San Quentin Prison Escape, George Jackson’s Murder, Attica, and Weather Underground
As I mentioned earlier in the text, the lawyer for Black prison activist, George Jackson, invited me to be an expert witness at Jackson's upcoming “Soledad Brothers” trial. He had heard the comments that I had made during the week on the local TV station about the dehumanization of prisoners that is endemic in many prison cultures. I received his invitation on Saturday morning, the day after the SPE was laid to rest. Yes, I would accept his offer, as soon as I recovered from the stress of living through the past hellish week. However, before I could write my reply, the local media flashed news of an aborted escape attempt at San Quentin Prison. Murder and mayhem occurred there at about 3 PM, August 21, 1971 –one day after our study had ended.
In the "official story" offered by corrections personnel—which is still not coherently told or understood–it seems as though a gun was smuggled into the prison by a lawyer during a visit with Jackson. George Jackson used it to force the guards in the solitary confinement wing of the prison to free the 26 inmates housed there. "This is it, gentlemen, the Dragon has come," Jackson shouted to his fellow prisoners confined in the euphemistically named, "Maximum Adjustment Center." He was alluding to the writings of Vietnamese revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, who said, "When the prison doors are open, the real dragon will fly out," Jackson continued, "The Black Dragon has arrived. He is here to free you." They beat, stabbed, strangled, and slit the throats of three guards and two informers who ironically had been housed there for their safety. In one account, George Jackson and prisoner Johnny Spain ran out onto the prison yard where Jackson was shot in the back, gunned down while attempting to scale the 20-foot wall in broad daylight. Spain was not shot, but captured.
The story is that the gun was smuggled past all the prison’s metal detectors by Jackson's civil rights attorney, Stephen Bingham, the nephew of a famous New York Congressman, Jonathan Bingham. The lawyer is alleged to have hidden it in his tape recorder or, in another version, in his legal portfolio. Stephen mysteriously vanished for thirteen years. In this account, Jackson got the gun past internal security by concealing the 2-pound 9mm. gun in his Afro. It was not made clear how Bingham got the gun past other metal detectors and searches by the correctional officer supervising visits. 1
Leaders from Oakland’s Black Panther Party and others in the radical left proposed instead that the whole situation was a set-up by guards, prison authorities, and that the FBI purposely designed to kill Jackson. They wanted him dead before he could testify against the correctional system in his upcoming “Soledad Brothers” trial, in which he would reveal things they wanted kept concealed. Jackson had been moved to San Quentin from Soledad Prison to be near the Marin Courthouse where his trial was to take place. He and two other Soledad Brothers, Fleeta Drumgo and John Cluchette, were charged with murder of a guard in retaliation for the murder of three black inmates by guards that took place during a fight among prisoners. That upcoming trial had gained national attention in part because the revolutionary rhetoric in Jackson’s popular book, "Soledad Brother." That book argued that inmates were political prisoners being oppressed by a racist system. The prison, Jackson said, was to be the battlefield of the revolution waged in concert with revolutions for civil rights and human rights that were going on outside. A year earlier, Jonathan Jackson, George's 17-year old brother, had orchestrated a dramatic invasion of the Marin Courthouse during a trial of three other prisoners. He took the judge and four others as hostages and escaped with the prisoners in a van. But they did not get far; prison guards and other authorities opened fire killing Jonathan, the judge, and two of the prisoners.
Later, on the bloody afternoon of August 21, a throng of reporters was questioning Associate Warden, James Park, who had been left in charge during Warden Nelson's vacation. One of them was from TV station KRON, the station that had filmed our SPE students' arrests. The reporter asked whether the violence had been caused by the kind of dehumanization demonstrated in the recent experiment at Stanford University. The associate warden went ballistic. He reproached the reporter, saying that suggestion was irrelevant and uninformed -- such social-activist research, he said, does not apply to the real world of prisons that are filled with violent men, like Jackson. He exclaimed, "I think that a lot of this bull-talk by dilettante revolutionaries-- and they aren't out there getting killed-- contributes to this thing." 2
From my experience as a mock-Prison Superintendent, I could appreciate his anger and sense of grief over the tragic loss of his guards. However, from my perspective as a researcher, I demanded to know how he dared to dismiss our research out of hand? There was no way he could have been properly informed about our research since it had been completed only the day before. I accepted an invitation to debate the associate warden on a local TV station later that week. I was able to describe in detail what our study was about, and how its basic conclusions about guard power, the operational secrecy of prison systems, and prisoner dehumanization, did in fact apply to real prisons of concrete and steel because they were fundamental aspects of imprisonment.
One viewer of the debate happened to be an NBC correspondent, Larry Goldstein. He became excited about the idea of doing a feature about the SPE for his network’s Sunday prime time program, Chronolog (forerunner of 60 Minutes). Larry came to Stanford, grilled me about the experiment, reviewed our videotapes, interviewed some of the research participants, and then got permission to prepare a mini documentary. The episode was titled, "819 Did a Bad Thing." It aired nationally on November 26, 1971--only three moments after our study was terminated. It opened with the scene of the line-up wherein prisoners chanted in unison repeatedly about the bad things that prisoner 819 had done to his cell and how they would be punished because of his bad behavior. The show, narrated by Garrick Utley, included powerful statements by some of our former prisoners as well as my run-down of the chronology of significant events. Several years before my graduate students and I would publish the results of our experiment in an academic journal, our little study already had begun to gain national visibility—in part because of these intertwined serendipitous events. Yet, there is more to this curious story.
Attica Prison’s Violent Eruptions 3
The second event that made the SPE a "hot property,” and finally made the state of America’s prisons a matter of growing national concern was an eruption of violence at Attica Prison in upstate New York. The revolution there was triggered in part as a response to George Jackson's murder at San Quentin because he was idolized by many of the Black inmates. They organized an all day fast and silence in his honor, which helped to create a new solidarity among prisoners from all the various racial factions. Emboldened by this mass cohesion, the leaders among the prisoners began to seek reform of the "barbaric conditions" that existed at Attica. When none of their recommended reforms was even considered by the administration, the prisoners took over the entire prison.
For five days from September 9th to the 13th, 1971, more than 1200 prisoners rebelled and seized control of the prison, burning some of its buildings, and taking 39 hostages, both guards and civilian prison staff. The "Attica Manifesto" focused on prisoner oppression and dehumanization. "We are men. We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such," was the call to arms by one of the rebellion leaders, L. D. Barkely. Their price for releasing the hostages was negotiated daily, as were national media alerts concerning the negotiations. This notoriety was in part the consequence of 27 high profile celebrities who came to Attica as "neutral observers" (among them, journalist Tom Wicker, civil rights activist attorney, William Kunstler, and Congressman Herman Badillo).
The prisoners wanted a federal takeover of the prison, better living conditions, the ouster of the prison superintendent, Mancuso, and more. The Correctional Services Commissioner, Russell Oswald, urged New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller to come to the prison and add his voice to the ongoing negotiations. The Governor refused to go to Attica; instead, he took a hard line, declaring that there would be no negotiations until after all hostages were released. He could have assigned a contingent of troopers to storm the prison and take it back using non-lethal batons, as had been done to suppress insurrections at other New York state prisons in Rochester and Auburn State.
Instead, Rockefeller did the unthinkable: He ordered state troopers to take back the prison by any means necessary. They did so energetically. With a helicopter hovering overhead, spraying tear gas over the open prison yard, the 211 militia fired down from the prison walls on the helpless prisoners and their hostages. It was a massacre. In only six minutes, the troopers, who, armed as well with shotguns, killed indiscriminately, fired 2, 200 lethal missiles. The troopers killed 43 of those down on the yard, including 11 of the 39 hostages, along with the prisoners, including spokesman, L. D, Barkeley. One hundred fifty others were shot and wounded under this torrential firepower. Scenes of horror filled television screens across the nation; bullet-riddled bodies, blood-covered medics, and endless rows of naked prisoners forced to crawl like animals across the prison yard, and beaten as they ran the gauntlet of vengeful guards.
Attica Prison Superintendent, Mancusi, was later asked by a Congressional Judiciary investigating committee, "Can you tell us what lessons you have learned from the disruptions, and what programs you have adopted to prevent any recurrence?" His cold-blooded answer, which I listened to at that hearing, was: "We have instituted two gun posts in the rehabilitation the institution."
Chilling. No human lesson was learned. No compassion for the murdered or wounded prisoners whose primary desire was to be treated like people, like humans, and not like “beasts.” No programmatic changes were proposed to modify the prison’s culture of power and abusive dehumanization. A tragedy was compounded by institutional indifference and rigidity—that is how Systems rule over reason. No help, compensation, or even an official apology was ever offered to the widows of the slain hostages who included former Attica prison guards. The System accepted no responsibility for the cold-blooded murder of its own people, let alone of the prisoners.
Would most other Prison Wardens and Prison Superintendents reply in the same way, would they also think that the physical plant represented the "Institution," and not the people it housed, nor the relationships between staff, guards and prisoners? I hope not. If the Stanford Prison had been continued, would I, as its Superintendent, ever come to think and act in such heartless ways? I hate to think so, but I can't be sure. If “they” could come to behave in such inhumane ways, maybe over time I too might have succumbed to the same conditioning that distorted the Superintendent’s thinking, and robbed him of his humanity.
The confluence of the violence at San Quentin and Attica Prisons, occurring as they did in close temporal proximity and spreading from coast to coast, finally awoke the conscience of the United States Congress and led many concerned citizens to ask: What is wrong with our prisons? Consequently, I was asked to testify before several Congressional hearings held in San Francisco and in Washington, DC. The publicity surrounding these hearings added further to the relevance of the SPE to an understanding of the corrosive psychological conditions that fester in real prisons. 4
SPE Lessons Applied: Becoming an Expert Witness
You might find interesting some stories related to my Congressional testimony, and also to my later appearances as an expert witness in several major trials during the next decade. They illustrate situational power in quite unexpected forms. The San Francisco hearings of the Congressional Subcommittee on the Judiciary were held in a huge majestic, marble-walled courtroom. Half a dozen Congressmen were seated in a semi circle several levels above the speakers who were giving their testimonies; the media stood on one side, and the audience was seated behind them. At one point, the microphone used by the speakers started to go out, issuing static and fluctuating volume. Failing to fix it, the staff person told the speakers to shout loud enough to be heard. When my turn came, near the end of the day, and following much shouting by earlier speakers, I did something a bit shocking. I walked slowly up the steps to the top circle and removed one of the many microphones taped to the table in front of each Congressman. I said politely, "You have many, we have none, and you do want to hear me clearly, right?" As I was removing the microphone, the startled Congressman said in an agitated tone that I couldn't do that because it was taped down. Again, I replied politely, "That tape can be easily removed, see?" I took my new mike back down to the peanut galley where I was then able to deliver my testimony in a clear normal voice. This simple remedy was possible because my experience in the SPE had made me more fully aware of the power of subtle situational forces; in this case, the power that “ownership” of the microphones granted to those in charge. Although the officials had assembled to hear the speakers, when they could not do so because of the defective speakers’ microphone, no one took the simple solution of sharing one of their many mikes with the speakers. I also had learned an action lesson from my time in our Stanford Jail: Be prepared to use whatever methods you have at your disposal to act against the mindless implicit constraints that regulate our everyday behavior and that operate even in the halls of Congress.
Later, during my Washington, DC testimony, I was the only witness who had no real prison experience to share with the Congressmen. The others were Wardens, Superintendents, guards, and former prisoners, including Carlo Prescott, for whom I had arranged an invitation. However, I made a bigger impact on the investigative panel than most of the others, all of whom had horror stories to tell and advice to dispense, did.
How? I did so simply by inviting the Congressmen to imagine that their white, middle-class sons had answered our newspaper ad and had been randomly assigned to be a prisoner or a guard in the SPE. To get away from the abstract descriptions of the other speakers, I presented a vivid, visual slide show display of what transpired over the six days of our experiment. My brief, narrated chronology grabbed everyone’s attention because the slide show gave us all a concrete, shared visual reality, in contrast with the limited vocabularies mouthed by the “real experts.” By means of the slides, Congressmen could readily imagine the suffering of the prisoners, naked, chained, with bags over their heads, being stepped on while they were doing push-ups, and so forth.
From then on, during the deliberations, many of these officials prefaced their statements about real prison issues with, "As in the Stanford Prison," or "We see from the prison experience at Stanford that..." By taking our experiment seriously these lawmakers could change at least one horrible prison condition. Our abused "prisoners" were juveniles in pre-trial detention awaiting the disposition of their case. Another speaker had told of the sexual abuses juveniles suffer when juveniles are housed with adults in pre-trial detention facilities in Philadelphia jails. Senator Birch Bayh used this information to craft a new federal law that prohibited the housing of juveniles with adults during pre-trial detention in federal prisons. This is one significant real world outcome of our experiment. Image is power, even when the reality in these images was in some sense, unreal. 5 As popular singer, Madonna, a masterful self-image creator has said, "Whoever controls the image controls the power."
A few months later, I became an expert witness for the accused prisoner, Johnny Spain, in his trial on the murders that had taken place in San Quentin’s Maximum Adjustment Center during the George Jackson episode. He was tried along with five comrades in a lengthy, emotional trial that was known as the "The San Quentin Six Trial." 6 Several of the blindfolded guards who survived the mayhem reported recognizing these six by their voices. My frequent visits with Johnny Spain and the other defendants in the ‘Max Center’ (“Mad Center” in prisoners’ terms) allowed me subsequently to become an expert witness in a federal case in which San Quentin's Maximum Adjustment Center was charged with being responsible for the “cruel and unusual punishment” of prisoners housed there for long periods. Judge Zirpoli ruled the case in our favor, and modifications of those unlawful conditions were demanded.
Through my connection with San Francisco’s liberal lawyer in the San Quentin Six case, Charles Garry, I later become an expert defense witness for Larry Layton, who was accused of conspiracy to murder Congressman Leo Ryan in Jonestown, in the infamous Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978. Garry was one of the legal counselors for Peoples Temple leader, Reverend Jim Jones. We will deal at length with the horrors of that massacre in a later chapter.
During this era of the early seventies, I also joined a legal team that was investigating the indeterminate sentence parole proceedings that were practiced in California at that time. Observing these parole board hearings opened my eyes to the incredible similarities between the confrontations that took place in these real hearings and our SPE mock parole board hearings.
This set of unexpected legal experiences, and others that involved visiting a number of correctional facilities around he nation, as well as regularly corresponding with dozens of prisoners and correctional staff, and conducting other research on prisons 7, has deepened my awareness of legal and correctional systems in America and in other nations.
The Weather Underground: Successful Student Terrorists 8
That same militancy embodied by the Black Panthers was seen in the violent anti-establishment bombings staged by “The Weather Underground” during the 1970's, starting around the time of the Stanford Prison Experiment. This anarchist group of educated, white, middle-class youth had first split off from SDS, Students for a Democratic Society in June 1969, at their annual conference in Chicago. The SDS, the largest student-based opposition to the Vietnam War, had been practicing non-violence modeled after the strategy advocated by Martin Luther King. Jr. in the civil rights struggle. A splinter group of the SDS opted for a violent attack against all oppressors, arguing that non-violence had produced no changes in society. The "Weatherman" faction took its name from Bob Dylan’s line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Their slogan, ”Bring the War Home,” was reflected in a series of public actions designed to make complacent Americans aware of the murder and genocide going on in Vietnam. However, when three of their members were killed in an explosion in a New York townhouse while making a bomb device, in March, 1970, the rest of the group decided to go underground, and so became "The Weather Underground." They set up secret collectives across America and planned to attack symbols of America’s injustice against Blacks and against prisoners, as well as the government's power and dominance.
Despite intense FBI surveillance, these homegrown terrorists managed to plant and explode numerous bombs for many years without ever being caught. Although they had adopted the “by all means necessary” militant approach, they made sure that people were never hurt or killed in their bombings, giving advance notice of their planned attacks. Perhaps because no deaths were associated with their terrorism, The Weather Underground group were not nearly as nationally visible as were the Black Panthers, who came to power at the same time. Consider that the Weather Underground took credit for bombing the U.S. Capitol (February 28, 1971) to protest the war in Laos. They also were responsible for many other bombings: a National Guard headquarters (to protest the Kent State student murders); New York Police headquarters (to protest police repression); a New York Courthouse (to protest prison riots), and even Harvard’s Center for International Affairs (to protest the Vietnam War). They used their growing sophistication as educated outlaws to plan and execute a complex escape of Timothy Leary from a California Prison, getting him safely to Algeria where he joined the exiled Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver. Equally impressive was their discovery and exposure of a covert FBI surveillance program, “Cointelpro,” which was aimed at groups and individuals that the FBI deemed to be threats to "national security." The FBI's surveillance included not only the Black Panthers, but also most peaceful anti-war organizations, and even Martin Luther King.
The reason for including this brief background on the Weather Underground is to convey a sense of the unique time in America during which our study was embedded, and also to underscore the comparability in age, social class and education of our students and these students. There is another personal connection operating at that time. Our study ended on August 20, 1971; George Jackson was killed at San Quentin on August 21st; and a week later, on August 28th the Weather Underground boldly blew up the offices of The California Department of Corrections in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, to protest to his “assassination.” The Ferry Building is less than a mile from my home. The Motel Caprice, where the bombs were fabricated, is within walking distance from where I live. Finally, to protest the killings of the inmates at Attica Prison, the Weather Underground also successfully bombed the New York Department of Corrections on September 17, 1971. They were probably America's most successful home-grown terrorists, never captured but voluntarily surrendering a decade later.
1. In a letter to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle responding to the article by Craig Marine about the George Jackson assassination, the trial lawyer for Stephen Bingham, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, cleared up some of the confusion. Bingham was tried and acquitted. During his trial, it was made evident that the gun could not have been hidden in a tape recorder and Bingham's legal folder had been searched by hand, and had gone through metal detection. There was no evidence presented consistent with the view that Bingham had brought a concealed weapon to Jackson. The gun's origin had to come from another source, probably from within the prison.
M. G. Schwartzbach (2001, September 23). San Quentin and George Jackson. Letters. San Francisco Chronicle.
2. This account comes from Craig Marine (2001, August 19). EXIT THE DRAGON. It's been 30 years since George Jackson died in a pool of blood at San Quentin. His death still reverberates in America. San Francisco Chronicle.
3. Information about Attica Prison riot and aftermath including Gov. Rockefeller’s role is presented in a powerful documentary CD: Prisons on Fire: George Jackson, Attica and Black Liberation. Produced by Anita Johnson and Claude Marks of the Prison Radio Project and Freedom Archives.
4. Details of the two Congressional Committees investigation prisons in 1971 are found in: The detention and jailing of juveniles. Hearings before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. (September, 1973), (Testimony of Philip Zimbardo). Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office. The power and pathology of imprisonment. Hearings before Subcommittee #3 of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 92nd Cong., 1st Session on Corrections, Part 11, Prisons, Prison Reform and Prisoner's Rights: California (1974) (Testimony of Philip Zimbardo). Congressional Record (Serial No. 15, October 25, 1974). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
5. Realizing the impact of this slide show encouraged me to develop a 50-minute version with 70 slides and sound effects as well as my narration that could be presented automatically with slide-show synchronization equipment. A Stanford undergraduate psychology major, Greg White, helped to develop this show. We distributed it widely for a decade or more to colleagues, corrections groups, civil rights groups, and more.
6. The “San Quentin Six” defendants were: Johnny Spain, Luis Talamantez, Hugo “Yogi” Pinel, Fletta Drumgo, Sundiata (Willie) Tate, and David Johnson. The trial, which lasted more than a year, took place at the beautiful Marin, California Courthouse, California that had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and was the same scene of the earlier hostage take-e over by Jonathan Jackson.
8. “The Weather Underground” is an award-winning documentary by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. Among the leaders of this terrorist movement of the seventies were: Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan, Naomi Jaffee, Laura Whitenborn, and Todd Gitlin.