by Claude Marks
July 28, 2023 – Ruchell Magee is 84 years old and has spent most of his life behind bars. Throughout his 67 years of unjust captivity, Ruchell has been one of the first and most consistent prisoners linking mass incarceration and the U.S. prison system to slavery. Ruchell Magee took the name Cinque from the enslaved African Sengbe Pieh, who led an 1839 rebellion to commandeer the slave ship La Amistad, arguing that Africans have the right to resist “unlawful” slavery. Ruchell maintained that Black people in the U.S. have the right to resist this new form of slavery, which is part of the colonial control of Black people in this country:
“Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today. It’s the same but with a new name.”
“My fight is to expose the entire system, judicial and prison system, a system of slavery … This cause will benefit not just to myself but to all those who at this time are being criminally oppressed or enslaved by this system.”
“You have to deal on your own tactics. You have a right to take up arms to oppose any usurped government, particularly the type of corruption that we have today.” – Ruchell Magee
Ruchell’s political stance and writings point out the need for a prison abolitionist movement to seriously address the historical legacy of slavery and slave rebellions in order to truly be in solidarity with the millions of people incarcerated in the U.S.
Ruchell Magee, was born in Louisiana in 1939. In 1956, he was sentenced to 12 years of forced labor for the alleged attempted rape of a white woman in August 1955. But all the circumstances indicate that this case was replete with racist and false identification – at first the alleged victim failed to identify Magee, but at a second opportunity, all of a sudden, she did. It is clear that this was a case of “Southern justice” – the jury was all white, the trial lasted just one day and it took the jurors just a fraction of that time to send Magee away for 12 years. Also Emmett Till was murdered in August 1955 for a similar unfounded accusation.
He spent almost seven years under a brutal labor regime in the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary known as “Angola” and was released on parole in 1962. Ruchell moved to Los Angeles. He got involved in a quarrel about 10 dollars worth of marijuana ending in a kidnapping charge for which there is very little evidence and which he denies to this very day.
He was sentenced to a prison term of seven years to life for aggravated kidnapping which carried a penalty of up to five years. This trial lasted two days. He had spent only a few months in freedom after his release from Angola.
Ruchell’s conviction appeal was denied in 1965. He spent the time after his conviction in San Quentin prison where he started “jailhouse lawyering” and he met prison activist George Jackson, who also had a California-type sentence of one year to life. The parole boards regularly denied their releases. Ruchell became a major participant in the movement for prisoner rights and continued the fight for his release.
The Marin County Courthouse Rebellion
By Aug. 7, 1970, Ruchell had spent almost 15 years in prison for charges that he continues to deny. That day, he was called along with another prisoner, William Christmas, as a witness in a prison murder case. Suddenly, George Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan entered the courtroom with a number of weapons, which he distributed among the defendants in the case – James McClain, as well as Magee and Christmas. They took the judge, an assistant attorney, and three jurors hostage, demanding liberty for George Jackson and the guarantee of safe conduct for themselves.
However, when the group went to a waiting van that Jonathan Jackson had brought with him and tried to leave the Marin County Courthouse premises, the Marin County police and San Quentin guards opened fire. When the shooting stopped, Judge Harold Haley, Jonathan Jackson, William Christmas and James McClain lay dead. Ruchell was unconscious and seriously wounded as was the prosecutor.
As the sole survivor of the group, Ruchell was charged with simple kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping and murder, along with Angela Davis, who was alleged to have provided Jonathan Jackson with the guns. The trials against Angela and Ruchell were then separated; Davis was acquitted of all charges in 1972.
According to an affidavit by the jury foreperson, Ruchell’s own 1973 trial ended with a hung jury and then voted unanimously to acquit him of the aggravated kidnapping charge, voted 11 to 1 to acquit him of the murder charge, and found him guilty of simple kidnapping. During the trial, an autopsy of the judge who had been killed clearly showed that Ruchell had not been responsible for his death. Even so, parole commissions deciding on Ruchell’s release and the media have regularly mentioned his responsibility for the murder.
Even though there isn’t the slightest piece of evidence that Ruchell Magee knew anything about the planned liberation of prisoners in the court in San Rafael at any time before Aug. 7. On Jan. 23, 1975, Magee was sentenced to life in prison. After his conviction he was moved from San Quentin prison to the high security Folsom prison.
This is where his first of 16 parole hearings took place. Ruchell also spent nearly 10 years of his sentence in the infamous Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay. Given the way the facts of Aug. 7, 1970, were presented and the way Ruchell himself was characterized, the results were hardly surprising – it was taken for granted that Ruchell had in fact killed Judge Haley, even though the autopsy presented at the 1973 trial showed that he had not, and even though the prosecution itself had dropped the murder charge after that first trial.
These parole hearings also demonstrated the political character of Ruchell’s continued incarceration. The parole process decided that the prisoner cannot be released for explicitly political reasons, namely because he rejects the legality of his conviction and because he refuses to pronounce himself guilty.
In fact, Ruchell has always insisted that the reason for his participation in the abortive 1970 rebellion was the very fact that he had been “unjustly put behind bars” and therefore had the right to liberate himself. This position is the basis for arguing that slavery for many has not ended – especially for Black prisoners facing a parole process that insists on the admission of guilt and responsibility as the basis for release consideration.
Ruchell Magee has over the decades been one of the most consistent and successful jailhouse lawyers and an advocate for other prisoners.
Ruchell secures his freedom
On July 15, 2021, Ruchell was denied parole for the 16th time. In 2023, Ruchell Magee signed a petition for compassionate release after incessant work to challenge the legitimacy of his imprisonment.
It’s important to note that the specific way Ruchell is being released is through the new California compassionate release law, Assembly Bill 960, which many prison justice organizations worked to put through. AB 960, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, added Penal Code §1172.2 and changed the basis for compassionate release from six months left to live to someone who has a serious and advanced illness with an end-of-life trajectory or who is found to be permanently medically incapacitated.
Also, it created a presumption that the person is entitled to release unless there is an unreasonable risk that the incarcerated person will commit a new violent felony. The risk has to be based on the person’s actual capacity and not just speculation. The new law takes the decision for release recommendations out of the hands of the punitive prison system hierarchy and gives them to the prisons’ medical executives, who at least for now are more humane than the guards who’ve worked their way to the top of the system. Finally, the new law lets prisoners or their family ask the top doctor at each prison to review their case and set things in motion.
These small reforms proved to be the pathway for freedom for Ruchell, along with a lot of organizing work and a great lawyer.
“But even with the new law, it was a pitched battle. We had to sue the prison bureaucracy to force them to ask the courts to release Ruchell, and then we had to fight the Attorney General, who lied about Ruchell and clearly wanted him to die in prison,” said Mark Kleiman, Ruchell’s lawyer. Significantly, there are many other people in California’s prisons who should be also able to win release through this new law, according to Kleiman.
Thanks to Michael Schiffmann and Linn Washington Jr. – Addressing the Issue of Political Prisoners in the United States: Mumia Abu-Jamal and Ruchell Magee
A more in-depth and recent article on Ruchell, “Slave Rebel or Citizen?” is very worthwhile by Joy James and Kalonji Jama Changa. Read it here.
And more background – the 50th Anniversary of the Marin Courthouse Rebellion
Kiilu Nyasha, one of Ruchell’s strongest supporters for decades, wrote this classic: Ruchell Cinque Magee, sole survivor of the Aug. 7, 1970, Courthouse Slave Rebellion.