When George Jackson was eighteen, he was sentenced to from one year to life for stealing seventy dollars from a gas station. By now he has spent ten years in prison, seven of them in solitary confinement. He has been repeatedly promised parole and then denied it. To justify their treatment, prison officials have branded him as a “dangerous freewheeling convict leader who must be isolated because of his impact on the prison population.” Huey P. Newton, who heard about Jackson while he himself was in prison at San Luis Obispo, explains it in a different way: “George Jackson is a legend in the California prison system. Someone who has refused to sacrifice his integrity or the integrity of anyone else to get out of prison.”
Jackson, along with two other prisoners, has been charged with killing a white guard in Soledad Prison in January, 1970, and is about to go on trial in San Francisco. As a lifer, he faces a mandatory death sentence if he is convicted.
Since I have worked as a legal investigator at both Soledad and San Quentin prisons for the Defense Committee for Jackson and the other “Soledad Brothers,” Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, I have been repeatedly asked: Are they guilty or innocent of killing the guard? So far as the facts and the law are concerned, I am absolutely convinced of their innocence. But what I learned about conditions at Soledad Prison has made me wonder at the survival of both prisoners and guards in Soledad.
A recent report by the Black Caucus of the California legislature includes a description of the case of a Soledad inmate who successfully sued the state for cruel and unusual punishment. He had been
…kept in a 6 × 8 strip cell with no protection from wet weather, deprived of all items with which he might clean himself, forced to eat in the stench and filth caused by his own body wastes, allowed to wash his hands only once every five days and required to sleep on a stiff canvas mat placed directly on the cold canvas floor.
The report confirms accounts that white food-servers are encouraged by the prison guards to deliberately contaminate the food served to blacks in the isolation cells with cleanser powder, ground glass, and excreta. In one of his letters George describes how whites throw excreta and garbage at black inmates who are locked in their cells. In another letter, he tells how guards have armed white convicts and encouraged them to attack blacks. The prison population is predominantly white. Many of the guards are from the South.
On January 13, 1970, the prison opened a new exercise yard in the maximum security wing. Eight whites and seven blacks were skin searched and sent out into the yard. Predictably a fight broke out between the whites and the blacks. Without any warning a tower guard who had a reputation as a crack shot began to fire. He…
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