Black Prison Organizing

Dan Berger’s latest volume, Captive Nation, is perfectly timed. In a moment where interest in mass incarceration across the political spectrum is on the rise, sanitized versions of carceral history will doubtless emerge. Berger’s account offers an instant antidote to any such efforts. He warns us we will be negating a long history of righteous rebellions of the oppressed if we opt for quick fix policy packages that do not address the inequalities underlying the rapid growth of incarceration.

Berger’s personal profile as an historian casts him in a unique position to tell his tale. He represents a bridge between the praxis of the 60s and 70s and today’s decarceration campaigners. Back in the day, activists connected to those in prison by striking up extensive correspondence via snail mail and making in person visits. In this age of digital communication, Berger has stepped back in time and used those old “analog” methods to establish relationships with a number of those still incarcerated for their activities in that era, people such as Veronza Bower, Sundiata Acoli, Jalil Muntaqim (also known as Anthony Bottom) and David Gilbert. These relationships were key to Berger’s framing of the stories he tells as well as his analysis.

Prison Intellectual Culture: The Case of George Jackson

Two things particularly struck me as I read Captive Nation. The first was the amazing radical intellectual culture that emerged in prisons during this period, a culture, I should add, that appeared almost totally absent in the federal and state prisons where I resided from 2002-09. Berger’s depictions of the richness of political debate and the eagerness of people inside to connect prison resistance to the Black liberation struggle and other movements of the era, were staggering. The politics of the rebels/revolutionaries Berger describes were not mere legal maneuverings aimed at overturning individual cases or re-doing legislation. Rather, they aimed to depict and contest the political economy and ideological foundations of a “system.”

Not surprisingly, the individual who most embodied this framework was California political prisoner George Jackson. Greatly influenced by the nationalist and Marxist platforms of thinkers like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Maritinique-born citizen of the world, Frantz Fanon, Jackson viewed himself and those in his prison circle as but one front in an intercommunal liberation struggle against imperialism. Moreover, in the isolation of hellholes like the San Quentin Adjustment Center (a precursor to today’s Security Housing Units or SHUs) Jackson recorded his personal and political reflections in two powerfully written volumes: the collection of letters published as Soledad bergercaptiveBrother and the political essays anthologized as Blood In My Eye. In the contemporary setting, perhaps only Mumia Abu-Jamal could compare to Jackson. But the key difference was that George Jackson lived in a period where revolution was in the air, where he could connect to powerful and radical mass movements and militant organizations which advanced both developed ideological perspectives and vibrant programs of action. At the same time, during Jackson’s years behind bars, the armed liberation movements of the “Third World” held an almost iconic position among US militants. The images of the heroic guerrilla fighter inspired many people to cast aside the politics of patient organizing for the gun. Ultimately George Jackson, like his seventeen year old brother Jonathan, were among them. In August 1970, Jonathan Jackson was shot dead by police as he attempted to free his brother. Just over a year later, George himself died in a hail of bullets inside San Quentin while apparently attempting to pull off his own daring prison escape. For many, the martyrdom of George Jackson remains part of his mystique and heroic profile.

While the life of George Jackson has become almost legendary (even prompting a song by Bob Dylan), the forgotten struggle of Ruchell Magee that Berger highlights contains its own unique narrative power. Magee didn’t rely on classic political texts to develop his analysis. Magee made a simple point (and he still makes that point today after some 52 years in prison): incarceration equals modern day slavery. In his own words, “To some degree, slavery has always been outlawed and condemned on the outside by the hypocritical mockery of chattering lips. But on the inside of people and prison, where slavery is embedded and proudly displayed as a Western way of life and a privilege of god himself, slavery is condoned on all of its numerous levels.” In this vein, Magee viewed his participation in any activities to free himself and others from prison as totally justifiable. While Magee’s “by any means necessary” framing doesn’t sit comfortably with many people in 2015, his views are a definite reminder of the hothouses of ideas that proliferate in a period where people question the very essence of a system, rather than accepting the status quo as the sole reference point for making demands.

Connecting to “The Movement”

The second key point of Captive Nation is how prison activists and their networks constituted a powerful historical force, the effects of which we still feel today. While historians of the 60s have tended to focus on the actions of the formal civil rights organizations and the anti-war movement, efforts to “free all political prisoners” were part of the program of nearly all radical activists of the period. High profile cases like those of George Jackson or the Chicago 8 had national appeal, but each region had its own set of political prisoners for whom a wide range of campaign efforts were marshalled. So while not mentioned in Captive Nation, people like Martin Sostre in Buffalo, Lee Otis Johnson in Dallas, Los Siete de la Raza in California, John Sinclair in Detroit, Reies Tijerina in New Mexico and Susan Saxe in Philadelphia were the focus of considerable action by a wide range of social movements of the day.

Berger makes considerable effort to explain how political prisoners and the prison rebellions of the 60’s and 70’s have left a legacy. He relates how “before mass incarceration existed, before a variety of state concerns and economic concerns converged on cages as their panacea, incarcerated black radicals located the prison as the premier institution of the American racial state. For them, the prison was the centerpiece of nationalist imagination. It structured white nationalism and sustained black nationalism.” (p 229) Perhaps a similar process is currently in its embryonic stages as groups like Black Lives Matter, Ferguson Action and the Dream Defenders increasingly see mass incarceration as a metaphor for the overall oppression of people of color, especially African Americans.

But the legacy had another side as well. Berger goes on to portray the power of prison-based rebels and their community allies as central to prompting the restructuring of the state which spawned the prison industrial complex. The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s wonderful account of mass incarceration, links the rise of the punishment paradigm with white backlash against the “civil rights movement.” Berger extends the analysis. He points out that “tough on crime” and “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” weren’t just payback for the Freedom Rides and the events of Selma. They were also a reaction to the urban uprisings of Newark, Detroit, and Watts, to the occupation of Alcatraz by Native Americans, as well as a counter to Black nationalist organizations and individuals who didn’t adhere to non-violence (Black Panther Party, Republic of New Afrika, Deacons of Defense). Included among the latter were the prison activists who self-defined as revolutionaries: Jackson and Magee as well as Imari Obadele who also features prominently in Berger’s book.

In addition to this racial accounting, Berger also opens the door to a more gender-based critique of prison support work, especially focusing on male superheroes and paramilitary solutions to complex political problems. In a paragraph that begs for a far richer analysis, Berger notes that George Jackson’s “masculinist appeals” revealed “his … allegiance to a conservative patriarchal notion of respectability.” For Berger, George Jackson was a product of the “patriarchal culture” of his era as well as the “sex-segregated institution in which he came of age.” (p. 113) We need more work on this complex race-class-gender nexus, both from historians but also from those who chronicle the state of the prison nation in the 21st century.

“California Bias”

As with all works that attempt to both elucidate a fresh argument and offer considerable new evidence, there are certain critical pieces which seem to be given inappropriate weight or have been omitted. While George Jackson definitely merits a place of honor in such a volume, much of what Berger presents about “George, the fire that never went out” has been told before. Plus, by dwelling on both Jackson and Magee extensively, the “California bias” which is all too familiar in prison research, once again resurfaces. By contrast, the Attica Rebellion, a major collective organizing effort received far less attention.   Similarly, the uprising in Pontiac prison in 1978, which ended with a mass acquittal of 31 prisoners indicted for the deaths of three officers killed in the uprising would have made a compelling chapter. Fortunately scholars like Heather Thompson and Toussaint Losier have delved deeply into Attica and Pontiac respectively. We look forward to other episodes mentioned in Berger’s book also gaining deeper treatment.

Lastly, Berger speaks occasionally of “learning communities.” As an educator, both by way of my formal working life and during my time in prison, I looked forward to hearing far more about this aspect of organizing behind the walls. The chapter entitled “The Pedagogy of the Prison” seemed to promise such an account but in the end dealt only peripherally with this issue. I hope that somewhere in the world of research lurks a writer who can do for organizing inside U.S. prisons what More Than Just A Game achieved in describing the political culture of soccer leagues that operated on Robben Island during Nelson Mandela’s time behind bars.

Ultimately my critiques of Berger’s book are far less an attack on him than a plea for other historians to build on his analysis and evidence to paint an even richer canvas of what produced the George Jacksons, Ruchell Magees and Attica Brothers of this era. Perhaps more importantly a study of this history can point some of the way toward building the kind of links between people who are incarcerated and their communities, links that can drive a social movement that aims to build healthy, prosperous and democratic communities as an alternative to mass incarceration. Ultimately, while the personalities that jumped off the pages of Captive Nation reminded me of both the power of resistance and the pitfalls of an excessive romanticizing of militarism, they also forced me to recognize that despite all our efforts to stop prison and jail construction or reverse sentencing laws, we are still tinkering rather than transforming or even subverting. There is a long way to go.

James Kilgore is an activist, writer and educator based in Urbana, Illinois. He writes widely on issues of mass incarceration and also has published three novels which he drafted during his six years in state and federal prisons. His next book: Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, will be published by The New Press this fall. He can be contacted at or @waazn

James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at