George Jackson Is Killed (Aug. 21, 1971)
George Jackson went to prison as an 18-year-old and was killed at age 29 in an alleged escape attempt from San Quentin—and yet he was able to emerge as an author, activist and powerful analyst of what we now call mass incarceration. Writing when the prison system was a fraction of the size it is today, Jackson diagnosed the dangers of ubiquitous incarceration. His insights inspired many people. All the way across the country, prisoners in Attica held a one-day silent fast in response to his death. Three weeks later, a mundane fight erupted into the largest prison riot of the time period. The combination of Jackson’s death, the uprising at Attica and the killing of 39 people by N.Y. State Troopers retaking the prison all showed the problem of prisons. Citizens became more aware of the danger of punishment being so severe—even as politicians moved further in that direction.
Dan Berger is assistant professor of history at the University of Washington, Bothell, and winner of the 2015 James A. Rawley book prize for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.