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at least my fans, know that I did 39 months in prison during the 60s, when my street probation for marijuana possession was revoked because of my involvement in Berkeley’s famous Free Speech Movement.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.