The bleak prison world portrayed by George Jackson in his letter to Fay Stender, his attorney, develops into a concentrated and condensed view of American society. This microcosm evolves from faults within the socio-political structure of the state. Jackson draws similarities between the construct of American and prison life, which harmonised the unrest of black Americans during an era of the civil right movement. The links drawn add another dimension to the movement and the barbaric nature of American politics.
To move away from Jackson’s letter, I would like to quote something that I believe is essential to Jackson’s view of the prison system: I feel like an alien in here because this whole prison system is created in such a way as to cut me off from my culture, my religion. There is no way I can describe the effect it has on me to be forcefully separated from my very way of life. The values of the white man, I do not understand.
I don’t understand a culture that believes that it is good to fight one another for wealth, for material things These things I don’t understand, but it is the way of white man, and it is the way these prisoners are taught to be so that they can function properly in the white man’s society when they are released. This is part of an affidavit written to congress by a Native American called Timothy Reed, also known as Little Rock. The prison system is designed to remove one’s identity to replace it with an American’ one.
I have often thought that being American is more akin to a religion than a nationality. The nation’s zealous guarding of their identity condemns any notion outside their own. That a nation so young and bastardised could be so xenophobic is horrifically ironic considering America’s history. And it is this history that Jackson considers important to understanding why racism exists at the prison with “particular prominence”‘ and goes on to answer the larger question of why racism exists in [American] society with “particular prominence”, tied into history’.
That those who inhabit [the prison] and feed off its existence are historical products’, fixes on an evolution of America which not only creates the need for such prisons, but also creates a micro-society in its image. The perpetuation of the cruelty of American history exists inside the prison walls, where overt racism exists unchecked. It is not a case of the pigs trying to stop the many racist attacks; they actively encourage them’.
The broader implication of this is that if the microcosm of the prison system is a concentrated form of the macrocosm of American Life, then the constraints and mismanagement of the former is directly related to the law and government of the latter. Jackson eloquently draws out these relationships throughout the piece: the real victim, that poor, uneducated, disorganised man who finds himself a convicted criminal, is simply the end result of a long chain of corruption and mismanagement.
Prison is a reflection and magnification of the true horror of American society. Jackson does not mention once in his letter that prison life is any worse or better than life on the outside. One is a direct consequence of the other, but Little Rock’s notion of forcing conformity is explicated more thoroughly in Jackson’s piece. Yet even within the mini-universe of the prison there is another smaller universe that is more concentrated, O Wing, the Maximum Security Row. Here we see indoctrination of racism.
If a white prisoner does not accept racism willingly he is brainwashed into it. This brainwashing is open and unmistakable, unlike the more subliminal and institutional racism of the outside world. Yet the results are the same: Racism is stamped unalterably into the present nature of Amerikan socio-political and economic life in general criminals and crime arise from material, economic, socio-political causes Culture and religion rub together in prison; eventually there is a fire. The prison system is a fascist one.
The definition of fascism is: a police state wherein the political ascendancy is tied into and protects the interests of the upper class – characterised by militarism, racism, and imperialism’ , where in the prison system militarism’ is the violence of the guards and imperialism’ is the institutional acceptance of this violence in order to enforce its power over the inmates. The acceptance is justified with the argument that [the prisoner] exist outside the practice if any civilised codes of conduct’, yet this justification leads to the subjugation of the prisoners.
Subjugation is a use of power and power corrupts: What type of man is capable of handling absolute power how many would not abuse it? Is there any way of isolating or classifying generally who can be trusted with a gun and absolute discretion as to who he will kill? When one considers the gun laws in the United States this question is very poignant. Cultural mismatches breed racism. The guards along with fifty per cent of the prison population belong to one cultural ethnicity. The remaining are bullied into conforming, its just like outside.
Nothing at all complicated about it. When people walk on each other, when disharmony is the norm, when organisations start falling apart it is the fault of these whose responsibility it is to govern’. Here Jackson indicts the government, not only for the treatment of black prisoners, but also for the treatment of black Americans. Prison destroys the logical processes of the mind, a man’s thoughts become completely disorganised when a white man leaves [prison] he’s ruined for life. No black man leaves Max Row walking’.
Authoritarian rule enforced by frightening, petrifying diffusion of violence and intimidation How else could a small group of armed men be expected to hold and rule another much larger group except through fear? ‘ This quote is not only reminiscent of America’s colonial history, but also of a system of government which closely resembles much of Jackson’s depiction of prison life; that of Apartheid in South Africa. And like Apartheid, it produces a revolution and the same rebellious nature it is designed to wipe out: No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever.
There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand. Jackson prophesied anarchy within the prisons and in society; it was already brewing among the growing civil rights activists. In prison there is a greater need for freedom and a longer time to plot it, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate or dedicated to the ultimate remedy – revolution’.
At the time this was written American was on the verge of such a revolution and only ten days after the letter was written came the Attica prison uprising which claimed the lives of forty-three prisoners and inmates. The letter was prophetic, but the class of black activist that these prisons breeding were militants like Eldridge Cleaver, former Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party and represented the most militant wing of the Black Panther Party, advocating the overthrow of the United States Government and the establishment of socialism.
Cleaver surrender himself to the police after a gun battle with police that lasted an hour and a half. One of the three Panther members involved was shot in custody. Men are brutalised by their environment – not the reverse’ and this brutalisation was being fought with more violence. Martin Luther King was dead, and little could tolerate peaceful’ demonstrations: the blacks are fast losing the last of their restraints. Growing numbers of blacks are openly passed over when paroles are considered. They have become aware that their only hope lies in resistance.
They have learned that resistance is actually possible. The holds are beginning to slip away Most of today’s black convicts have come to understand that they are the most abused victims of an unrighteous order. Up until now, the prospect of parole has kept us from confronting our captors with any real determination. But now with living conditions of these places deteriorating and with the sure knowledge that we are slated for destruction, we have been transformed into an implacable army of liberation. This sentiment was the same that spread civil disobedience.
The American black man felt as if they had nothing to lose. In prison they were lifers, on the streets they were prisoners of life. And this where the microcosm and the macrocosm of American life overlap, the treatment of blacks in both cases leads to the same violent conclusion. Some people are going to get killed out of this situation that is growing. That is not a warning (or wishful thinking). I see it as an “unavoidable consequence” of placing and leaving control of our lives in the hands of men like Reagan.
That blacks in both situations feel that there is no alternative but to fight back shows that there is little difference between the overt brutality of the prison system and the institutionalised racism on America. Oppression of any kind leaves the same mark. I will tell anybody that [the shootout] was the first experience of freedom that I had. I was free for an hour and a half because during that time the repressive forces couldn’t put their hands on me. Riots had broken out all over the country in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
How many black Americans felt the same as he did? And those that formed the uprising in Attica, did they feel briefly the exhilaration of emancipation? And even if these men lack the will to fight they are broken so damaged that they will never again be suitable members of any sort of social unit’. They emerge killers or dysfunctional members of society. Prison, and American society, removes everything that was still good anything inside of them that may have escaped the ruinous effects of black colonial existence, anything that may have been redeemable’.
They become both what the establishment fears and what the establishment regard them to be. Their answer is more radical action and control, which leads to a greater need for rebellion. The perpetuation of violence creates a greater void and stronger racism. The Black Muslims and Panthers recruited directly out of prison. Even amongst the black prison population there was a divide, depending on how militant a prisoner was prepared to be. If a prisoner was tough enough to survive, he had the right mentality and hatred to be a part of the uprising that was four hundred years in the making.
Jackson gives no remedy to this problem. He is already imbedded in cycle of aggression. He can no longer see from the outside in; he can only track its progression I can’t say that I am normal I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve got angry too many times. They’ve pushed me over the line from which there can be no retreat. Perhaps there is no remedy, yet still there has been no great race war that was predicted through the sixties. But with race riots flaring up after the Rodney King trial and the acquittal of O. J. Simpson to prevent rioting, at least the American establishment is to trying to maintain a balance.