In the Tank

George Jackson and prison as a system of terror

Tom Sleigh
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram


I wanted to blow up the tanks of words, the RPGs of words, the bayonets of words that had only

one definition, one derivation, one root that went back before Indo-European or any other form of language, lingo, blather, and bullshit, no “dulce et decorum”–I

hadn’t changed my throat to the throats of birds, all I had were my two hands and a pile of rubble to dig my foxhole in:

and as I dug down, I came across old library books about Robert E. Lee, George Jackson, Malcolm X, the Hardy Boys, Winnie-the-Pooh, Bring ’Em Back Alive Frank Buck, the millions of words that were just beginning

to take up arms: and when my hole was dug and the bombardment started, when exploding around my ears were bombs bursting in air, the rockets’ red glare, syllables like shrapnel scattering everywhere, every word was like a wound being

probed for what went wrong–and how could I have missed it as a kid, each word a switchblade that if you pressed the button turned into a weapon? So don’t Sing, Muse, of arms and the man, sing of what the man was thinking as a kid sitting in the orchard in a butterfly chair, reading for the first time “Benito Cereno”: up in the leaves the pecked bing cherries hid words putting on uniforms, words dressed as slavers, words got up as slaves, words who would know how to apologize–

and so my foxhole in the middle of smoking buildings has become all these years later after almost everyone has died my refuge, my place of recuperation

in this No-Man’s-Land where barbed-wire words strung in front of empty trenches fall silent for a little while so that I can hear in my own voice reading to myself as a child,

Once upon a time … they lived happily ever after before the words start up again with their subtle, insistent drone, words that would know how to apologize even as they turn the knife.

I picked up one of the clear plastic tubs of pitted dates, popped the lid off with my thumb, and shoved two in my mouth, savoring the sweet, thinking nothing of the risk because, after all, I’d shoplifted before. I couldn’t imagine a cop arresting me over such a small sum–sixty-nine cents! Besides, I’d run out of cash and I was hungry. But this was Baltimore, 1976, a city I’d been in for a few days, and where I’d come to finish up college (I was a two-time dropout already). I didn’t know that the city was in the midst of a heroin epidemic, that shoplifting was rampant, and store cops were on high alert. I had it in my head that I could insist I’d intended all along to pay at the cash register–and then I’d protest that I was new in town, the banks were closed on the weekend, and I’d left my money at home. So armed with this flimsiest of alibis, I gobbled half the dates as I walked around the aisles, ogling all the food I had no money to buy, before the store cop grabbed me by the shoulder and yanked my arm behind my back.

As he marched me down the bread aisle to the back of the store, I’ll never forget the look on a woman’s face–curious, shocked, then studiously going blank. Another woman glanced at us, then fixed her eyes on the loaves of bread stacked shelf above shelf into a pyramid. She refused to look at me as I stumbled past, my face drained white, my whole body gone rigid as I floated up near the ceiling tiles and looked down on myself, the cop, and the women. From the instant the cop grabbed me, I felt the same spaced-out terror as when I’d landed in a small-town jail in Nebraska two years before on charges of vagrancy and hitchhiking on the interstate.

But that was Nebraska, not Baltimore–and as I said, I was no innocent. For my hitch-hiking adventure, I took an uneasy pride in having boosted from a K-Mart in San Diego an eighty-dollar sleeping bag by throwing it over a security fence in the garden section. My mother and father had drilled into me that stealing was wrong, but like a lot of “tune in, turn on, drop out” kids of my generation, I thought it was okay to steal from big stores because they belonged to the Man–which made me an anti-capitalist revolutionary like George Jackson, a hero of mine–but I never really believed it. Call it naïveté–nowadays, it would be called white privilege–but it barely figured in my mind that eating dates in a grocery store qualified as a crime. Yet here I was busted, and I cursed myself for being not only arrogant, but plain dumb: what was I thinking, walking around eating what I’d just stolen! In my cat-and-mouse game with the store cop, I’d fucked up and he’d won–and I’d already accepted that I deserved whatever happened to me.

His polished black shoes, ironed white shirt, and blue windbreaker zipped halfway shut bit into my consciousness like acid into a copper plate. He twisted my arm behind my back until it almost hurt, but being a professional, he knew exactly when to ease off. When we neared the back of the store, he held out his handcuffs, the steel dug into my wrist bones, and they clicked shut–but that was nothing to the rush of adrenaline and fear. He eased me through the swinging doors to where the store manager in a white apron was trimming blotched leaves off heads of lettuce before misting them and carrying them to the produce aisle. The guard and he huddled quickly over some paperwork. I kept saying in a tight-throated, high-pitched quaver that I’d pay the store back, but it was too late.

A police car took me to a substation jail. When they booked me, the sergeant, who sat at a little desk just outside the cells, took my hands and printed me. He took each of my fingers in turn, pressed them against an inkpad, and rolled each fingertip onto my fingerprint card, his touch both firm and delicate: the unmeant intimacy has stuck with me for over forty years. Frozen in time, I kept staring at my own hand as if it were a stranger’s. In a sharp voice he kept saying, “Come on, get up, you’re done, let’s go!” but the words, like the cell doors clanked and banged–my thoughts unraveled into garble, each idea ambushing another with ever worse expectations, and even though I understood the words, I was so scared I couldn’t act on them. In my tamped-down hysteria, the guard’s brawny forearms, his wide lined forehead, and his beetle-browed scowl seemed carved out of granite.

The lever to the central door into the cellblock slammed back, I walked down a short corridor, my cell was unlocked, I stepped inside: concrete walls and floor, a steel toilet without a seat, a wooden slab for a bunk encased in a steel frame and bolted to the cell wall.

The jail was quiet. There were only two other prisoners, neither of whom I could see since my cell bars faced the opposite wall. Graffiti had been carved into the wooden slab, initials and obscenities and religious symbols: a scored-in FUCK U next to a crude cross; a blurred pentimento on the green-painted wall which looked like a cock and balls but could have been anything. I sat down, and my mind went to work on me: every gesture or grimace by one of the guards as they walked past my cell conjured up TV cops with nightsticks smashing my head. Nobody so much as glanced at me, but the anticipation of being beaten was its own kind of punishment.

In my senior year in high school
I read George Jackson’s prison letters. Not as part of any class but because another kid was reading them. Before that, I’d read Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. And then I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read them not because I had deep feelings about race or prison or even justice in America–or much political awareness of anything at all–but because they were “cool.” I went to a tough, working-class high school in San Diego, California, where fighting and drug dealing were part of the culture. Jackson, Cleaver, and Malcolm X all took part in radically different versions of that culture, and I felt an immediate kinship.

In my little drug world, my friend Hank and his older brothers smuggled narcotics over the Mexican border and were drug central for my high school. Their father was on the City Council of Imperial Beach, a town that borders Tijuana, and I suppose his sons imagined this gave them cover. But over the next two years, all three brothers were busted, and the oldest, Michael, did time at Chino. Hank’s garage was stacked floor to ceiling with shrink-wrapped kilos of marijuana swaddled in brown butcher paper–a fact to which Hank’s mother seemed oblivious. Hank sold a few of us “keys” at reduced prices, and we sold them to other kids like ourselves–it was laissez-faire capitalism in its purest form. We had capping parties for mescaline, in which we’d put the mescaline in gelatin caps and get high by periodically licking our fingers clean. Cocaine, LSD, opium–I’d even begun to steal shit out of bathroom medicine chests when I visited my friends’ parents’ houses.

And then I crossed a line that not even Hank had crossed, and started shooting heroin. Embraced by the drug’s slow downward drag, I loved how hard how fast the high would hit, lifting and dissolving me, my shoulders shrugging in a drowse. You’d think I might have had misgivings about the heavy dues, personal and social, that shooting dope exacted–but when my father and I got into a tussle over a fix that he’d found in my pockets and flushed down the toilet, all I could think about was copping more dope, calculating how much “hero” I’d need to buy to sell to make back what I’d lost. Despite my penchant for peace and love, it never once occurred to me that George Jackson’s denunciation of capitalism applied to me. All I remember about my motives was a desire to get high, and to find a way, in addition to working after school as a busboy, to be able to afford my drugs.

When I read Jackson I’m immersed in a mind that’s been pushed by the realities of class, race, and prison into a fiercely logical clarity.

When I recently reread Jackson’s letters, I saw what I’d missed at sixteen. In addition to being a radical’s testament, these letters testify to his brilliance as an epistolary stylist. I’m no Maoist–revolutionary rhetoric bores me–but when I read Jackson I’m immersed in a mind that’s been pushed by the realities of class, race, and prison into a fiercely logical clarity, a realization of how, in prison, any white person is degraded into racism, and every black person is forced to confront that racism. Jackson freely admits that the dehumanization works in reverse, and by carefully tracing how that happens, he makes racism, black and white, a fundament of capitalism, as well as a tool the guards use to control the inmates.

Take an innocent con out of this general population setting (because a pig “thought” he may have seen him attempting a lock). Bring him to any part of O Wing (the worst part of the adjustment center of which Max Row is a part). He will be cuffed, chained, belted, pressured by the police who think that every convict should be an informer. He will be pressured by the white cons to join their racist brand of politics (they all go under the nickname “Hitler’s Helpers”). If he is predisposed to help black he will be pushed away–by black. Three weeks is enough. The strongest hold out no more than a couple of weeks. There has been one white man only to go through this O Wing experience without losing his balance, without allowing himself to succumb to the madness of ribald, protrusive racism.

It destroys the logical processes of the mind, a man’s thoughts become completely disorganized. The noise, madness streaming from every throat, frustrated sounds from the bars, metallic sounds from the walls, the steel trays, the iron beds bolted to the wall, the hollow sounds from a cast-iron sink or toilet.

The smells, the human waste thrown at us, unwashed bodies, the rotten food. When a white con leaves here he’s ruined for life. No black leaves Max Row walking. Either he leaves on the meat wagon or he leaves crawling licking at the pig’s feet… . In two weeks that little average man who may have ended up on Max Row for suspicion of attempted escape is so brutalized, so completely without holds, that he will never heal again… .

He’s dodging lead. He may be forced to fight a duel to the death with knives. If he doesn’t sound and act more zealous than everyone else he will be challenged for not being loyal to his race and its politics, fascism. Some of these cons support the pigs’ racism without shame, the others support it inadvertently by their own racism. The former are white, the latter black. But in here as on the street black racism is a forced reaction. A survival adaptation.

Jackson’s understanding of how prison breaks prisoners, black and white, shows a shrewd sociological observer whose dispassionate analysis grounds itself in the smells and noise and systematic brutality of what he calls “a ribald, protrusive racism.” But it’s his unexpected use of ribald to define racism that convinces me most of his skill as a writer. He knows how important sexual trash talk is in an all-male setting where power and order are at stake. This kind of insight goes well beyond psychology into the heart of what’s been called “the prison-industrial complex.” Not only are these letters shrewdly diagnostic as to how racism works as a mechanism of control, but the remarkable complexity of their tone–an uneasy mix of candor and intimacy, anger and argument, grimness and humor–demonstrates through the style itself how his spirit has been molded by prison, even as he denounces the conditions that have shaped him into who he is.

This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely. But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal. If I leave here alive, I’ll leave nothing behind. They’ll never count me among the broken men, but I can’t say that I am normal either. I’ve been hungry too long. I’ve gotten angry too often. I’ve been lied to and insulted too many times. They’ve pushed me over the line from which there can be no retreat. I know that they will not be satisfied until they’ve pushed me out of this existence altogether. I’ve been the victim of so many racist attacks that I could never relax again. My reflexes will never be normal again. I’m like a dog that has gone through the K-9 process… . I can still smile now, after ten years of blocking knife thrusts and pick handles, of faceless sadistic pigs, of anticipating and reacting for ten years, seven of them in Solitary. I can still smile sometimes, but by the time this thing is over I may not be a nice person.

The syntactic flourishes in Jackson’s summary of how your spirit is either destroyed or confirmed by prison beautifully embodies how words are a lifeline, how words “meathooked from the living steer,” as Robert Lowell once put it, can transform being lied to, insulted in your soul, attacked by knives and pick handles, into a supple and luminous anger that heightens your life into a myth of survival, an allegory about freedom and undiminished being. And yet Jackson’s undeluded clarity about what prison has done to him is part of the price of that clarity. As Jean Genet says in his introduction to the letters:

A book written in prison–in any place of confinement–is addressed chiefly perhaps to readers who are not outcasts, who have never been to jail and who will never go there. That is why in some sense such a book proceeds obliquely. Otherwise, I know that the man who writes it need only take, in order to fling them down on paper, the forbidden words, the accursed words, the words covered with blood, the unwritten words of spit and sperm–like the ultimate name of God–the dangerous words, the padlocked words, the words that do not belong to the dictionary, for if they were written there, written out and not maimed by ellipses, they would utter too fast the suffocating misery of a solitude that is not accepted, that is flogged only by what it is deprived of: sex and freedom.

The Well
I used to go out into the fields
surrounding our tiny town and shout
obscenities into the falling snow,
fuck fuck motherfuck, not knowing why
I was doing it but loving the hard ks
clashing against the snowflakes
hissing down. It was like the same field
in a grade-school filmstrip which shows
a pine tree, scraggly, pushing up from
underground, trunk twisted
like a question mark between sky
and what lies beneath it thrusting up
from a little depression in the earth
no longer a well nobody now drinks
from, a well drunk dry centuries
ago by all the parents, brothers, sisters
who sneak out at night to throw their
shame and despair down in the dark water
that’s no longer there. A well where
babies, even puppies were thrown
and nobody knows why, any more than
I know why this Magic-Markered fading
dick-face crying his one tear is scrawled
next to me on the subway wall whose
blistered paint could be the map of sutures
on a baby’s skull, the well filling up
with smashed urns of burned bodies, dick-face
and me watching in the shadows another
hand, another face like mine or his
or yours as if we all shared just one soul
that can’t bear any longer to keep
locked inside the skull something
needing to be set free, only half effaced
before it could be thrown into the well.

The bottom of the well
is a long way down, and whatever words you shout into it come back aberrant and changed. Prison, too, is a kind of well–and as Genet suggests, words written in prison are distorted by that well’s echo. Even though I’ve only done two short hauls in jail, I understand what Genet means when he suggests that “padlocked words,” “the words covered with blood, the unwritten words of spit and sperm” form a kind of language written by outcasts for outcasts. The remarkable thing about Jackson is how brilliantly he translated the well’s echoes so that they resonated not only among other inmates but in the outside world. In an interview he registers how surprised he was to discover that “after years of isolation … people really are interested in you and … can relate to you in spite of the fact that sociology books … brand us as criminals, when actually the criminals are in the Social Register.”

Given the slipperiness of knowing who is and who isn’t a criminal, I find Genet’s use of the word outcast a little suspect–it has a romantic ring belied by my brief stints in jail. And isn’t there something faintly dismissive about calling the prisoners outcasts? I understand what Genet is driving at, but his rhetoric, when applied to the American prison system, is a little windy for the actual inmates I came to know–both when I was a prisoner and when I was a teacher of prisoners who taught that words can be a weapon but also a solace. Yet when I was locked in an actual cell, unlike Jackson I was so stupefied by fear that words wouldn’t come. Who was this person sitting behind bars, whose wrists were sore from wearing handcuffs, whose identity had been snatched and replaced by a set of fingerprints inked in one of the substations of the Baltimore City Jail before I was transferred to a holding tank at “City” (the jail has since been “rebranded” the Baltimore City Detention Center).

Outcast or not, Genet is right to insist that words written in jail are maimed by ellipses. During those days and nights I spent behind bars, I felt almost aphasic–so scared and distracted that the simplest instructions given me by the guards turned to babble in my ears.

Ironically enough, just three years after my release, I’d be the one charged with helping to unlock the padlocked words, the one asked to make the maimed words functional again. Following my old undergraduate pattern, I dropped out of graduate school, and had to jump at the first job I could find: a community college extension class teaching comp and literature to policemen and firemen on Tuesdays, and to prisoners on Wednesdays. I was living hand to mouth, plus I had school loans to pay off. In my first year in college, I’d used some of that loan money to buy a kilo, thinking I could quadruple my money. But when I cut the key in half so a surfer pal could help sell it, he smoked it himself. After getting burned a few times and seeing just how ruthless dealing could be, I eventually wanted nothing to do with drug culture. You were constantly surrounded by what Hank called “the creatures”–people whose only reason to hang out with you was to get a taste.

In the last deal I ever did, I’d gotten involved as a middleman in a 250-pound transaction that very nearly went bad when we discovered that the phone was tapped and that one of the creatures was a snitch. Otis, my college roommate’s older brother who put up the cash, had to be restrained from taking a tire iron to the guy. The calculated ferocity that came into Otis’s eyes when he looked at the creature lounging on the couch, a beer in one hand, a joint in the other, terrified me. Of course, it never occurred to me that the perpetual threat of violence dovetailed with the creature’s fixation on getting high and was just part of the chain that linked me to Otis to the creature (and to George Jackson’s condemnation of capitalism as “licentious, usurious economics”). I was lucky I didn’t end up like the creature, or do time for shooting heroin–all this while still in my teens. But dealing did have its moments of hilarity: on our way to the airport, a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap leaked in Otis’s carry-on bag so that the wrapped keys reeked of it. As we drove down Highway 5 in an old VW van, a strongly gusting wind caught us broadside and almost knocked us into the other lane. We were all high, of course, and laughing uproariously about the prospect of being pulled over in a vehicle reeking of Dr. Bronner’s soap. At least the peppermint would camouflage the marijuana smell from “the pigs,” as Jackson called them, not to mention the K9s at LAX.

As an outsider, when you enter a prison for the very first time, what immediately assaults you is the blah architecture: nothing ornamental, the floor, ceilings, and walls painted an awful institutional gray or green, the lighting too bright or too dark. You pass through a metal detector and get patted down (just like I was patted down on the prisoners’ side of the bars), and then you walk through a series of steel doors manned by a guard or pair of guards who stare at you, nod if they’re feeling social, but generally say nothing. Patuxent Institution, where I taught, was a maximum security prison along a stretch of what used to be rural highway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. But nowadays, there’s a strip of trees planted between the prison and a busy semi-truck parking lot across the road from the prison’s reception, a one-story brick-faced building that looks as if it was designed by an architect who only knew how to draw a rectangle and cube.

Harvey, a longtime veteran teacher in the prison, would pick me up in his battered Toyota, and motor-mouth about his current political obsession, and when silence threatened, resort to bad-mouthing his ex-wife. He taught with me at the community college, and hosted a call-in show over the campus radio station that discussed current events. Harvey related to the men in a fatherly way, was sympathetic to their anger, and so he was beloved. I was their same age, so I ran no risk of a daddy complex. I debated whether to tell them that I’d also seen the inside of a cell, but I was worried that it might damage my image in their eyes, and tempt them to make overtures about bringing in drugs. But all that aside, after I’d taught there for a few weeks, I too loved the work. Never have I taught more interesting, smarter, and more damaged people in all my life.

The men, as the guards called them, signed up for the prison college education program to get off the tier for a few hours, to escape the noise and boredom and inertia of prison life, and of course to earn a degree in the hope of impressing a parole board. I taught them composition, which was sometimes heartbreaking: several students kept failing to turn in work, not because they didn’t try, but because they were functionally illiterate and had a hard time writing the alphabet. But the prison administrators allowed them to participate in the college program anyway, because they needed to keep enrollment high enough to bring in funding.

At Patuxent, the men served indeterminate sentences based on a therapeutic model that has since been gutted because of lack of money, while the college program has been discontinued. But unlike Genet, I never thought of the prisoners as outcasts, mainly because they were hyperaware of their condition as prisoners inside a questionable justice system. John, an older man, muscular and thoughtful, a painter who was serving his third drug conviction, and whose paintings depicted lush jungles with the faces of his friends and relatives peering through the foliage, once said to the class during a discussion of what prison does to you, “The problem is, Tom, after ten years, your thoughts just don’t have the energy to climb the wall.” And Bill, a small man with a pony tail and a skilled airplane mechanic, a convicted child molester, once said to me, “What I did I can’t undo, but what I did isn’t all of me there is.”

Which is something that I also felt when I was behind bars. So now that I was teaching prisoners, as opposed to being one, I felt an acute responsibility to do what little I could to make the words as much theirs as mine. But it was hard going: prison, as Philip Larkin once wrote of life, “is first boredom, then fear.” Only that statement would be reversed and modified: first and last, prison life is fear–boredom ensues because of the monotony of every human response being dictated by fear.

That’s why Maurice, who earned an A for an essay called “How I Became a Murderer” and who desperately wanted to learn, once called me out for having lost control of the class–for him, this was the only time when that dreadful boredom lifted. So when Frank, a West Virginia biker with long red hair and a wispy beard, came down off the tier high and in his role as class clown couldn’t keep from laughing and joking, Maurice raised his hand and said with justified grievance, “Tom, I can’t hear what’s going on with all this noise,” I snapped–and began shouting at Frank, “Shut up, goddammit!” Frank was doing time for robbery, having smashed in the front window of a jewelry store at noon, pretending to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and under his sometimes goofy demeanor, I could sense an out-of-control rage. The room went silent, and the men looked at me in astonishment. I was terrified that Frank was going to leap up from his desk and smash my face in, but to my amazement, he not only shut up, but looked contrite, hanging his head like a scolded child. Since I taught in a classroom with no guard, I ran some risk. But after losing my temper, I understood just how much power I wielded simply by being “the teach,” as Frank called me.

After that, Frank continued to be a showoff, but he curbed his behavior. One of the men told me I’d gone up in their estimation for having lost it. But I knew I walked a fine line. I came to see how Frank’s flamboyance and banter and bullshit, his good-natured air of defiance, could turn almost suicidal. Frank was a volcano timed to a three- or four-week cycle of explosions. From his usual extroverted self, week after week he’d grow more inward, more frustrated and silent, until by the fourth or fifth week he wouldn’t show up at all. When I’d ask where Frank was, the answer was always the same: he’d blown his stack in his cell, took on the trustees who beat him up bad, and then the guards threw him in the hole. Frank was a little like the hero in Etheridge Knight’s poem “Hard Rock,” a legendary tough guy but with a capacity for thoughtfulness that the guards and trustees could never have imagined. In a class about Walt Whitman, Frank pointed out that the butterfly on Whitman’s finger in the famous photograph had to be a fake and he made the point that Whitman in his showmanship for democracy was also a self-promoter as well as a bit of a con. It’s among the smartest things I’ve ever heard anyone say about Whitman.

Once, on our way down a long corridor sealed off by three heavy steel doors, a guard said to Harvey and me, as he threw the lever and the last door clanged open, “You’re just teaching them how to be better criminals.” When we were out of earshot, Harvey rolled his eyes and said, “You’d think the guy could find a better script writer.” Not all the guards were that dismissive, but I could see why Frank needed to explode in order to go on feeling human. After his beatings, Frank always came back to class in a mood that can only be described as euphoric. Hard Rock, indeed!

In his toughness and fearlessness, if in no other way, Frank resembled George Jackson. But while Frank fancied himself a patriot and might have made a good soldier except for his hatred of authority and discipline, Jackson thought of himself as a soldier like Che. Worldwide revolution was real for Jackson, while Frank would have hooted and scoffed. But revolutionary or not, and no matter if we were white, black, or brown, what bound us all together–and bound me to the men whether I was their teacher or an inmate–was our common denominator: anger. Frank knew as surely as Jackson did that he was part of a system, knew it in his bones. But lacking Jackson’s ability to abstract himself from the guards and the bars, he was at the mercy of his anger and the way the prison turned it against him, as opposed to a tool he could use. As Genet notes, “George Jackson’s style is clear, carefully pitched, simple and supple, as is his thinking. Anger alone illuminates his style and his thinking, and a kind of joy in anger.”

But given Jackson’s understanding of prison as a system of terror, and that he spent most of his adult life in prison, his letters are almost entirely free of the kind of malice or hate that made racist white cons become willing members of what Jackson half jokingly refers to as “Hitler’s Helpers.” Nor did Jackson indulge in the demonization of whites. As he says in one of his letters: “I’m always telling the brothers some of those whites are willing to work with us against the pigs. All they got to do is stop talking honky. When the races start fighting, all you have is one maniac group against another.” He knew that racial division was detrimental to revolutionary action, and he actively opposed it by trying to educate anyone who would listen. But Jackson seemed to know his fate was sealed and that he’d never leave prison alive. Shortly before he was about to go on trial for allegedly throwing a guard over a railing to his death, his escape attempt failed. Some say his lawyer or a legal aide smuggled a gun in to him. Another version is that the guards set Jackson up by arranging for an inmate to slip him a gun–which, when he tried to escape, if escape it was–gave a guard in the surveillance tower license to execute him by shooting him in the ankle and spine as he tried to run across the yard. Because he was bent over as he ran, trying to make as small a target as he could, the bullet traveled up along his spinal column and into his brain. What isn’t in doubt is that three guards, two trustees, and Jackson were killed on 21 August 1971.

When all this happened, I was eighteen years old, living in San Diego–a surfer who sold and shot dope and who liked to read. Whatever overt politics I had were of the peace and love variety. But I also felt a connection to Jackson’s anger: it was like a fire fueling the spirit of the day and was as deep-grooved in the American grain as what Jackson called “neoslavery”–wage slaves chained to their jobs just to survive. Since I worked at a pancake house as a bus boy for minimum wage and no tips, I thought I knew exactly what he meant.

So when I first read Jackson, I accepted that the person in the letters was, according to Jo Durden-Smith’s Who Killed George Jackson? “the way he sounded.” It never occurred to me that he could also have been a murderer and, by his own admission, a small-time thief–though the record is again contradictory. Jackson’s account of the gas station robbery in 1961 that would send him to prison for the rest of his life is that he was an innocent bystander. A friend who was riding in his car pulled a gun on the attendant, which took Jackson by surprise. Of course the gunman blamed the whole plan on Jackson.

These contradictory visions of Jackson can’t easily be reconciled–which is possibly the point of Durden-Smith’s book, at least in Greil Marcus’s review of it. Marcus claims that Jackson was “the last great hero of a long political rebellion that … marked a turning point in our history; as has been said of the failed revolutions of 1848, it was a turning point in history when history refused to turn.” But as the review progresses, Marcus complicates that view with Durden-Smith’s far less idealized version of Jackson, in which he “fought not only for control over the destiny of his people but for control over prison rackets.” He asserts that Jackson not only condoned his seventeen-year-old brother’s suicidal raid on the Marin County Courthouse–five hostages were taken to be exchanged for Jackson and two other prisoners also accused of murdering the guard pitched over the railing–but that Jackson actually planned the raid. And so he was partly responsible for his brother’s death, and the murder of a judge and one of the hostages, as well as two prisoners his brother armed. And though Jackson was almost certainly framed by the state in terms of the evidence brought against him in the murder of the guard, according to Durden-Smith, Jackson actually “did commit the murder with which he was charged.”

These contradictions create a truth–if they are a truth–that is hard to square with settled political convictions. And when you hear how the guards in Jackson’s escape attempt from San Quentin were killed either by him or by the other inmates in his cellblock whom he freed–a nail clipper sawing at the necks of the victims until a major vein could be punctured by a sharpened pencil–the brutality of the image creates in Marcus’s words “a refusal to smooth over a horror that in itself creates a different kind of fact.” A fact depicted with such “cold, physical detail” that it “puts back into death the sting one’s politics can rob from it.”

The photographs of the murders are truly gruesome. From one cell wall to another, the concrete floor is slick with clotted blood. Abraded into the flesh, long blood-black grooves follow the necklines of the murdered men’s slashed throats. Taken literally, a phrase like “blood bath” aptly describes what the so-called “Adjustment Center” looked like.

Saucer People
He says that whiteness
is a virus
inserting itself into
every cell
and creating there
a living hell
that only sickness
and death
will end.

He says that blackness
is a cheat
and that the black Jesus
had it coming–
the nails in his hands
and feet
exactly what he deserved
for conning people
of their pride.

Do I give a shit
about her tennis lesson?
Or his psychiatrist?
Don’t you ever wonder
what would happen
if all those folks
on the mountaintop
had to come down here
and sell loosies on the street?

Why don’t people
like you wise up?
Then he moves in close
and almost spits in my face,
You fucking saucer person–
you’re a fucking saucer person
is all you are.
You think there’s
any cure for this?

Lounging around
on your mountaintop,
you and your saucer–
I know who you are.
You think you’re so smart
but you and your kids
are doomed.
Your saucer
can’t fly that fast or far.

After a day and night
in the substation jail, during which time I found it impossible to sleep, I was taken in handcuffs in the back of a police van to the Baltimore City Jail. I was shackled to another prisoner, and we walked out the back to a loading dock. Six of us stepped up into the van and sat facing each other on a shiny, slatted steel bench, three on a side. I looked out of the dirty window as glimpses of the city flashed by, but I recognized nothing. Nobody said a word, we barely looked at each other. I could feel myself gathering my energies for what awaited me.

When we pulled up in the back of the Baltimore City Jail, there was another loading dock where they unlocked us: it was early morning, something like 6 a.m., but the air was muggy, close, and damp. One of the guards led us down a long passageway painted a hideous institutional green and into a huge holding tank: twenty-foot-high ceilings above tiered benches as in a football stadium. The tank was crowded with prisoners, some smoking and talking in low tones, others glum and keeping to themselves–there must have been thirty or forty of us crowded shoulder to shoulder. There I spent three more full days and sleepless nights, waiting for the commissioner to show up and set bail.

After six or seven hours, we were herded upstairs into the main wing of the jail, where we took a group shower. Even though there was a guard posted to watch over us, I was terrified of being raped. The showers billowed with steam so thick you could hardly see the man next to you. When we dried off, everybody seemed as apprehensive as I was and kept his eyes to himself—none of us daring to look at anyone else’s naked body, but focusing our eyes straight ahead at the steam wreathing up and up against the green cement wall, drifting high above our heads and misting over a set of high barred and glazed windows smeared with dirt that let in a dull yellow light made that much more yellow by the neon overhead.

When I finished my shower, a guard inspected my head for lice, I put on my clothes, and then returned to the tank, growing more and more despondent as I waited for the commissioner to see me: rumor had it that he was always just about to arrive but day after day went by without him actually showing up. Hour after hour, I felt everything slowly being stripped away from me. My thoughts ricocheted among awful possibilities that went from dire to worse, I was hopped up on adrenaline but exhausted from no sleep and my own hyper-vigilance, emotionally wrung out to the point of numbness. I sat on the long wooden benches and kept my mouth shut.

By this time of the morning, the mood was more convivial, and some stood by the bars and talked shit with each other, joshing and laughing, and even kept up a running commentary on the guards, who ignored them. The guy next to me, a heavyset man with a round face wearing faded jeans, his arms resting on his knees, asked me, without looking at me, what I was in for. When I told him, he grimaced, as if my crime in its pettiness was a personal insult. He stared past me through the bars to where the guards were allowing us to use the single pay phone to call wives, friends, and lovers, and said, “Me, I didn’t do it, they say I stole a car, but man, that ain’t me. I didn’t steal nothing.”

As the hours crawled by, I became so dissociated that I had eyes in the back of my head. Just as in the grocery store, I felt so alien from my own body that I floated high up in the tank’s harsh glare, and stared down not only on my own arms and legs as if they were a stranger’s but on all the other arms and legs around and even behind me. This sense that I had 360-degree vision is one of the most disorienting facts about jail–I was my own panopticon, surveying everything and everybody at once in the joint, the can, the pen, the tank, the slammer, the cooler, the clink, the hole, the glasshouse, the digger, the sneezer, club fed, graybar hotel, crowbar hotel, hoosegow, the stoney lonesome.

Before I tell you what happened next
–whoever you are, whatever your politics or skin color or personal history–it’s important to say this, to be accurate about what happened. In writing this, I’ve found myself wandering into slight and sometimes large exaggerations. And each time I’ve felt a sudden revulsion, gone back, and revised as scrupulously as I could to reflect the facts. I tell myself that if I can’t make what really happened interesting, then I should give up writing this altogether.

Fact: I was a student, which made me eligible to enter a first-offenders’ program.

Fact: A week after I got out, I remember walking in pelting rain through a Baltimore thunderstorm so that when I appeared before the arraigning judge, my carefully chosen tie, shirt, and trousers were soaked with rain, and I looked like they’d dredged me up off the bottom of the Potomac.

Fact: I was assigned to a parole officer who took one look at me and decided I wasn’t going to be either a challenge or a problem (nor was she wrong), and so our counseling sessions consisted of my meeting her once a week at a Chinese restaurant paid for by a mysterious expense account while she told me druggy tales of her weekend partying with her louche boyfriend.

Fact: I have no doubt that the white female judge was predisposed to cut a white college boy a break. Shoplifting is a misdemeanor, and she could have sentenced me to ninety days and a five hundred dollar fine.

Fact: I was cautious about the expense account, and didn’t want to presume–and so I ordered a cheap stir fry and drank tap water while she went for the more expensive Peking duck and two martinis. I was an extremely attentive listener, and I felt real gratitude. I also knew that never, ever would I take such a stupid risk again. The terror I’d experienced was a true deterrent.

Fact: I got off with six months of probation. And in a year, if I kept clean, the misdemeanor could be wiped from my record. But Jackson was convicted for stealing seventy-one dollars from a gas station at gunpoint, a violent felony. Despite Jackson’s claim that he was taken by surprise when his friend pulled the gun on the attendant and forced Jackson at gunpoint to drive away, he pled guilty to the crime anyway, hoping for a lenient sentence. Instead, he was given an indeterminate sentence of one year to life–while his friend got out after seven years. But let me bring this closer to home: consider that the penalty for shoplifting a hundred dollars’ worth of stuff or sixty-nine cents’ worth is the same. My shoplifted sleeping bag cost eighty dollars–Jackson’s robbery cost seventy-one. I got off easy, but Jackson spent most of his life behind bars and was shot while supposedly trying to escape. Of course, you could say that it’s more complicated than that, a felony versus a misdemeanor, but the difference between what he stole and I stole is still a measly nine bucks.

Fact: in the tank, in which at any one time over the four days I was held there, waiting and waiting for the commissioner to set my bail, we numbered between thirty and forty prisoners: what I didn’t say is that only six or seven of us were white, and the rest of us were black.

Fact: the guards on duty at City were about half black, half white.

Fact: parsing black and white is a tricky business. That’s why the complexity of Jackson’s letters is so impressive. To the guards he was a black criminal, to himself he was a revolutionary.

Fact: in ancient Greece, the criminal is one who is demonically possessed, the Furies pursuing him for blood guilt.

Fact: in the two times I was in jail, I could see that unless you had a demon and a Fury inside you, jail would destroy you.

Fact: crimen means “a cry of distress” and derives from the ancient Greek krima, “an offense against the community, rather than a private or moral wrong.” In an interview with Jessica Mitford, Jackson says, “It seems that parts of the book appeal to the right-wing blacks and parts appeal to the left… . The prisoners accepted it, of course … they seem to be gratified that one of us had the opportunity to express himself… . Some [guards] laughed and said … ‘I’m learning about myself,’ and then there are others that look at me with daggers in their eyes … what they’re saying is that ‘first chance I get, nigger, I’m going to kill you.’” So Jackson’s book, depending on who’s reading it, is a cry of distress and an offense against the community. By the same token, Jackson understood that even the guards have their individual tolerances. As he says to Mitford, “When I use the word ‘pig,’ one officer will take it as a terrible, terrible attack on him, whereas another will laugh.”

Fact: there were still plenty of burned-out and boarded-up buildings in East and West Baltimore seven or eight years after Martin Luther King’s assassination touched off the 1968 riots. Before I was in jail, I might have passed them by without a second thought, but now I had a new understanding of the nuances and codes and unwritten history that was everywhere apparent in wire-screened windows and scorched stoops. The transparent cages in packies where store clerks placed your booze in a swivel tray so that they were always protected behind a wall of bulletproof glass seemed emblematic of the city’s trauma.

Fact: that I’d end up teaching in a maximum-security prison for what was then called an “inner city” community college seems all these years later somehow apt.

Fact: all that lay in the future.

What happened next has a dreamlike texture to it, all the more surreal because I hadn’t eaten in two days, had taken only a few sips of water, and the tank was crowded, noisy, and hot. I’d retreated into myself as far as I could get–but not so far that I didn’t notice that the light had faded from the windows hours ago, and we were deep into the night. There was no clock, nothing to look at except the guards or the other prisoners, and nothing to do except bullshit, smoke, and, if you were out of cigarettes, try to cadge them off the guards. I’d made my allowed phone call–to a friend of a friend whom I’d stayed with for a night when I first got to Baltimore. I left an apologetic message with his roommate in which I asked him to bail me out to the tune of a hundred dollars. Generally, for such a small crime, the commissioner would have let me go on my own recognizance–legalese for a written promise that I’d show up for my court hearing. But as I sat across from him at his desk, a neatly dressed black man who was courteous and noncommittal, as soon as I said I knew almost nobody in town, he replied, “I’ll have to hold you over for bail.” And so I went back to the tank, and got in line behind the other prisoners to make my phone call. When we got to the head of the line, the guard handed out a quarter to us to drop in the slot of the pay phone mounted in the corridor just beyond the bars of the tank. I dialed, and after I hung up, felt more than a little hopeless.

When the guard swung open the tank door, I sat back down on the bench but sensed an unexpected electricity in the air. On the other side of the bars, the guards were processing three heroin-skinny cross-dressing prostitutes dressed in black tube tops, mini-skirts, and heels. After four days of almost no sleep, I felt on the verge of hallucination. Suddenly we were all alert: apparently, they’d been arrested for soliciting and were giving the guards attitude. Two of them were shunted off down another corridor, but the one who was now ushered into the tank stood defiant. From all around me came catcalls, “Hey Baby, lookin’ good!” She acknowledged us with a nod, and then began to do a mock striptease. As she thrust her hips at the guards in the control room, we all leapt to our feet, shouting and laughing, eager to see what the guards would do. The guy next to me was yelling over and over, “Baby, baby, shake that thing!” Her shoulders shook to invisible tom-toms, she started grinding her hips round and round, and then slowed her tempo down, her fingers flirting with the zipper of her mini as she flashed a grin at us and then at the guards, her eyes observant, hard. I wanted to think she was sizing the guards up, mocking, defiant, her smile a smile of scorn for what the guards might do. I envisioned them pushing into our midst in heavy boots and gray uniforms, raised nightsticks wrapped around their wrists–but nothing happened. The guards ignored her, us, and kept on filling out forms. And after thirty seconds or so her dancing slowed and stopped, and all of us subsided into a blank silence. I hovered at the bars, the poised nightsticks lingering in my head, but all she did was sit down and join in the long wait for the commissioner to summon us.

In a poem I wrote over twenty years ago, I took more license in recording this event. I actually had the guards push their way into the cell as if they were going to beat her, nightsticks raised–and only then did they relent. And I referred to her as “him.” Of course, my shift in pronoun reflects where our culture has come to, but if I’m to be honest, my sticking to the facts has more to do with my revulsion against exaggerated emotion, especially when our national discourse has become so polarized. But back then, it would never have occurred to me to think of the catcalls as being only homophobic; I also heard them as being in solidarity with someone who had enough guts to piss off the guards.

But given how brutal prison life is, shouldn’t gestures of solidarity, no matter how flawed or partial, count for something? Jackson was well aware of how prison had shaped him when he wrote to Angela Davis, “I’m not a very nice person.” And while it has to be said that Jackson’s views on women are equivocal at best, writing in one letter, “We should never allow women to express any opinion on the subject” of revolution, in another he praises Davis as a true revolutionary. Given that Jackson spent most of his adult life in the company of men, confined to a small cell twenty-three and a half hours a day, seven and a half years of that time spent in solitary, what he suffered, and the brilliance of what he accomplished, create their own unique forms of value.

After the excitement, everybody glazed over. She found a place on the bench two men away from where I sat, crossed one slender leg over the other, and hooked her toes around the opposite ankle. Whatever I thought or felt or looked at dissolved into a blur of concrete and steel and slamming doors: in my exhaustion, anybody was everybody and all of us were nobody. Just like the rest of us, she sat staring through the bars hour after hour until she was released near morning.

As for me, I would sit there until evening before the friend of my friend would finally decide to post the hundred dollars. They called my name, I rose and walked to the sergeant’s desk, where they handed me a plastic bag with my empty wallet and keys. The door swung open, and I walked out into the afternoon. The sun was low in the sky, and there were flocks of swallows circling high up in the air next to the roof of the jail. I looked up at the high gated windows and felt utterly emptied out. It took me an hour to walk to my apartment. I fumbled with the keys because the locks weren’t familiar yet, climbed the dark stairs to the top floor, lay down on my bed, and with a heaviness and weariness that I haven’t felt before or since, fell asleep.

and all these years later after almost everyone has died, is this

his refuge, his place of recuperation,

this No-Man’s-Land where barbed-wire words strung

in front of empty trenches

fall silent for a little while so he can hear in his own voice

himself reading to himself as a child

Once upon a time … they lived happily ever after …

until the words start up again with their subtle, insistent drone, words who would know

how to apologize even as they turn the knife?

Tom Sleigh is the author of Station Zed, Army Cats, and Space Walk (Kingsley Tufts Award). He has published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, VQR, APR, Poetry, Threepenny, and elsewhere.
Originally published:
July 1, 2018


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