Convict Cultism

That jailed criminals would link up with the underground movement had long been foreseen. The rhetoric of violent revolution had found hundreds, perhaps thousands, of eager adherents inside U.S. prisons from its first utterances in the mid-1960s. Nowhere did prisoners pore over Debray and Che and Marighella more avidly than in California, where their interest attracted the notice of those who wanted a revolution just as badly: white radicals in San Francisco, Oakland, and especially the college city of Berkeley. This unlikely alliance, between charismatic black inmates and adoring white radicals, provided the underground with the long-sought messiah it ardently sought, thereby prolonging the life of a movement that had been on its last legs.

Ironically, the figure who paved the way for all this was a white man, Caryl Chessman, a convicted rapist who, during the 1950s, launched a tireless legal and literary assault on the California prison system from his cell at San Quentin. What began as a stream of writs and lawsuits evolved into a series of best-selling memoirs in which Chessman put the prison system’s brutality on trial. By the time he was finally executed, in 1960, he had drawn clemency appeals from such liberal icons as Eleanor Roosevelt and Norman Mailer. During the 1960s hundreds of California inmates mimicked Chessman’s tactics, churning out thousands of clemency petitions and memoirs of their own—so many that as late as 1967 inmates on San Quentin’s Death Row were punished if discovered attempting to write their life stories. ...

For apocalyptic revolutionaries, who had long sought a constituency to rise up and fight alongside them, black inmates seemed to represent the Holy Grail. Weatherman, after all, had invested thousands of hours attempting to rally working-class youth, high school students, and black liberals and had earned little in return but snickers and shrugs. Finally, in California’s toughest prisons, radicals found what appeared to be a loyal following. By 1968 black inmates were reported to be forming clandestine chapters of the Black Panthers and a hard-core Marxist group called the Black Guerrilla Family, both of which operated extensive, secret Marxist political-education groups, including courses on revolutionary theory and bomb making. In 1971 a House subcommittee identified the most popular books requested by black inmates as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown’s Die Nigger Die, and Cleaver’s Soul on Ice.

It was Cleaver, starting in 1968, who loudly and repeatedly began predicting that black inmates would soon rise up and form the leading edge of the revolution. This kind of talk produced something approaching rapture in a certain brand of white revolutionary, to the point that, in a phenomenon the author Eric Cummins terms “convict cultism,” by the early 1970s “convicts who were released from California prisons frequently enjoyed instant hero status in radical organizations.” As a Movement radical named Betsy Carr put it, “I was completely fascinated with [black inmates]—the glamour, the bizarreness. It was my Hollywood. I’d never discussed anything with any of them, just watched in total awe.”

By 1971 scores of Bay Area radicals were volunteering and protesting at California prisons. More than a few of the black inmates they befriended, however, turned out to be opportunists who parroted Marxist philosophy in hopes of luring their new white friends into helping them make parole or, in extreme cases, escape. The classic case came in October 1972, when several members of Venceremos, a leading Bay Area activist group, ambushed a car transporting a black prisoner named Ronald Beaty outside Chino’s California Institute for Men. A guard was killed in the ensuing gunfight. Their plan, authorities learned later, was to form guerrilla training camps in the California mountains, from which they would launch the long-awaited revolution in American cities. These hopes were dashed, however, when Beaty was recaptured. He not only implicated much of the Venceremos leadership; he also said he had only pretended to be a revolutionary to gain his freedom.