Monday’s post about prison records included several poems read by Pat Parker at the Women’s Jail in San Bruno, California. One of these makes reference to George Jackson, who also appeared in songs by Gil Scott-Heron, Bob Dylan, Archie Shepp, and others. His writings were enormous influential during the movement to advance prisoners’ rights.
Jackson was eighteen years old when he was accused of stealing seventy dollars from a gas station. Although the case was not strong, his court appointed attorney convinced him to plead guilty because he had a record of petty crimes. He was given an indefinite imprisonment sentence of one year to life, meaning that the State of California would determine the duration of his sentence based on his conduct while incarcerated. This is a real thing that exists in the country where we live.
He spent more than a decade in prison, first at San Quentin. Due to disciplinary infractions he was not eligible for release, and instead spent much of his time in solitary confinement. Jackson studied radical political theory, once writing, “I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me.” His became less of a disciplinary problems and more of a theorist. He wrote to friends and supporters detailed descriptions of the conditions inside San Quentin, and later Soledad, and also eloquent descriptions of daily survival in the face of oppressive racism. His letters to friends and supporters were collected and published in 1970 as Soledad Brother, selling four hundred thousand copies.
Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. — George Jackson
Jackson and two other prisoners were accused of killing a white guard at Soledad on January 17, 1970. The details of the case are murky at best, and when it finally came to trial the state of California was unable to prove its case. An effort was made to bring the three suspects before secret hearings in Salinas County, but before the third such hearing one of the other inmates was able to get a note to his mother, who secured the help of a state senator and an attorney. This attorney argued the reason the three were accused was not due to the presence of any evidence, but because they had been identified by the correctional authorities as militants.
Their case became a cause célèbre, but before it could come to trial there was a hostage situation and shootout at a Marin County courthouse created by Jackson’s seventeen year old brother, Jonathan. Three prisoners and a Judge were killed in the escape attempt.
Just over a year later, Jackson himself was killed in an escape attempt at Soledad, under circumstances which have long been the subject of question and speculation. The late, eminent James Baldwin put it best when he wrote, “No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they told us he died.”
The most famous event in the aftermath of Jackson’s death was the Attica Prison uprising, which began two weeks later. The subsequent hostage negotiations and violent conclusion, in which ten guards and thirty-eight prisoners were killed in a siege of the prison approved by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, put the brakes on the prisoners’ rights movement.
“So what is to be done after a revolution has failed? After our enemies have created a conservative mass society based on meaningless electoral politics, spectator sports, and a 3 percent annual rise in purchasing power strictly regulated to negate itself with a corresponding rise in the cost of living. …What can we do with a people who have gone through he authoritarian process and come out sick to the core!!!” — George Jackson
Still, prisoners and their advocates had established, most often through the courts, the defense of their basic human rights, as well as the opportunity to improve themselves through means which were unimaginable even a decade earlier. While many advancements remained — and still remains — to be done, the American correctional system moved away from the ‘hands off’ 19th century model which saw prisoners as little more than potential labor.
The largest setback for the prisoners’ rights movement in the years since was a 1996 law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton. The only law of its kind in the western world, the Prison Litigation Reform Act severely limits the access prisoners have to the legal system, including those detained and awaiting trial who are presumed to be innocent. The result has a been a precipitous decline in civil rights cases brought by prisoners, and alarming changes to the conditions inside prisons. Through the PLRA, prisoners who have been sexually assaulted have had their cases thrown out because they did not adequately exhaust all available administrative means prior to filing a suit. Other prisoners whose religious liberties have been restricted have had their cases thrown out because they were not physically injured.
If George Jackson were alive and seated at his typewriter today, he would certainly continue to write about the institutional racism which led to inevitably destroyed lives such as his own, but he would also decry the Prison Litigation Reform Act.