The US prisoners' movement, 1970-1978 - Howard Zinn

George Jackson in San Quentin prison

Howard Zinn's history of the movement of US prisoners and supporters on the outside against poor conditions and ill-treatment.

Submitted by Steven. on September 13, 2006

The movement refelected the general upsurge in revolutionary activity in the US at the time

For people in prisons in the US, communication with the outside world was difficult. Guards would tear up letters. Others would be intercepted and read. Jerry Sousa, a prisoner at Walpole in 1970, sent two letters—one to a judge, the other to the parole board—to tell about a beating by guards. They went unanswered. Fight years later, at a court hearing, he discovered the prison authorities had intercepted them, never sent them out.

The families suffered with the prisoner: “During the last lock-up my four-year-old son sneaked off into the yard and picked me a flower. A guard in the tower called the warden's office and a deputy came in with the State Police at his side. He announced that if any child went into the yard and picked another flower, all visits would be terminated.”

The prison rebellions of the late sixties and early seventies had a distinctly different character than the earlier ones. The prisoners in the Queens House of Detention referred to themselves as “revolutionaries.” All over the country, prisoners were obviously affected by the turmoil in the country, the black revolt, the youth upsurge, the anti-war movement.

The events of those years underlined what prisoners already sensed—that whatever crimes they had committed, the greatest crimes were being committed by the authorities who maintained the prisons, by the government of the United States. The law was being broken daily by the President, sending bombers to kill, sending men to be killed, outside the Constitution, outside the “highest law of the land.” State and local officials were violating the civil rights of black people, which was against the law, and were not being prosecuted for it.

Literature about the black movement, books on the war, began to seep into the prisons. The example set in the streets by blacks, by anti-war demonstrators, was exhilarating—against a lawless system, defiance was the only answer.

It was a system which sentenced Martin Sostre, a fifty-two-year-old black man and anarchist, running an Afro-Asian bookstore in Buffalo, New York, to twenty-five to thirty years in prison for allegedly selling $15 worth of heroin to an informer who later recanted his testimony. The recantation did not free Sostre—he could find no court, including the Supreme Court of the United States, to revoke the judgment. He spent eight years in prison, was beaten ten times by guards, spent three years in solitary confinement, battling and defying the authorities all the way until his release. Such injustice deserved only rebellion.

There had always been political prisoners—people sent to jail for belonging to radical movements, for opposing war. But now a new kind of political prisoner appeared—the man, or woman, convicted of an ordinary crime, who, in prison, became awakened politically. Some prisoners began making connections between their personal ordeal and the social system. They then turned not to individual rebellion but to collective action. They became concerned—amid an environment whose brutality demanded concentration on one’s own safety, an atmosphere of cruel rivalry—for the rights, the safety of others.

George Jackson (pictured, above) was one of these new political prisoners. In Soledad prison, California, on an indeterminate sentence for a $70 robbery, having already served ten years of it, Jackson became a revolutionary. He spoke with a fury that matched his condition:

This monster—the monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker, from the grave, the pit, the profoundest pit. Hurl me into the next existence, the descent into hell won’t turn me… I'm going to charge them reparations in blood. I’m going to charge them like a mad-dened, wounded, rogue male elephant, ears flared, trunk raised, trumpet blaring… War without terms.

A prisoner like this would not last. And when his book Soledad Brother became one of the most widely read books of black militancy in the United States—by prisoners, by black people, by white people—perhaps this ensured he would not last.

All my life I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do just when I wanted, no more, perhaps less sometimes, but never any more, which explains why I had to be jailed… I never adjusted. I haven’t adjusted even yet, with half of my life already in prison.

He knew what might happen:

Born to a premature death, a menial, subsistence-wage worker, odd-job man, the cleaner, the caught, the man under hatches, without bail—that’s me, the colonial victim. Anyone who can pass the civil service examination today can kill me tomorrow... with complete immunity.

In August 1971 he was shot in the back by guards at San Quentin prison while he was allegedly trying to escape. The state’s story (analysed by Eric Mann in Comrade George) was full of holes. Prisoners in jails and state prisons all over the country knew, even before the final autopsy was in, even before later disclosures suggested a government plot to kill Jackson, that he had been murdered for daring to be a revolutionary in prison. Shortly after Jackson’s death, there was a chain of rebellions around the country, in San Jose Civic Centre jail, in Dallas county jail, in Suffolk county jail in Boston, in Cumberland county jail in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in Bexar county jail in San Antonio, Texas.

The most direct effect of the George Jackson murder was the rebellion at Attica prison in September 1971—a rebellion that came from long, deep grievances, but that was raised to boiling point by the news about George Jackson.

The Attica uprising saw prisoners – black and white together - seize control of the jail, taking several guards hostage with a series of demands about conditions. The prison authorities refused to meet the demands, and instead launched an armed raid on the prison using over 1,000 National Guardsmen, prison guards, and police, killing 40 people. Nine of the dead were guards who authorities claimed were murdered by prisoners, but official autopsies soon showed that the guards had been shot alongside the prisoners by the raiders.

Read more about the history of the Attica prison uprising

The effects of Attica are hard to measure. Two months after the revolt at Attica, men at Norfolk prison in Massachusetts began to organise. On November 8, 1971, armed guards and state troopers, in a surprise raid, moved into the cells at Norfolk, pulled out sixteen men, and shipped them out. A prisoner described the scene:

Between one and two last night I was awakened (I’ve been a light sleeper since Vietnam) and I looked out my windows. There were troopers. And screws. Lots. Armed with sidearms, and big clubs. They were going into dorms and taking people, all kinds of people…

They took a friend of mine. . . Being pulled outside in our underwear. at 1:30, in bare feet by two troopers and a housescrew. Looking at those troops, with guns, and masks and clubs, with the moon shining off the helmets and the hate that you could see in their faces. Thinking that this is where these guys live, with the guns and the hate, and the helmets and masks, and you, you’re trying to wake up, flashing on Kent State and Jackson [two universities where unarmed anti-war demonstrators were shot and killed by the military], and Chicago. And Attica. Most of all, Attica.

That same week at Concord prison in Massachusetts, another raid. It was as if everywhere, in the weeks and months after Attica, the authorities were taking preventive action to break up organising efforts among the prisoners. Jerry Sousa, a young leader of the prison reform movement at Concord, was taken away, dumped into Walpole in the middle of the night, and immediately put into Nine Block, the dreaded segregation unit. He had been there only a short time when he managed to get a report out to friends. The content of this report tells much about what was happening before and after Attica to the thinking of prisoners:

We are writing a sombre report regarding the circumstances and events leading up to and surrounding the death of prisoner Joseph Chesnulavich which occurred here an hour ago in Nine Block.

Since Christmas eve, vicious prison guards here in Nine Block have created a reign of terror directed toward us prisoners. Four of us have been beaten, one who was prisoner Donald King.

In an attempt to escape constant harassment and inhuman treatment, prisoner George Hayes ate razor blades and prisoner Fred Ahern swallowed a needle . . . they both were rushed to Mass General Hospital.

This evening at 6 pm prison guards Baptist, Sainsbury, and Montiega turned a fire extinguisher containing a chemical foam on Joe then slammed the solid steel door sealing him in his cell and walked away, voicing threats of, “We’ll get that punk.”

At 9.25pm. Joe was found dead. Prison authorities as well as news media will label little Joe’s death a suicide, but the men here in Block Nine who witnessed this murder know. But are we next?

What was happening was the organisation of prisoners—the caring of prisoners for one another, the attempt to take the hatred and anger of individual rebellion and turn it into collective effort for change. On the outside, something new was also happening, the development of prison support groups all over the country, the building of a body of literature about prisons. There were more studies of crime and punishment, a growing movement for the abolition of prisons on the grounds that they did not prevent crime or cure it, but expanded it. Alternatives were discussed: community houses in the short run (except for the incorrigibly violent); guaranteed minimum economic security, in the long run.

The prisoners were thinking about issues beyond prison, victims other than themselves and their friends. In Walpole prison a statement asking for American withdrawal from Vietnam was circulated; it was signed by every single prisoner—an amazing organising feat by a handful of inmates. One Thanksgiving day there, most of the prisoners, not only in Walpole but in three other prisons, refused to eat the special holiday meal, saying they wanted to bring attention to the hungry all over the United States.

Prisoners worked laboriously on lawsuits, and some victories were won in the courts. The publicity around Attica, the community of support, had its effect. Although the Attica rebels were indicted on heavy charges and faced double and triple life terms, the charges were finally dropped. But in general, the courts declared their unwillingness to enter the closed, controlled world of the prison, and so the prisoners remained as they had been so long, on their own.

Even where an occasional “victory” came in the courts it turned out, on close reading, to leave things not much different. In 1973 Procunier v. Martinez) the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional certain mail censorship regulations of the California Department of Corrections. But when one looked closely, the decision, with all its proud language about “First Amendment liberties,” said: “we hold that censorship of prison mail is justified if the following criteria are met…" When the censorship could be said to “further an important or substantial government interest” or where it was in the “substantial governmental interests of security, order, and rehabilitation,” censorship would be allowed.

In 1978 the Supreme Court ruled that the news media do not have guaranteed rights of access to jails and prisons. It ruled also that prison authorities could forbid inmates to speak to one another, assemble, or spread literature about the formation of a prisoners’ union. It became clear - and prisoners seemed to know this from the start - that their condition would not be changed by law, but by protest, organisation, resistance, the creation of their own culture, their own literature, the building of links with people on the outside. There were more outsiders now who knew about prisons. Tens of thousands of Americans had spent time behind bars in the civil rights and anti-war movements. They had learned about the prison system and could hardly forget their experiences. There was a basis now for breaking through the long isolation of the prisoners from the community and finding support there. In the mid-seventies, this was beginning to happen.

This article was taken from Howard Zinn’s excellent A People's History of the United States.
We heartily recomment you buy A People's History of the United States now.
OCRed by Linda Towlson and lightly edited by libcom - US to UK spelling, additional details, clarifications and links added



14 years 8 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Lakota72 on August 1, 2009

This is very interesting- especially seeing as though my dad (Jerry Sousa) has told me a few things about how he helped the prison rights throughout my life... I'm glad I was able to find more information about it.


13 years 3 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by adamwest on January 1, 2011

my grandfather was leo davis a co killed at san q in 71 a month later brother jackson was killed by this shady gov my name is ryan hit me back asap if you want to know the real about leo davis and george jacksons death


11 years 7 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Whathappened71 on September 10, 2012

Hello, Adam West/Ryan:

I was very interested to see your post and invitation about getting in touch with you.

I've always been very curious about this case. The state's story about the smuggled gun isn't credible, and it seems awfully convenient. The lack of investigation is pretty amazing, too.

The lawyer who was accused of smuggling the gun was tried and acquitted in the 80s.

So what really happened?

What's your view?

How might I get in touch with you?