing a brick through a police station window! Below, we take a look at 61 poets who went to jail in further detail…


1. Adam Mickiewicz

The Polish poet was arrested in 1823 and exiled into Russia for his part in the Philomaths, which was an organisation Mickiewicz set up with friends in 1817. The group discussed romanticist ideas, which were banned by the Russian Empire at the time.

2. Allen Ginsberg

The influential American writer had a number of run-ins with the law. His first occurred when he was accused of having stolen goods in his dorm room. Ginsberg pleaded insanity, and spent several months in a mental institution. Ginsberg then went on to be arrested in a number of different countries, starting with Cuba. He travelled there for a literary conference, yet was later arrested and deported, mainly because of his lifestyle. He was later arrested in Italy for using certain ‘words’ when reading the poem ‘Who Be Kind To’ at the Spoletto Festival. He took part in an anti-draft rally in New York, which resulted in him being arrested along with 265 other protestors. Ginsberg was also arrested in Miami following a peaceful anti-war demonstration. He was arrested twice during his lifetime for protesting about nuclear proliferation, which lead to him writing the poem Plutonium Ode.

3. Aphra Behn

Debt is one of the main reasons why a lot of poets ended up behind bars. Aphra Behn is a prime example. In 1668, a warrant was issued for her arrest due to the debts she had accumulated.

4. Basil Bunting

British modernist poet, Basil Bunting, was opposed to WW1, which is why he refused to comply with a notice of call-up. This led to him being arrested as a conscientious objector in 1918. He spent a year locked up at Wormwood Scrubs and Winchester prisons.

5. Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson’s run in with the law is a lot more colourful than most. In 1597, a warrant was issued for his arrest for leude and mutinous behaviour. A year later, he was briefly imprisoned for killing Gabriel Spenser during a duel. It was during his time in prison that Jonson converted to Catholicism.

6. Brendan Behan

Widely regarded as one of the best Irish poets of all time, Behan was arrested at the age of 16 when he joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England. He was found in possession of explosives, with intent to blow up the Liverpool Docks, which led to him spending three years in Hollesley Bay borstal.

7. Cesar Vallejo

Vallejo was unjustly accused of instigating and participating in looting and setting the Santa Maria Calderon family home on fire. He spent 112 days in a Trujillo jail as a result.

8. Cesare Pavese

Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, was arrested in 1935 for possessing letters from a political prisoner. This eventually led to him publishing The Political Prisoner 20 years later.

9. Charles Bukowski

Bukowski spent 17 days in Moyamensing Prison for trying to avoid the draft after war had broken out. He was eventually exempted from undertaking military service for medical reasons.

10. Charlotte Smith

Smith went to debtors’ prison because her husband was sent there. It was in prison that she began to write her first work, Elegiac Sonnets. The publication of the poems was so successful that she was able to buy her way out of prison. In the end, her family moved to Dieppe in France so they could avoid being hounded by creditors.

11. Christopher Marlowe

Marlowe died at the age of 29-years-old, and his death is shrouded in mystery. He was the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day. His short-life involved two arrests. The first was after an altercation with Norton Folgate. However, he was absolved from all charges. The second arrest came while he was in the Netherlands for his supposed role in counterfeiting coins. Again, he was released, as no charges were made.

12. Daniel Defoe

Like many other poets, Defoe was arrested for debts. In 1692, he was convicted for owing £700, although it is believed he owed as much as £17,000.

13. Dennis Brutus

Dennis Brutus was a South African poet and activist against the apartheid government of South Africa. He was arrested in 1960, for breaking the term of his ‘banning,’ which meant he couldn’t meet with more than two people outside his family. He fled to Mozambique at the time, only for Portuguese secret police to arrest him and return him to South Africa. While in prison, he was in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s.

14. Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was arrested for her role in activism when she took part in a demonstration in Boston.

15. Du Fu

Du Fu was arrested when he protested the removal of his patron and friend, Fang Guan, on a petty charge. He was pardoned a few months later.

16. e.e. Cummings

e.e. Cummings was arrested alongside William Slater Brown in September 1917 on suspicion of undesirable activities and espionage. He was released a few months later.

17. Etheridge Knight

Etheridge Knight was sentenced to serve between 10 and 25 years in the Indiana State Prison for robbery. However, he only spent eight years behind bars, and after his release he published both Poems from Prison and Black Voices from Prison.

18. Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound was an expatriate American critic and poet who was arrested in Italy by American forces in 1945 for treason. This is because he made hundreds of radio broadcasts criticising Jews, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the United States during WWII. He was being paid by the Italian government to do so.

19. Federico Garcia Lorca

The Spanish poet and playwright was one of the highest-profile victims of the Spanish civil war. Garcia Lorca was arrested and killed on the orders of the military authorities of Granada.

20. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was lucky to escape death after being arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed books that were critical of Tsarist Russia. These books were banned at the time, which lead Dostoyevsky to being sentence to death, although this was commuted at the last moment. Instead, he served in a Siberian prison camp for four years, after which he spent six years doing compulsory military service in exile.

21. Geoffrey Chaucer

Known as the Father of English literature, Chaucer was arrested during his early years while on a trip to France during the Hundred Years’ War. King Edward III paid his ransom in full, which cost him £16 – a huge amount of money back then!

22. George Chapman

The English poet Chapman is another who was put behind bars for debt in 1600.

23. Gregory Corso

Corso had numerous run-ins with the law. He was first arrested in 1943 for stealing a neighbour’s toaster. A year later, he was arrested again for breaking and entering. Three years later, he broke into a tailor shop, which saw him sentenced to another two-to-three years in prison.

24. Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire was arrested on suspicion of stealing a number of Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre, as well as one of the most famous paintings in history – the Mona Lisa. It was, in fact, his lodger, Vincenzo Peruggia, who carried out the thefts.

25. Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau owed six year’s worth of poll taxes, and was arrested when he refused to pay them. He only spent one day in jail, however, as his aunt paid the taxes for him. This was done against Thoreau’s wishes.

26. Henry Lawson

Lawson was perpetually poor. He failed to pay maintenance to his estranged wife and child, which led to his arrest. He was also jailed for drunkenness at the time.

27. Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac helped Lucien Carr to dispose of the body of David Kammerer, whom Carr had stabbed to death. He was arrested as a witness. Later, Kerouac married Edie Parker so that her family would pay the bail after his arrest.

28. Jack London

London was arrested three times in four months while acting as a war correspondent in Japan. Reasons included being too close to the Manchuria border without official permission and assaulting his Japanese assistants. Intervention from president Theodore Roosevelt and American ambassador Lloyd Griscom meant that London was released each time.

29. John Bunyan

The Puritan preacher was arrested numerous times for doing exactly that – preaching. It resulted in him being sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1661. John Bunyan: Prisoner for Christ was published in 2004.

30. John Donne

John Donne ended up spending a short stay in Fleet Prison for his marriage to Anne More. He was released once it was proven that the marriage was valid.

31. John Milton

After attacking the concept of a state-dominated church, Milton went into hiding for life upon the Restoration in 1660. His writings were burnt and a warrant was issued for his arrest. After a general pardon was issued, he re-emerged, only to find himself arrested anyway. Luckily, influential friends intervened and he was freed.

32. John Skelton

John Skelton was imprisoned in 1502, however, the reason why remains a mystery.

33. Jose Marti

Marti was arrested at the young age of 16 following an accusation of bribery and treason. Marti confessed to the charges, spending the next six years in prison as a result.

34. Ken Kesey

Kesey was imprisoned for five months in 1965, following an arrest for possessing marijuana and a subsequent faked suicide.

35. Li Po

Li Po was imprisoned in Jiujiang under the new emperor at the time. He was sentenced to life, which was later exchanged for exile to Yelang, which was the most remote, extreme south western part of the empire.

36. Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. He was serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.’

37. Marcus Garvey

Garvey served several stints in prison, including a five-year sentence for mail fraud. During his time in jail, he was cited by a prison guard for insolence, which resulted in him being reprimanded and receiving a warning.

38. Miguel de Cervantes

Widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language, Miguel de Cervantes, spent a few months in a Seville city prison when a banker where he had deposited Crown funds went bankrupt. Cervantes claimed his master piece, Don Quixote, originated while in prison.

39. Miguel de Unamuno

Miguel de Unamuno was put under house arrest for denouncing general Francisco Franco’s Falangists. He died two months later of a heart attack.

40. Nazim Hikmet

Nazim Hikmet is one poet who landed himself in a lot of trouble for his views. His first arrest occurred in Turkey for working on a leftist paper. He then landed himself in Bursa Prison as a result of his communist views. Hikmet was released from prison after numerous protests. His mother went on a hunger strike to support him, and a committee was set up to campaign for his release. The likes of Sartre and Picasso were members.

41. Neal Cassady

A major figure of the Beat Generation, Neal Cassady was arrested on numerous occasions. It all began with car theft when he was just 14-years-old. A year later, he was arrested for car theft and shoplifting. When he was 16, he was yet again arrested for car theft and fencing stolen goods.

42. Oscar Wilde

Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for criminal libel, which actually led to his own arrest. He was convicted for gross indecency with men. He was jailed from 1895 to 1897.

43. Paul Verlaine

Verlaine wounded Rimbaud’s left wrist when he fired two shots with a pistol at him during a drunken, jealous rage. This led to him being arrested and imprisoned at Mons.

44. Primo Levi

Primo Levi was a Holocaust survivor. The Fascist militia arrested him in 1943, yet survived.

45. Reginald Dwayne Betts

American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts spent over eight years in prison after committing a carjacking at the age of 16.

46. Reinaldo Arenas

Despite having early sympathy for Fidel Castro, the Cuban poet grew critical of the regime and rebelled against the government. He was imprisoned for ideological deviation. He tried to escape prison, but his attempt was unsuccessful and he was re-arrested.

47. Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan was arrested in 1955 when he threw a brick through the window of a local police station. He claimed he did so because he wanted some food and a place to stay.

48. Richard Lovelace

Lovelace was arrested after he led a group of men to seize and destroy a petition for the abolition of Episcopal rule. It was in prison where he wrote ‘To Althea, From Prison,’ one of his best-known lyrics.

49. Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell spent five months in jail in Danbury when war broke out for being a conscientious objector.

50. Robert Southwell

Robert Southwell’s imprisonment seemed inevitable, as being a Catholic priest at the time could lead to being arrested and even executed. He was finally arrested after six years of working as a missionary. Priest hunter, Richard Topcliffe, imprisoned and tortured Southwell.

51. Robert William Service

Despite trying to unsuccessfully enlist during the First World War, Service was arrested on suspicion of being a spy.

52. Samuel Johnson

Another poet that was arrested for debts, Johnson, once in 1756 and again in 1758.

53. Sarojini Naidu

Naidu was arrested during the Quit India movement, which demanded an end to British Rule of India.

54. Sidney Lanier

Sidney Lanier became a prisoner of war when one of the ships he was on was boarded. He was sent to a military prison in Point Lookout, Maryland. It was here that he caught tuberculosis.

55. Sir Thomas Wyatt

One of the more famous imprisonments; Sir Thomas Wyatt was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1536 for his alleged adultery with Anne Boleyn.

56. Sir Walter Raleigh

Sir Walter Raleigh was also imprisoned in the Tower of London. Sir Walter and his wife were imprisoned for their unauthorised marriage. He was released from prison two months later, yet returned in 1603 for being involved in the Main Plot against King James I.

57. St John of the Cross

St John of the Cross was arrested in 1576 after a rift arose between John’s Discalced Carmelites and the traditional Carmelites. He escaped from prison two years later via a small window.

58. Vasko Popa

Vasko Popa was another victim of war. He was imprisoned in a German concentration camp in Beckerek during World War II.

59. Voltaire

The prolific French Enlightenment writer Voltaire was imprisoned twice and was temporarily exiled to England due to trouble he had with the authorities for critiquing the government.

60. Wang Wei

The Tang government imprisoned Wang Wei for being a traitor in 757.

61. William Henry Davies

Last but not least, we have William Henry Davies, a welsh poet who was arrested for theft in 1884 for stealing handbags with four other schoolmates.

Bonus. Charles Dickens’ father

Although Dickens himself did not end up in prison, his father did. He lived beyond his means, which resulted in him being sent to debtors prison in 1824. This had a massive impact on Charles Dickens, as he was forced to leave school. Instead, he earned six shillings a week by working at a warehouse.


Whether the poets above were rightfully incarcerated or not, it is clear to see that prison doesn’t preclude one from creating poetry, and in fact it may have inspired some!



    Loved this perk that I stumbled upon.

  • jarcher54

    You might add Socrates to the list... wish we had more than a single line of his poetry. But he makes a great historic book-end to balance Allen Ginsberg.

  • jarcher54

    I would include John Clare... his final and permanent commitment to an asylum was far more tragic than that of several on your list.

  • jarcher54

    Oh, goodness... no Fancois Villon? Perhaps the most enigmatic, tragic, and groundbreaking poet that ever lived.

  • Munro

    Thanks so much that’s interesting I’m going to rob a bank , because at the moment as an unknown poet I need some street cred , to get known lol

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