The Rise and Fall of California's Radical Prison Movement

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Stanford University Press, 1994 - Social Science - 319 pages
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This is a history of the California prison movement from 1950 to 1980, focusing on the San Francisco Bay Area's San Quentin State Prison and highlighting the role that prison reading and writing played in the creation of radical inmate ideology in those years. The book begins with the Caryl Chessman years (1948-60) and closes with the trial of the San Quentin Six (1975-76) and the passage of California's Determinate Sentencing Law (1977).
This was an extraordinary era in the California prisons, one that saw the emergence of a highly developed radical convict resistance movement inside prison walls. This inmate groundswell was fueled at times by remarkable prisoners like Caryl Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson, at other times by groups of inmates like the Black Muslims, the San Quentin chapter of the Black Panther Party, and members of what would become the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Black Guerrilla Family.
But most often the resistance grew from much wider sources and in quiet corners: from dozens of secret political study groups throughout the prison; from an underground San Quentin newspaper; and from covert attempts to organize a prisoners' union. The book traces the rise and fall of the prisoners' movement, ending with the inevitable bloody confrontation between prisoners and the state and the subsequent prison administration crackdown.
The author examines the efforts of prison staff to augment other methods of inmate management by attempting to modify convict ideology by means of "bibliotherapy" and communication control, and describes convict resistance to these attempts at control. He also discusses how Bay Area political activists became intensely involved in San Quentin and how such writings as Chessman's Cell 2455, Cleaver's Soul on Ice, and Jackson's Soledad Brother reached far beyond prison walls to influence opinion, events, and policy.

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About the author (1994)

Eric Cummins is currently a lecturer at San Jose State University.

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