America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

By Lee Bernstein | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
THE AGE OF JACKSON

GEORGE JACKSON AND THE RADICAL CRITIQUE
OF INCARCERATION

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, conservative politicians steered the national debate regarding criminal justice policy toward increasing repression. At the same time, the culture of American prisons became increasingly radical. Influenced by the New Left, the civil rights movement, and revolutions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a growing number of inmates interpreted the convergence of liberal and conservative criminal justice policies as the evolution of an increasingly reactionary, repressive, and neocolonial state. If Richard Nixon saw himself as the standard-bearer of a return to order that would protect the civil rights of “decent citizens,” many prisoners would agree with the assessment by the radical Guyanese historian and politician Walter Rodney that Nixon was “America’s chief prison warder.”1 If, as Arthur Schlesinger believed, the 1830s and 1840s could be deemed the “Age of [Andrew] Jackson,” then the radicalization of American prisoners during the 1970s ushered in a second age of Jackson—George Jackson. George Jackson inspired his generation of incarcerated intellectuals and writers to insist on the importance of their perspectives in shaping public debates over a host of key issues. Though it would be hard to overestimate the influence of Malcolm X and Angela Davis on the cultural and intellectual output of incarcerated people during the 1970s, the brief, intense, and uncompromising revolutionary life of Jackson made him the icon for a range of critics of the prison system.

Between his first national exposure as a “Soledad Brother” in early 1970 and his violent death in August 1971, George Jackson achieved a level of celebrity rarely attained by an incarcerated person. Jackson both generated and was the product of the increasing political and cultural engagement of American prisoners. In the weeks and years

-51-

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America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - We Shall Have Order 19
  • Chapter Two - The Age of Jackson 51
  • Chapter Three - What Works? 75
  • Chapter Four - We Took the Weight 99
  • Chapter Five - Cell Block Theater 129
  • Chapter Six - Radical Chic 151
  • Conclusion 173
  • Notes 185
  • Index 215
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