by Kevin D. Sawyer
“No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.” – James Baldwin
Discussions of the barbaric treatment of Black people in the United States since slavery ended seldom add prisoners to the conversation. In terms of Black history, more often than not, the convict is erased. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street massacre. Stories are plentiful on the subject about what happened in Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood community.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the fatal shooting of 28-year-old George Jackson by a guard at San Quentin State Prison, which has been described as both an assassination and prevention of an attempt to escape.
In a very real sense, unless someone is imprisoned, not much is known about Jackson – how he lived or how he died. Over time, state narratives have seemingly attempted to withdraw his past and his legacy from history. This is particularly true inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Jackson was killed 19 days before the Attica prison uprising in New York. His death has been described by state officials as an ill-fated escape attempt from San Quentin’s Adjustment Center on Aug. 21, 1971.
Fifty years later, it’s still the bloodiest day in California prison history. Six people died on that day, including Jackson – a day coined “Black August” by African American prisoners a short time later.
The other men killed were prisoners Ronald Kane, 28, John Lynn, 29, and correctional officers Jere P. Graham, 39, Frank DeLeon, 44, and Paul Krasenes, 52.
Two generations advanced, the name George Jackson continues to resonate throughout the California prison system in small circles. His name engenders opposing understandings, depending on who authors the story.
The state’s official police, prosecution, prison and political narratives use such terms as a criminal, cop killer, Black Guerilla Family gang leader, militant, revolutionary, Black Panther and Marxist-Leninist.
Many Black prisoners and some scholars hold Jackson in the highest regard, for reasons immeasurably different than the state’s. To them he was an author, activist, theoretician, tactician, political prisoner, voice of resistance, and a symbol of Black manhood. And the remnants of his political ideology remain in a perpetual stage of expansion inside the state’s prison system, much to the irritation of many prison officials.
Legal scholar Azadeh Zohrabi studied Jackson from various perspectives and penned him as “a writer, political theorist, and Black Guerilla Family leader” in a 2012 publication of the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal.
Several weeks after the August 1971 violence, the inmate-run San Quentin News published T.D. Ventura’s words, “In Memorium,” where he wrote in part: “The question of why a man does what he does, and what causes his actions, only can be fully comprehended or answered by the actual perpetrator – which he seldom does.” “The day of the carnage,” he continued, “will go down in the annals of San Quentin’s phlegmatic history as its ‘darkest day.’”
In 1960, at the age of 18, George Lester Jackson was arrested in Los Angeles as an accomplice in a gas station robbery of $70. Although there was little evidence of his guilt, instead of taking the case to trial, Jackson’s court-appointed attorney convinced him to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a light sentence in the county jail.
This was done believably because Jackson had two previous convictions for petty crime. Jackson agreed and pled guilty. The judge sentenced him to one year to life in state prison.
The term ultimately placed Jackson’s sentence in the hands of the Adult Authority – the parole board at the time. He spent the next 10 years in Soledad Prison, seven and a half of them in solitary confinement.
The state’s attempt to further persecute the once-ignorant convict was met with resistance. While isolated from the general population, Jackson studied law, history, political theory and other subjects. Book learning was a common practice among Black prisoners during Jackson’s era.
By the late 1960s he led political education classes with other Black prisoners to continue their education. These classes, according to Zohrabi, led to the creation of the Black Guerilla Family.
Similar classes existed inside San Quentin in the early 1970s. One such study group there was the Black Awareness Community Development Organization (BACDO). It was a group that allowed many Black inmates to continue their education.
This and others were precursors to political education that led to organizational structure among Blacks incarcerated inside the California prison system, a concept acknowledged as “each one teach one.” It was first developed by enslaved African Americans who taught each other when they were denied access to education.
BACDO was non-partisan, an older prisoner who asked to not be identified said. He also said it was a “forerunner of the Black Guerilla Family” but also had an outreach program in colleges such as San Diego State University to support the prisoners’ educational endeavors.
“That’s still a hot subject,” he said. He recalled the different factions of Black prisoners, such as the Black Panther Party, Nation of Islam and the US organization. “In many circles you couldn’t even say that name BGF,” the anonymous inmate said. “Basically, because there were a lot of Black Panthers back then.” The BACDO, he said, “was like the Panthers’ breakfast program on the streets,” which is how he was able to continue his education in prison.
Jonathan Jackson was killed in 1970, a year before his brother, George. At age 17, the younger Jackson attempted to free his brother from prison. His plan was to free other San Quentin prisoners and take hostages at the Marin County Courthouse on Aug. 7, 1970, and then “negotiate the release of his brother,” according to UC Berkeley professor William J. Drummond in his book “Prison Truth” (2020). “Armed with three guns registered in the name of author and former UCLA professor Angela Y. Davis, Jonathan Jackson attempted to flee the courtroom after seizing the judge, an assistant district attorney and some jurors.”
The Marin County Sheriff gave an order to not open fire on the van used as the getaway vehicle. However, San Quentin prison guards disregarded the order and used their weapons to fire a barrage of bullets into the van. Four men died in the shootout, including young Jonathan and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley.
Inmates James McClain and William Christmas were also killed. The only prisoner who survived what has been called the “Courthouse Slave Rebellion” was Ruchell Cinque Magee, who’s still in prison.
All four “were acting in the tradition of resistance with which Black people have withstood 400 years of the most brutal, oppressive conditions known to mankind,” it states in the 1971 book by Angela Davis, “If They Come in the Morning.”
Magee never met Davis, but what followed the courthouse massacre was the conspiracy-murder trial for both of them. Davis went underground as a fugitive and was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Once apprehended, she faced the gas chamber. The call by millions around the world went out to “Free Angela Davis Now!”
“Do what must be done; discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”
“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own,” James Baldwin wrote, “which it is and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” Davis stood trial on the charges leveled against her and was later acquitted, absolving her of dealings with the courthouse massacre.
“To the Man-Child,” George wrote in his book, “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson” about his brother: “Tall, evil, graceful, bright-eyed, Black, man-child Jonathan Peter Jackson, who died August 7, 1970 – courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend – the true revolutionary, the Black communist guerilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people.”
The courthouse incident, George Jackson believed, foreshadowed his impending demise. In his final book, “Blood in My Eye,” published posthumously, he wrote: “I’m in a unique political position. I have a very nearly closed future, and since I have always been inclined to get disturbed over organized injustice or terrorist practice against the innocents – wherever – I can now say just about what I want (I’ve always done just about that) without fear of self-exposure. I can only be executed once.”
In “Blood in My Eye,” Jackson seems to have been making an attempt to foretell what America saw last summer with the protests and uprisings after the death of George Floyd: “We must accept the eventuality of bringing the U.S.A. to its knees; accept the closing off of critical sections of the city with barbed wire, armored pig carriers crisscrossing the streets, soldiers everywhere, tommy guns pointed at stomach level, smoke curling black against the daylight sky, the smell of cordite, house-to-house searches, doors being kicked in, the commonness of death.”
For today, with the rise of Black on Black crime, Asian hate, anti-LGBTQIA, escalating gun violence, mass incarceration, state-sanctioned police violence, and voter suppression legislation, Jackson’s message was simple: “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done; discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”
History has shown that such revolutionary speech, however, is seen as threatening. In 2017, the FBI released its report, “Black Identity Extremist.” It reads in part: “The FBI assesses it is very likely Black Identity Extremist (BIE) perceptions of police brutality against African Americans spurred an increase in premeditated, retaliatory lethal violence against law enforcement and will very likely serve as justification for such violence.”
Fifty years earlier the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeted the Black Liberation Movement. Jackson proclaimed more are at risk.
* * * *
Bobby Jackson (no relation), 75, was a 25-year-old Vietnam veteran who saw combat in Danang between 1965 and 1966. He arrived at San Quentin on Aug. 7, 1970. He’d just gotten off the bus in front of San Quentin, which is where receiving and release was back then. “I was one of the youngest guys here at that time,” he said.
As Jackson was waiting to be processed, he said another prisoner in chains, who was on his way to court, turned and looked at him. “We had a connection,” said Jackson. “It was like he was saying to me, ‘This is my last go round,’ like he was saying, ‘I’m doing this for you.’”
Jackson said the prisoner turned out to be one of those killed in the Marin County Courthouse incident. “That changed my whole life, my whole perspective,” Bobby Jackson said about the events that took place that day at the Marin County Courthouse with Jonathan Jackson. “That was a traumatic time for me.”
* * * *
According to author Keramet Reiter’s book “23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement” (2016), “(George) Jackson first began studying radical political theorists, including Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, in 1962, under the supervision of another African American prisoner, W.L. Nolen, who ran a reading group for prisoners.”
Their goal was to change “the Black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality.”
Jackson, Nolen and others who participated in their study group at Soledad were eventually associated with the Black Guerilla Family, which, according to Reiter was established between 1966 and 1971. Followers of the group judged it a revolutionary and political organization; prison officials deemed it a prison gang with close ties to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966.
“Indeed, [George] Jackson was installed as a field marshal in the Black Panther Party’s Central Committee, the only such prisoner so honored, which served to make him a larger target for the white nation,” Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote in his book “Jailhouse Lawyers.”
“I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me,” Jackson wrote in “Soledad Brother.” “I met Black Guerillas George ‘Big Jake’ Lewis and James Carr, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Torry Gibson and many, many others.”
Their goal was to change “the Black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality.” Because of that, he and others were “subjected to years of the most vicious reactionary violence by the state.” Nolen, like Jackson, was later killed by a prison guard.
According to Zohrabi, Nolen was murdered by the “notoriously racist correctional officer Opie G. Miller.” When a grand jury ruled Nolen’s death justifiable homicide, correctional officer John V. Mills was beaten by prisoners at Soledad and thrown from a tier in the prison’s O-Wing on Jan. 16, 1970.
Jackson was housed in that cellblock. “Despite the lack of any physical evidence, Jackson and two other Black inmates, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, were indicted for killing Mills.”
In the book “If They Come in the Morning,” it reads, “Deputy Superintendent William Black stated, ‘We believe that the death of Officer Mills was reprisal for the death of the three Black inmates.’ And, as if to balance some score being kept, prison officials proceeded to find three Black suspects who, they said, had killed Mills.’”
And so began the case of the Soledad Brothers who became a cause celebre which gained them support around the world, along with the release of Jackson’s “Soledad Brother” and other writings that revealed the horrors that existed inside what was then the California Department of Corrections.
A change of venue from Monterey County, California, where Soledad prison was located, to Marin County was the purpose of Jackson’s move to San Quentin, where he awaited trial in the prison’s Adjustment Center.
In “Soledad Brother,” an April 1970 letter to Fay Stender, Jackson’s attorney, it reads: “Dear Fay, to determine how men will behave once they enter the prison, it is of first importance to know that prison. Men are brutalized by their environment – not the reverse.”
A well-known autobiographical passage in the book from a letter written on June 10, 1970, reads: “Black men born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison. For most of us, it simply looms as the next phase in a sequence of humiliations. Being born a slave in a captive society and never experiencing any objective basis for expectation had the effect of preparing me for the progressively traumatic misfortunes that lead so many Black men to the prison gate. I was prepared for prison. It required only minor psychic adjustments.”
“I equated Jackson’s struggle, sacrifice and his martyrdom in the same category as Nat Turner, Aug. 21, 1971, and Aug. 21, 1831, respectively.”
By this time, George Jackson had caught the attention of authorities higher than those who operated California’s prisons. His activities were being tracked at the national level. Documents released by the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act reveal FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in continuous communication with the Bureau’s field office in San Francisco regarding the Soledad Brothers. According to Zohrabi, there was concern over the constitutionality of the case.
“Early in February 1971, the FBI informed the California Governor’s Office, the state Attorney General and the superintendent of Soledad Prison about their investigation of Jackson,” Zohrabi wrote. “The records also show that the FBI sent agents to talk with attorneys involved in the case and to the prisons, where corrections officers arranged secret meetings with inmates who appeared to have only secondhand knowledge about Officer Mills’ death. During this time, Jackson’s defense attorney, Fay Stender, fought constantly with prison administrators to have meaningful access to her client, witnesses, and relevant records.”
George Jackson’s murder
Two days before Jackson’s trial started for the killing of Mills at Soledad prison, he was shot and killed by a guard in a gun tower inside San Quentin for allegedly using a gun and trying to escape.
George Jackson’s controversial murder, and the other killings 50 years ago, rocked guards and prisoners at San Quentin. Bobby Jackson (no relation) was housed in San Quentin’s Donnor section. He recalled his housing assignment, on the fifth tier, in cell 5-D-46.
“I’d just left the old hospital,” he said. “All kinds of confusion was going on. Everybody knew something was going on.” He said a local radio station, KDIA, 1310 AM, broadcast the news about something happening at San Quentin. “Sly Stone was the DJ at the time.”
Bobby Jackson said the night following Jackson’s murder, everybody was talking about it, “especially the Blacks.” He remembers San Quentin was locked down about two and a half weeks.
“It was like the world was ending.” There was talk of retaliation among every group on the yard – Blacks, Whites and Mexicans. He paroled from prison in 1973.
Forty years later when Bobby Jackson returned to San Quentin, he said, “I felt the same feeling that I had when I left – like I had some unfinished business.” He said it was the same eerie feeling he had when the brother in chains looked at him in 1970 on the way to court in Marin County.
“I was conversing with a small group on the upper yard, under the shed near the North Block chow hall,” Watani Stiner wrote in an email for this story. He was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder of Black Panthers Al Bunchy Carter and Jonathan Huggins at UCLA in 1969. He escaped from San Quentin in 1974 and fled to Suriname in South America for 20 years before negotiating his surrender to U.S. authorities. He served more than 20 years in prison before he paroled.
“We were discussing a recently released film, “Shaft,” based on Ernest Tidyman’s novel of the same name,” said Stiner. “One brother had read the book and was filling us in on the plot. We had just reached a consensus (before we heard the first shots) that Tidyman was just another White capitalist misrepresenting Black life.” Stiner was 23 years old when Jackson was killed.
“We heard two shots followed by a series of whistles,” Stiner wrote. “While standing under the upper yard shed, just outside the north block chow hall, I saw someone running down the ramp near the Adjustment Center.
“Guards were running all around, down to the lower yard and toward the AC building. Several guards quickly lined the gun rail and aimed their riffles down on us. They were screaming: “Bury your faces in the ground or get shot, now!”
Stiner wrote that the day Jackson was killed, “guards rounded up every prisoner they classified and thought to be a Black revolutionary. We were immediately placed in the ‘hole’ anywhere from six to 18 months. There was no Pelican Bay SHU program, nor any existing lockup facilities.”
“At the time,” Stiner wrote, “I equated Jackson’s struggle, sacrifice and his martyrdom in the same category as Nat Turner, Aug. 21, 1971, and Aug. 21, 1831, respectively. Jackson, in my mind at the time, was a defiant revolutionary killed on the prison plantation. There were chants in the hole: ‘The dragon is free!’ And ‘Funerals on both sides!’”
According to one passage in “If They Come in the Morning,” “George (Jackson) was singled out because he is a Black communist and, in fact, he had been previously compelled to do 10 years for a crime which ordinarily entails no more than two years by the oppressive California parole board precisely because of his politics and his efforts to persuade his fellow captives to enlist in the struggle for the destruction of capitalism.
August is the month people on both sides of the prison gate remember the loss exacted upon the Black revolutionary movement.
“George’s administratively determined guilt, an a priori guilt, was the pretext used by the parole board when they refused year after year to grant him a parole date,” “If They Come in the Morning” reads. “They hoped to coerce him to abdicate his revolutionary vocation, but year after year this man said with his words and actions: ‘Without the cold of winter, there could not be the warmth of spring. Calamity has hardened me and turned my mind to steel’ (quoting Ho Chi Minh).”
Stephen Bingham was the civil attorney who’d brought legal papers for Jackson to review the day Jackson and five others were killed. He was later accused of smuggling a 9 mm Astra pistol and a wig into the prison for Jackson. “No, 1 didn’t,” Bingham is quoted in an SF Gate story from 2001. “It seems to me there were enough guns floating around the Adjustment Center that there was no particular need for one more.”
Bingham is perhaps the last civilian to see Jackson alive. “I had no idea of the horror that had happened inside San Quentin’s Adjustment Center,” Bingham is quoted in a 2014 Marin Magazine article. He fled the country and lived in Europe for more than a decade before returning to the United States to stand trial, after a grand jury indicted him for two counts of murder and conspiracy.
The trial lasted three months. He was acquitted of all charges in 1986. Contrary to what many believe, he has never done criminal justice work.
Today, Bingham is co-director of the Sylvia Bingham Fund, named for his daughter who was killed while bicycling in 2009, shortly after she graduated from college.
For 50 years, the state has maintained its version of the accounts on how and why George Jackson was killed. It’s an unequivocal story that contravenes others throughout history. An apology or tacit admission of wrongdoing has never been offered, something the state customarily refuses to do.
One consequence of Jackson’s legacy inside the CDCR is the unofficial ban on books written by Jackson. Black prisoners have been targeted for validation as gang members for possessing “Blood in My Eye” and “Soledad Brother.”
“Until 2015, validation as a gang associate required only ‘evidence indicative of association,’ while validation as a gang member required ‘a direct link’ with a validated member, another associate, or a dropout who positively identified the person as a gang member,” Reiter wrote in “23/7.”
“In 2015, validation as either a gang member or a gang associate could still bring indeterminate assignment to the SHU, either for the length of the prisoner’s sentence or until the prisoner snitched – or debriefed, in official terms.”
San Quentin still possesses some George Jackson’s property. This was unofficially confirmed by several staff who work at the prison.
“The sentiment of the Black population in 1971 was certainly not monolithic,” wrote Stiner. “Depending on the level of one’s political consciousness, Jackson’s death was seen as either a revolutionary casualty and temporary setback, or a revolutionary sacrifice and recommitted step forward.”
August is the month people on both sides of the prison gate remember the loss exacted upon the Black revolutionary movement. “Black August,” as it is termed, is the month-long commemoration organized “to honor martyred freedom fighters, Jonathan and George Jackson, Khatari Gaulden, James McClain, William Christmas, and the sole survivor of the August 7, 1970, Courthouse Slave Rebellion, Ruchell Cinque Magee,” California Prison Focus reported in 2008. “This is a time to embrace the principles of unity, self-sacrifice, political education, physical fitness and/or training in martial arts, resistance and revolution – transforming ourselves into the new man, the new woman.”
Decades after COINTELPRO, the FBI and the CDCR continue to place in their crosshairs Blacks who wander down the revolutionary road.
The CDCR refutes the meaning of Black August. In a declaration filed in U.S. District Court, one officer stated, “Black August has also been a time when BGF gang members were encouraged and expected to retaliate against correctional officers for the deaths of George and Jonathan Jackson and other past leaders of the BGF prison gang.”
In myriad methods, decades after COINTELPRO, the FBI and the CDCR continue to place in their crosshairs Blacks who wander down the revolutionary road. The California prison system uses a “validation” procedure to justify placement of inmates in Security Housing Units. Black prisoners in possession of material regarding Black August or Jackson are targeted as a matter of routine.
In the California Code of Regulations, the CDCR publishes its Centralized List of Disapproved Publications. Interestingly enough, neither of George Jackson’s books appears on the 14-page list published through June 2015. At least one court has ruled that a book does not necessarily need to appear on the list to be considered a threat to prison security.
As Zohrabi explains, “(V)alidation of prison gang members is often not the result of actual gang activity, but rests mainly on the fruits of an IGI investigation of their property and surveillance of their correspondence.”
“Based on the few cases that have been published on BGF gang validations, there is a strong appearance that Black inmates are being validated as members of BGF based on their possession of any materials that mention George Jackson or Black August, regardless of whether they are tied to actual gang activity,” according to Zohrabi. He wrote that CDCR Special Security Squads rely on items such as books, CDs, fliers, articles, newsletters, tattoos or drawings that refer to Black August or George Jackson as gang materials if they are possessed by a Black inmate.”
* * * *
In “Remembering the Real Dragon,” interviews with George Jackson, May 16 and June 29, 1971, published in “Cages of Steel: The Politics of Imprisonment in the United States,” by Karen Wald, Jackson was asked if he saw signs of progress inside prison.
Regarding literature and communication, Jackson said, “My suggestion is, now that we have the channels for education secured, at least temporarily, is that people on the outside should begin to bombard the prisons with newspapers, books, journals, clippings, anything of educational value, to help politicize the comrades who are not yet relating. And we, of course, must reciprocate by consistently sending out information concerning what’s really going on in here.”
Ruchell Cinque Magee
For more than 50 years, Magee has been doing just that. In a Feb. 28, 2018, letter to this author, he wrote: “Both state and federal laws prohibit putting people twice in jeopardy, in the case of acquittal, and my argument is before the court approximately three decades, irrefutable.”
Magee sent legal documents to show he was acquitted but no court will acknowledge it. “In both habeas and 1983 Civil Rights action, I ask for a federal injunction to stop the use of double jeopardy extensions and gag as showing by the pending civil action entitled, Ruchell Cinque Magee v. Timothy Reardon, et al. No. Cv-18-0672, before the U.S. District Court, Northern District, at San Jose, Cal., also calling for Special Master (Judge) to: 1) Honor the acquittal, and 2) enforce federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s Rule 60(b) order vacating the mob’s gag on access to court rights.”
The main evidence, Magee explained, regarding the acquittal documents is the declaration of acquittal by the jury foreman Mr. Bernard J. Suares, read during deliberations, which commenced March 26, 1973. “All twelve jurors agreed that the defendant was not guilty of violating Penal Code 209, kidnapping for purpose of extortion,” he wrote.
Perhaps because of international support, Davis had a more successful judicial outcome. However, in a 1970s interview excerpt reproduced from The Guardian, Davis described how “The court system in this country is increasingly becoming a powerful instrument of repression,” she said. “It is being used to crush the struggle for the liberation of oppressed people and not only to crush the conscious revolutionary but to break the rebellious spirit of Black people, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans in general.”
Legislation pending in Congress and in state houses across the country can be directly linked to the events of 1971 and Jackson’s warnings. As the supermax prisons arose in response to the radical civil rights and the Black Liberation Movement of the 1970s, the Prison Industrial Complex building boom with mass incarceration in the 1980s grew. Economic interests and racism against radical Black activists and more punitive measures of control such as “tough on crime” lawmaking set the stage for bureaucrats and their draconian policies.
In the publication of her book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” (2003), Davis writes, “Proof that crime continues to be imputed to color resides in the many evocations of racial profiling in our time. That it is possible to be targeted by the police for no other reason than the color of one’s skin is not mere speculation. Police departments in major urban areas have admitted the existence of formal procedures designed to maximize the numbers of African Americans and Latinos arrested – even in the absence of probable cause.”
In “The Meaning of Freedom” (2012), Davis writes, “Political repression was not only directed at political prisoners. Rather, the prison system as a whole served as an apparatus of racist and political repression, fixing its sights not only on those who were incarcerated for unambiguously political reasons, but on the majority of the incarcerated population.
Prisoners terrified prison officials. In response, prison officials built new institutions to terrorize prisoners.
“The fact that virtually everyone behind bars was, and is, poor and that a disproportionate number of them were Black and Latino led us to think about the more comprehensive impact of punishment on communities of color and poor communities in general.”
“San Quentin is still a prison,” wrote former Warden Clinton T. Duffy in his book, “The San Quentin Story” (1952). “Its men are prisoners, controlled, locked up, stripped of their rights as citizens, doing time to pay their debt. Confinement in itself is punishment, whether for a day or forever, but California’s Department of Corrections feels that confinement need not be without hope, or the chance to remake shattered lives.” Duffy continued, “There is a saturation point in practically every man’s servitude beyond which every additional hour is wasted and destructive punishment.”
Somewhere along the way, Duffy’s or the CDC’s sentiment changed. And decades after Jackson was killed, the expansion of the state’s Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) persists to grind up the downtrodden.
Men continue to litigate their way out of dungeons in cases such as Ashker v. Newsom, where it reads: “The cumulative effects of prolonged solitary confinement, attended with windowless cells that are sealed off from contact with other prisoners, a prohibition on social phone calls or contact visits with family members, as well as the deprivation of good time credits or general or educational programming which causes the denial of an opportunity for parole, Plaintiffs advanced an Eighth Amendment claim to the effect that class members had been denied the basic needs of normal human contact, environmental and sensory stimulation, acceptable levels of mental and physical health, physical exercise, sleep, nutrition, and meaningful daily or periodic activity.”
Ruben “Jitu” Williams Jr., 67, served 44 years in prison on a seven-to-life sentence, before he paroled in 2019. Thirty-three of those years were spent in Security Housing Units for gang affiliation. He recalled men who had been locked up in 1969 but were paroled by 1980, “before all the bullshit started,” he said, adding, “That’s when the California Department of Corrections started building prisons.”
Reiter confirms, writing, “In each state, the organized and disorganized violence precipitated extended periods of isolation and lockdown. And nearly every state that experienced such riots and lockdowns eventually followed California’s lead, building a supermax prison to institutionalize the lockdowns. Prisoners terrified prison officials. In response, prison officials built new institutions to terrorize prisoners.”
Jackson wasn’t the first California prisoner who experienced the wrath of state-sponsored racial terrorism. But this month, as we revisit 50 years of history surrounding George Jackson’s murder in August 1971 and the subsequent events today, though, there’s an unavoidable question: Who killed George Jackson? What is the truth?
If you don’t know who he was, then the answer is you. He lives when his legacy is remembered.
About the author
Kevin D. Sawyer is an African American native of San Francisco, California, born in 1963. He has written numerous unpublished short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals on incarceration and other subjects. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 580 Split, Columbia Journalism Review, The Guardian, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, San Quentin News, Brothers in Pen anthologies, Iron City Magazine, San Francisco Bay View, Street Spirit, The Pioneer, Humans of San Quentin, California Prison Focus, Oakland Post, Davis Vanguard, American Prison Writing Archive, Filter Magazine, PEN America, Prison Journalism Project, UCLA Law Review, The News Station, Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Wall City, El Tecolote and The Life of the Law.
Sawyer is the associate editor for San Quentin News (www.sanquentinnews.com) and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He’s a 2019 PEN America Honorable Mention for nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for Community Journalism, and he was on the SQ News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award.
Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked 14 continuous years in the telecommunications industry for several corporations. He’s a certified electrician through the National Center for Construction Education and Research and a practiced guitar and piano player. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication with a special broadcasting option from California State University, Hayward, and a diploma as paralegal-legal assistant from Blackstone Career Institute. He is currently working on a novel.
Send our brother some love and light: Kevin D. Sawyer, P-22673, San Quentin SP, 1-W-08-U, San Quentin, CA 94974.
Editor’s note: We appreciate this powerful piece of work by our brother Kevin D. Sawyer, and I hope to use it as an educational tool – as I do much of the prisoner writings. The one thing I see that Mr. Sawyer missed is that in his mention of those who revere George Jackson, i.e., Black prisoners and some scholars, he missed the thousands of activists, organizers, individuals and students of revolutionary and Black liberation politics who love and are inspired by George Jackson, and indeed also by his brother, Jonathan Man-child Jackson.