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Soledad Brother: Two Prison Letters from George Jackson

George Jackson, introduction by Greg Armstrong

Introduction

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 fired four times and three black inmates were killed. One white prisoner was wounded in the groin by a shot that ricocheted. A letter from a convict, in the California legislative report, gives this description of the incident.

I looked at the tower guard and he was aiming the gun toward me and I thought then that he meant to kill me, too, so I moved from the wall as he fired and went over to stand over inmate C, all the time looking the guard in the gun tower in the face.

He aimed the gun at me again and I just froze and waited for him to fire, but he held his fire. After I saw he was not going to fire, I pointed to where inmate C lay, with two other black inmates bending over him, and started to walk toward the door through which we had entered the yard, and then the tower guard pointed the gun at me and shook his head.

I stopped and begged him for approximately ten minutes to let me take C to the hospital but all he did was shake his head. Then I started forward with tears in my eyes, expecting to be shot down every second. The tower guard told me, “That’s far enough.” Then another guard gave me permission to bring C off the yard and I was ordered to lay him on the floor in the officers’ area and go to my cell, which I refused to do until C was taken to the hospital.

Black survivors claim that one of the wounded men bled to death on the concrete floor. Three days later the Monterey County Grand Jury found that the killings were justifiable homicide. Less than half an hour after this verdict was announced on the prison radio, a white guard, not the guard who had fired the shots, was found beaten to death. All the convicts in the wing where the killing took place were put into isolation. On February 28, Fleeta Drumgo, John Clutchette, and George Jackson were formally charged with the murder. They were later called “the Soledad Brothers” by those who have tried to help them.

Two hearings were held in Salinas County. The accused men were brought into the courtroom chained and shackled after passing through a jeering crowd. Their families were not present. They were not represented by counsel. No word of the charge had been allowed to leak out of the prison. All mail mentioning the case had been held up by the prison authorities. A third hearing was about to take place when John Clutchette managed to smuggle out a note to his mother. “Help! won’t let letters get out. Send lawyer might not let you come in. Contact some law firm that deal with ‘those kind!’ Life in danger. Hurry.” With the help of Huey P. Newton and a state senator, his mother contacted a lawyer.

The defense attorneys claim that the prosecution witnesses have been threatened with loss of their chances for parole if they fail to give testimony favorable to the prosecution. More than thirty-five inmate witnesses have been transferred to prisons all over the state forcing defense attorneys to spend weeks away from their offices interviewing them. The wing where the killing took place has been completely rebuilt. Defense attorneys have been denied the routine right of pretrial discovery of facts. The first judge who was assigned to the case disqualified himself after accusations of racial bigotry. The second judge agreed to a change of venue to San Francisco after meetings with a very determined group of defense attorneys, and after it became clear that public support for the Soledad Brothers was growing.

The letters that follow were written after the indictment, in a windowless six-by-eight-foot isolation cell in the maximum security wing at Soledad. The first letter was written in response to my request, as George Jackson’s editor, for a brief autobiography to introduce the collection of his letters that will soon appear. The second letter to his attorney, Fay Stender, was written in June, 1970, shortly after she had visited him. The other letters in Jackson’s book begin in 1964. They document the efforts by the prison officials to transform him into a docile kowtowing Negro. They include letters to his parents, to the women he knows, including Angela Davis, and to his brother Jonathan.

The last time I saw George Jackson he was in a special room reserved for those who visit Death Row inmates in San Quentin. A few days before, his brother Jonathan had been shot down outside the San Raphael Hall of Justice. He was, he told me, dedicating his book to Jonathan.

George Jackson’s book, Soledad Brother, with an Introduction by Jean Genet, is being published by Bantam Books and Coward-McCann on October 15. Contributions may be sent to the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee, 795 Morse Avenue, San José, California 95126.

Two Letters

Soledad Prison
June 10, 1970

Dear Greg:

I probably didn’t work hard enough on this but I’m pressed for time—all the time.

I could play the criminal aspects of my life down some but then it wouldn’t be me. That was the pertinent part, the thing at school and home I was constantly rejecting in process.

All my life I pretended with my folks, it was the thing in the street that was real. I was certainly just pretending with the nuns and priests, I served mass so that I could be in a position to steal altar wine, sang in the choir because they made me. When we went on tour of the rich white Catholic schools we were always treated very well—fed—rewarded with gifts. Old Father Brown hated me but always put me down front when we were on display. I can’t say exactly why, I was the ugliest, skinniest little misfit in the group.

Blackmen born in the US 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 blackmen to the prison gate. I was prepared for prison. It required only minor psychic adjustments.

It always starts with Mama, mine loved me. As testimony of her love, and her fear for the fate of the man-child all slave mothers hold, she attempted to press, hide, push, capture me in the womb. The conflicts and contradictions that will follow me to the tomb started right there in the womb. The feeling of being captured…this slave can never adjust to it, it’s a thing that I just don’t favor, then, now, never.

I’ve been asked to explain myself, “briefly,” before the world has done with me. It is difficult because I don’t recognize uniqueness, not as it’s applied to individualism, because it is too tightly tied into decadent capitalist culture. Rather I’ve always strained to see the indivisible thing cutting across the artificial barricades which have been erected to an older section of our brains, back to the mind of the primitive commune that exists in all blacks. But then how can I explain the runaway slave in terms that do not imply uniqueness?

I was captured and brought to prison when I was eighteen years old because I couldn’t adjust. The record that the state has compiled on my activities reads like the record of ten men. It labels me brigand, thief, burglar, gambler, hobo, drug addict, gunman, escape artist, Communist revolutionary, and murderer.

I was born as the Great Depression was ending. It was ending because the second great war for colonial markets was beginning in the US. I pushed out of the womb against my mother’s strength September 23, 1941—I felt free.

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