If We Must Die

Part V of It Makes A Long Time Man Feel Bad

Few things in Prison occur in private. It is an environment almost without internal secrets. The pressure that was being applied to break George Jackson was well-known within San Quentin and throughout the California penal system. Equally well known was the fact that Jackson had not been broken, and more importantly, that he had not had his capacity to reason and to love destroyed in self-defense.

As this sequence of action and reaction was common knowledge among prisoners, so was it becoming better understood by Jackson's family. Largely, this understanding was the result of George Jackson's growing respect and empathy for his father as George himself became more aware of the contours of the cauldron in which Robert Jackson had been immersed. This empathy and respect is reflected in the change of tone in Jackson's letters to his father. Gone is the assumption of superiority that had characterized much of the correspondence he sent to his father while Jackson was undergoing his purgation. Instead, Jackson's tone has mellowed, acquiring an understated assurance.

Perhaps even more important than the change in Jackson's tone towards his father was the evidence of his desire to save his brother Jonathon from the same forced dive that George Jackson and his father--each in his own way--had had to take. Highly aware that he did not and might never have children of his own, Jackson worked hard at passing the benefit of his experience to Jonathon, and took a pride in his brother's development that was more fatherly than brotherly.

Yet this rapprochement between Jackson and his family had no effect upon the actions and attitudes with which he had to deal inside the joint. In August, 1968, after he had been refused a transfer out of San Quentin, Jackson wrote to his mother:

It is clear that they are not going to give me a chance. You were right, that is exactly what they fear. Just because I want to be my black self, mentally healthy, and because I look anyone who addresses me in the eye, they feel that I may start a riot anytime. I've stopped more trouble here than any other black in the system.

However, in November of 1968, George Jackson was given a chance--or what was supposed to be a chance--when he was transferred back to Soledad. In his book, he says that during his 1968 appearance before the Adult Authority he was given a parole date, but that three days later he discovered the date was just another false promise. Instead, he was to be assigned to Soledad where, in the words of his prison record, Jackson would have "an opportunity to prepare himself for release."

In Soledad Brother, Jackson asserts that he was given to understand that his transfer to Soledad was not simply an "opportunity," but came with the promise of parole if he would accumulate six months of clean time.

In Soledad, Jackson fulfilled his part of the deal, but, "When the June 1969 appearance finally took place different people were on the board panel. No one could find any reference to the promises made to me by an earlier board. I was denied for another full year."

The June 1969 denial was not as accidental as it might appear. In November of 1966, Ronald Reagan had been elected Governor of California on a platform that called for the cessation of the coddling of criminals and a reduction of expenditures. As governor, Reagan slashed the prison system's budget so severely that most of the upper echelon correctional officials resigned. As he did with the state college system when many of its administrators quit in protest over budget cuts, Reagan filled these vacated slots in the Department of Corrections with men who were more willing to accept his dictates and shared his political prejudices.

Moreover, when he became governor, Reagan obtained the power of appointing the Adult Authority. Instituted during the governorship of Earl Warren in an effort to extend the integrated professional-operated system of the Youth Authority to older inmates, the Adult Authority has had its power and scope reduced as a result of lobbying efforts of members of the "treat 'em rough" school of penology. Originally an independent agency, the Authority has been absorbed into the Department of Corrections; however, the Authority still retains the crucial power to grant parole.

The Authority board is composed or nine members who serve staggered terms, formerly of three but now four years in duration.

As the terms of the members of the Authority expired, Reagan appointed men who shared his political convictions to the board. Less than two years after Reagan became governor, the number of men released on parole had declined more than ten per cent.

Currently, the Authority is composed exclusively of Reagan appointees, all of whom are former officers of the law. They include a retired FBI supervisor and two police chiefs--one of whom was one of the first to order his men to "shoot to kill" in civil disruptions.

Little exercise of the imagination is required to visualize the reaction men like this would have had to the notations in Jackson's record characterizing him as a violent self-avowed communist.

Thus, George Jackson, if he had not been so before, was undeniably a political prisoner after June of 1969. However, he was also doing some political imprisoning of his own, for his survival caught the prison system in the snare of a Hobson's choice. Released from the joint, Jackson would have presented a substantial challenge to the maintainence of "law and order" on the outside. But retained in custody with his will and spirit unbroken, Jackson presented the same threat to the standing order of the prison system. By example and communication, Jackson could continue to expose the irrationality of the system--as it functions inside and outside the joint, and inside and outside America--to his fellow prisoners. Moreover, he could continue to prove to them the power that just one man who is dedicated to being himself, to staying emotionally healthy and rational, and to facing up to anyone who addresses him can have in Max Row, Soledad, in Watts, or in Angola. Such a demonstration by Jackson would make his continued confinement a Pyrrhic victory for Reagan and his appointees, for though they would still have George Jackson behind bars, they could not help but release numerous members of his growing vanguard.