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The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement (Book Review)

This is a history of the California prison movement from 1950 to 1980, focusing on San Quentin state prison and highlighting the role that prison reading and writing played in the creation of radical prisoner ideology in those years. This was an extraordinary era in California prisons, one that saw the emergence of a highly developed radical convict resistance movement inside the walls. Cummins examines writers like Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, the Black Panthers, Black Muslims and the Symbionese Liberation Army and Black Guerrilla Family. Also described are how outside activists became involved in building the prison movement and how prisoner's books were able to reach far beyond prison walls to influence opinion, events and policy.

While the book is interesting we feel it has some shortcomings, namely it ascribes the collapse of the California prison movement to it being too radical rather than to repression by the state, the overall retreat of progressive movements with the Vietnam war being won by the Vietnamese, etc. A rebuttal pointing out these fallacies in greater detail than we can run here in PLN has been written by Marti Hiken, Director of the NLG's Prison Law Project and should definitely be read by anyone who gets this book. The rebuttal was printed in Prison News Service, send them $1.00 and ask for that issue (address on page 20 of PLN). Basically, we think Cummins's book is interesting but draws the wrong conclusions. People can read it and make up their own minds. It is available for $16.95 (paper) $45.00 (hard), ISBN 0-8047-2232-3, from: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA 94305-2235. (415) 723-9434.

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