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Soledad Brother

Review by Elizabeth Schulte

This is a particularly relevant time to reissue Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. This collection of letters that prisoner and activist George Jackson wrote from 1964 to 1970 speaks strongly of the brutality in the U.S. justice system. According to an October Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the U.S.'s prison population exceeds 1 million, the largest number ever in history. The number of prisoners grew by almost 40,000 during the first half of 1994 alone, which amounts to more than 1,500 people a week. The jails are packed to the gills, and they're filled with young blacks, Latinos and poor whites.

At the age of 18, George Jackson was sentenced to a year to life for allegedly stealing $70 from a gas station. Like so many victims of the U.S. "justice" system he had no means to fight the charges against him. Imprisoned in Soledad prison in California, the majority of the time in solitary confinement, Jackson was transformed into a voice of the prisoners' rights movement and a defiant chronicler of life in the U.S.

Out of the desperation and outrage that comes with prison life, he spoke out for reforms in prison while he also spoke against prison as an institution. "This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely. But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal. If I leave here alive, I'll leave nothing behind. They'll never count me among the broken men, but I can't say that I am normal either. I've been too hungry too long. I've gotten angry too often. I've been lied to and insulted too many times."

Jackson's writings were circulated in prisons around the country. When Jackson was killed in August, 1971, 700 prisoners at New York's Attica State Correctional Facility, most wearing black armbands, refused to eat breakfast in honor of Jackson's memory. One month later, Attica prisoners, black, white and Latino, seized control in America's greatest prison uprising.

The letters Jackson wrote to his family, his attorney, to political activist Angela Davis and others speak not only about the racism of the prison authorities, where arming white prisoners was a commonplace tactic to divide and conquer, but also to the injustices in society at large. Jackson reveals the enormous odds blacks face in the U.S., both inside and outside prison walls. In 1970 Jackson, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo, two other black prisoners identified as militants, were falsely accused of killing a white prison guard, sparked by guards' attacks on prisoners.

In the campaign to defend them, Jackson, Clutchette and Drumgo became known as the "Soledad Brothers." In June, 1970, they were transferred from Soledad to the San Quentin penitentiary near San Francisco. Two days before the opening of his trial in 1971, Jackson was shot to death by a tower guard in a supposed "escape attempt." The foreword to this edition of Soledad Brother is written by Jonathan Jackson, Jr, the author's nephew, whose father died in an armed attack on the Marin County Courthouse in California.

In August, 1970, Jonathan, then 17, walked into the courthouse with a satchelful of handguns, an assault rifle and a shotgun under his raincoat and said "All right, gentlemen, I'm taking over now." He was attempting to seize hostages to trade for the Soledad Brothers' freedom. Police shot Jonathan down. George wrote: "...he was free for a while. I guess that's more than most of us can expect."

Through his personal experience, his reading of and contact with Black nationalist and socialist thought, George Jackson concluded that some sort of revolutionary change was necessary to win any lasting freedom.

The race to fill the prisons and to build new ones continues. Jackson's angry words 20 years ago inspire us to struggle today: "I don't mind dying, but I'd like to have the opportunity to fight back." Published by Lawrence Hill Books, 1994, 360 pages, $14.95.

Reprinted from: Socialist Worker, February 3, 1995.

[Editors' Note: Through the 60's and 70's George Jackson was a symbol of prison struggle and resistance. He inspired groups like the George Jackson Brigade, which gave armed support to prisoner and workers' struggles in the Pacific Northwest as well as the Black Panther Party. The objective conditions of American prisoners has not changed in the intervening time period: prisons are even more overcrowded and in worse condition than those that prevailed in the 60's. What is different is that there is no progressive political movement like the one that supported Jackson and other revolutionary prisoners in the 70's. Jackson's legacy should be remembered.]

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