FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

"Next"…a Prison Tale

By now, CounterPunch’s readers, or at least my fans, know that I did 39 months in prison during the 60s, when my street probation for marijuana possession was revoked because of my involvement in Berkeley’s famous Free Speech Movement. However, my recent CP article focused on the FSM, not on the prison experience. But an author who does serious time & doesn’t have mucho stories to tell about cons ain’t a writer. So, for now, until I write my memoirs, you get a one-act play, as it were, easy enuf to tell.

I got to my assigned ‘joint,’ the California Mens Colony, down in San Luis Obispo, just when the librarian needed someone to help shelve book returns, books brought back the previous day, before the 1st cons came in the morning. I would rush after breakfast to set up by 9 AM. Then I was done for the day, but allowed to go to & from my cell & the library at will. That certainly was good luck, if a great prison job can be thought of as good luck, & I used the free time to fill gaps in my reading.

One day, I was reading Aeschylus while waiting for a haircut. I had read his most famous play, Prometheus Bound, while on the street. Now I was finishing off his other surviving plays. The barber called out, “next,” & I got into the chair. He was Black, about my age, 28, movie-star handsome. He asked “which of Aeschylus’ plays do you like best?” Be certain that, in 1965, Aeschylus wasn’t exactly a household name among Blacks, barbers or prisons. I told him my favorite was The Persians. That an ancient Greek could write realistically about what was going on in the court of their enemy, as the defeated emperor fled homeward to his capital after the destruction of his mighty army, was amazing, the best example of Aeschylus’ genius, & of the quality of the freshly invented theatrical art.

He preferred Prometheus. As we talked, I realized that he knew Greek theater backwards & forwards. I asked how he came to it, & this is his story, nothing added, nothing subtracted:

“I’m in for murder, and I was still a murderer in my heart when they sent me to San Quentin. They put me in a cell with a guy who had committed a 2nd murder, in prison. That meant that they would never let him out. I woke up one morning and found him hanging, dead. That was it. I stopped being a murderer, and started reading serious stuff so I could understand myself.”

He segued back into analyzing Greek tragedy. As he went on, I knew to a certainty that I’d never met anybody more serene. He fully accepted that he deserved to be there. But now he was no longer a murderer & was worthy of immediate freedom. However he understood California politics. If a burglar “shorted out” & “broke back into prison,” as we called it, the parole board wasn’t overly concerned. But if he got a quick out & killed again, their asses would be in a sling for letting him go. Even if they thought him a close to near sure bet not to come back, & intelligent board members would see that, as I did, they would still hold him for a goodly bit beyond the minimum time they could grant a murderer, to be super safe. Reading the Greeks reconciled him to his fate. He was Prometheus, chained to a rock. Yet he was now also Aeschylus, writing his lines, directing his own play.

I realized that I was only getting a haircut. They aren’t usually good theater, & reading plays while waiting for a haircut isn’t melodramatic. But because I asked why he liked some long dead playwrights, I became the Greek chorus in a tragedy that Aeschylus would have turned into a masterpiece. I listened to him placidly explain how a murderer became an authority on tragedy because — & only because — another murderer executed himself in his cell.

My fellows weren’t there for singing too loud in church. But I was thrown into ‘slam’ (so called after the sound made by barred gates inside the prison) at a time when the inmates, as we were officially designated, or convicts as some proudly insisted on being called, ran from poor illiterates of all races & religions, to a notorious surgeon who murdered his wife; a young world-class magician, in for the terrible crime of seducing a girl just under the statutory rape age; Prague, Czechoslovakia’s 1930s chief detective’s son, a WW II OSS-trained safe-cracker; a Soviet engineer whose ancestor had been in Ivan the Terrible’s guards, & whose father did time in a gulag for collaborating with the Nazis; a young Black armed robber, 1 of the world’s great weightlifters, who perfected his calculus & Russian, studying with the engineer; a Black saxophonist, in for manslaughter, who, at my urging, read Marx’s Capital, & then reread it, so he could teach economics to other cons; a swindler who pled guilty to defrauding a bank of millions, who confided in me that he had stolen millions more, with the collusion of the bankers, a gentleman armed robber who later became a prison warden, plus many others with interesting tales to tell.

So, while prison life wasn’t exactly all fun & games, I met some of the most impressive & intelligent people I encountered in the 60s. As a historian, I will be forgiven if I compare my fellow cons with folks on the streets, particularly the politician who ran our prison.

As to morals & smarts, let’s simply say that many guys in the joint were more ethical & intelligent than Democratic Governor Pat Brown, who sent hundreds of state troopers onto the University of California’s campus, to suppress freedom of speech for tens of thousands of students, & failed.

LENNI BRENNER is the editor of 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He is presently editing Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism. It will be published by Barricade Books in late October. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.

 

 

More articles by:

Lenni Brenner is the author of Zionism In The Age Of The Dictators. He can be contacted at BrennerL21@aol.com.

June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail