By Bernard E. Harcourt
I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me. For the first four years I studied nothing but economics and military ideas. I met black guerrillas […] We attempted to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality. As a result, each of us has been subjected to years of the most vicious reactionary violence by the state.
— George Jackson, Soledad Brother (1970), 16.
Regenerative cycles. Chain reactions. Repeated revolutions. What is so remarkable about prison writing, prison reading, prison study, is the way in which the written word in prison recirculates and sparks, inspires, nourishes, and sustains new revolutionary cycles.
George Jackson encountered Marx and Mao in prison and became, as Joy James says, a “dragon philosopher and revolutionary abolitionist,” transforming himself and his prison comrades into the military wing of a vanguard party, the Black Panthers.
Albert Woodfox then reads George Jackson in prison—as well as Mao’s Little Red Book and other texts—and he too becomes revolutionary, co-founding the first official chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars.[i]
A person on death row today reads Albert Woodfox’s memoir, Solitary, and is revitalized in their struggle against the oppression of their confinement and sentence of death. Through Albert Woodfox’s attorney, George Kendall, they send this message for Mr. Woodfox—in a handwritten letter dated December 9, 2021 (I have edited passages out with brackets to ensure the anonymity of the writer):
O.G Shaka Cinque (Albert Woodfox):
I myself & some other socio-politically conscious comrades have been having teach-in sessions with your book, Solitary, here on […] Death Row. It is deeply inspiring & motivational & we wanted you to know this. An idea that just came to mind: […] and you will be able to see a video of me conducting a demonstration on the 35th anniversary of the assassination of George Jackson. […] Just know that there are brothers down here in […] who stand in that righteous tradition & we are still fighting on.
Guerilla Love & Respect
Teach-in sessions in prison, reading groups in prison—Mao, then Jackson, then Woodfox, then… The cycles revolve, renewing and transmitting the passion, the commitment, the struggle, the revolution. Each cycle generates new political praxis—such as, for instance, the largest ever prison hunger strike that the Short Corridor Collective instigated in California in 2013.
What is so powerful, especially, about prison writings on the inside is how directly they speak to persons who are themselves suffering from inhumanity, who have the same shared history, set of experiences, and cultural signposts. It is those shared experiences, really, that give the texts—and reading the texts—their full power and momentum.
You can hear it in the written words themselves, those words that emerge out of the depths, de profundis.
George Jackson wrote from those depths. “Capture, imprisonment, is the closest to being dead that one is likely to experience in this life,” he penned.[ii] His description of what it is like to be incarcerated—what it is like to be captured—is visceral. It speaks directly to those who find themselves caught in the same hell, in the dungeon. “The very first time, it was like dying. Just to exist at all in the cage calls for some heavy psychic readjustments. Being captured was the first of my fears. It may have been inborn. It may have been an acquired characteristic built up over the centuries of black bondage. It is the thing I’ve been running from all my life.”[iii]
That shared experience, the shared history, the shared fears—those are powerful like nothing else. Paul Redd explains: “what really helps change a person is when you read about your history and your culture. That’s what gives you a sense of pride. You see people who went through those struggles, who died doing those struggles. And you are proud of that, and you start to feel like, ‘Hey man, we need to change these conditions here in prison.’ ” There is a way in which the writings reverberate for the reader—especially in the prison cell. Darryl Robertson remarks, “Jackson writes with the tautness that I have always felt inside of my body.”
What happened with the Short Corridor Collective reflects this regenerative cycle. The men of the Collective—held in solitary confinement in the SHU (Security Housing Unit) at Pelican Bay State Prison in California for allegedly being leaders of racially identified prison gangs—formed a reading group to discuss the works of Bobby Sands, Cesar Chavez, the Black Panthers, Michel Foucault, and others. As Allegra McLoud recounts, “although the men could not meet face to face or even see one another from their solitary cells, they were able to organize to read the same texts and to pass notes and talk to one another about those texts and about their circumstances through the small openings in their cells created by vents and drains.”[iv]
By means of these readings and discussion, the Collective formulated an understanding of their situation and the way in which the prison administration was using their racial identities to control them—a journey that ultimately led to the country’s largest ever prison hunger strike, in 2013, involving more than thirty thousand women and men throughout California prisons who refused to eat, as part of a series of prison hunger strikes that began in July 2011. The hunger strikes and aggressive litigation ultimately led to California’s agreement to end indeterminate solitary confinement based on gang affiliation. Paul Redd, who spent 46 years in prison, more than 30 of them in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, participated in organizing the hunger strikes on the Short Corridor, was part of the efforts to end hostilities, and was a signatory to the agreement. He discusses the role of reading Bobby Sands, George Jackson and others with us in preparation for Revolution 7/13.
What happened with Jean Genet—who had also been incarcerated and authored remarkable prison writings—and other members of the GIP (Groupe d’information sur les prisons / Prison Informations Group) in France in 1971 reflects as well the influence of these writings.[v] Genet wrote the preface to the French edition of Solidad Brother. The letters of George Jackson, and his homicide, stirred the GIP to action, fueling the flames of a broad-based abolitionist movement in France that was marked by prison riots and uprising throughout the country.
The GIP understood well the stakes of the conflict: “Jackson has already said it: What is happening in the prisons is war, a war having other fronts in the black ghettos, the army, and the courts,” the GIP writes. “Today, the imprisoned revolutionary militants and the commonlaw prisoners, who became revolutionaries specifically during their detention, paved the way for the war front to extend inside prisons.”[vi]
Equally remarkable is the way that George Jackson’s writings then impacted Foucault’s work—pushing Foucault to turn his attention to what he called “the most maligned of all wars, civil war” and use civil war as the matrix to understand social struggles and relations of power.[vii] The model of civil war—which we see so clearly here in the analysis of George Jackson—becomes, for Foucault, in his words, “the matrix of all struggles of power, of all strategies of power, and, consequently … also the matrix of all the struggles regarding and against power.”[viii] Jackson’s writings and his life—and the encounter with the Black Panthers—had a transformative effect on the critical theory and praxis of Foucault.[ix] And of course, Foucault’s book, Discipline and Punish, then returned into the prison and, in another cycle, served to rejuvenate the struggle.
Cycles of reading and writing, of conversations, of transformation, of revolution: We will explore these in great depth, de profundis, at our next seminar.
Welcome to Revolution 7/13!
A note on De Profundis. Oscar Wilde was deeply affected, during his time at the Reading Prison of which he writes in De Profundis, by the execution of a fellow prisoner. Wilde wrote a ballad on the hanging, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, upon his release after two years of incarceration for the crime of homosexuality. He signed it C.3.3., his prison number, and so it appeared, originally, anonymously:
This too I know – and wise it were
If each could know the same –
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.[x]
Wilde wrote that the experience in prison had so deeply marked him: “The prison system is absolutely and entirely wrong,” he said. “I would give anything to be able to alter it when I go out. I intend to try.”[xi] He was not really able to carry through on that intention. De Profundis, written while in prison in early 1897, would be his last extensive writing. Oscar Wilde died only a few years later, in the new century, on November 30, 1900. His last work was The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
[i] Albert Woodfox, Solitary (New York: Grove Press, 2019), 95.
[ii] George Jackson, Soledad Brother (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994), 14.
[iii] Jackson, Soledad Brother, 13.
[iv] Allegra McLeod, “Law, Critique, and the Undercommons,” in Didier Fassin and Bernard E. Harcourt, eds., A Time for Critique (Columbia University Press, 2019), 256.
[v] A recent book symposium on the publication of Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group, 1970-1980, discusses the history of the GIP; Joy James earlier published one of the essays from the Intolerable Inquiry #3: The Assassination of George Jackson in her volume Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy).
[vi] Michel Foucault, Catharine von Bülow, and Daniel Defert, “The Masked Assassination,” in Warfare in the American Homeland, ed. Joy James (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 140.
[vii] See, generally, Michel Foucault, The Punitive Society, ed. Bernard E. Harcourt, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2013), 266.
[viii] Foucault, The Punitive Society, 298.
[ix] See Brady Thomas Heiner, “Foucault and the Black Panthers,” City 11, no. 3 (December 2007), 313-356, DOI: 10.1080/13604810701668969.
[x] Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Wordsworth Classics edition, 1999, at 135.
[xi] Wilde, De Profundis, 85.