Celebrate the Facts!
6/5/2022 1 Comment
American exceptionalism denies a lot, including the country’s racism, capital punishment, state-sponsored assassinations, covert surveillance in violation of domestic and international law, and the most considerable stain on its reputation, its criminal justice system. While the American press is scrupulous in satisfying its corporate masters with stories of the depravity of overseas governments, it seldom looks into the mirror at its own fatally flawed punitive penal system. Legendarily inefficient, America’s prisons are little more than holding pens, training grounds for future crime, and places for the state to park political prisoners. The case of Ruchell Cinque Magee, America’s longest-held political prisoner, illustrates the point.
Magee grew up in Louisiana. At the age of 16, in 1955, the courts convicted him in 1955 of attempted aggravated rape. His crime, it seems, was having a relationship with a white girl in Jim Crow South. For framework, Magee’s conviction occurred at about the same time as racists lynched Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi., for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Louisiana threw the book at Magee and sentenced him to eight years in Angola State Prison, a nightmare of a facility even by the standards of southern prisons. Louisiana released him from Angola in 1963, and Magee went to Los Angeles, California, hoping for a better future.
California authorities arrested Magee shortly after he arrived, following a disagreement with someone about a $10 bag of cannabis. Cannabis is now legal in that state and many others. Ruchell and his cousin Leroy sat with a man named Ben Brown in Brown’s car. Brown told police that Ruchell and his cousin had kidnapped him in a quarrel over a $10 sack of weed. Police beat Magee so severely he spent three days in the hospital. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County sentenced Magee to seven years to life in prison for the charge of attempting to kidnap someone to commit robbery for that $10 dispute.
Magee became interested in history and politics during his incarceration. He added the middle name of Cinque after the African freedom fighter Cinqué, who instigated a rebellion on the slave ship La Amistad. Magee said, ‘Slavery 400 years ago, slavery today — it’s the same but with a new name.’ Magee used his self-education behind bars to become a ‘jailhouse lawyer,’ prison lingo for inmates who write and file court challenges on other peoples’ behalf. Magee filed a wrongful death lawsuit and helped win a significant settlement for the family of Fred Billingsley, who was tear-gassed and beaten to death by San Quentin guards in his cell in February 1970.
Magee remains incarcerated because he tried to help to free three men George Jackson, John Clutchette, and Fleeta Drumgo, known as the Soledad Brothers, in 1970. In August 1970, at a hearing in a Marin County California court, Jonathan Jackson, the 17-year-old brother of George Jackson, entered, armed with guns, intent on negotiating the release of the Soledad Brothers. Instead, the state had charged them with killing a guard at Soledad State Prison, notoriously known for murders and brutality against inmates.
Three prisoners, William Christmas, James McClain, and Magee, who were coincidentally in the courtroom, joined in an escape attempt. Ruchell was there to testify on behalf of a fellow prisoner, James McClain, charged with assaulting a correctional officer in retaliation for Billingsley’s murder. Jackson and the three prisoners took several hostages, including Judge Harold Haley, Deputy District Attorney Gary Thomas, and three jurors, and attempted to escape in a van. Police shot at the van, killing everyone but Magee and Thomas.
The event received a great deal of press coverage, as did the subsequent fugitive hunt and trial of Angela Davis, a former assistant professor from UCLA who was involved with George Jackson, Jonathan Jackson, and the Black Panthers.
Magee conducted a political trial that challenged the prison system, likening it to slavery, and advocated for his right to fight for freedom like Cinque's. Magee’s co-defendant Angela Davis, charged with purchasing the weapons, had a much different legal strategy and separated the cases. Magee defended himself pro se or without legal counsel.
As Magee was a prior felon based on his ‘aggravated attempted rape conviction in Louisiana, the court sentenced him to life in prison under California’s indeterminate sentencing law. He has been eligible for parole since January 1981, and the state’s Board of Parole Hearings again denied him parole in July 2021. Magee is next due for a parole hearing in 2024. Born in 1939, he is now 83 years old, having served over 58 years in prison. Magee remains at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California. Davis has made a living as a professor and public intellectual.
Removed from a political framework, the incarceration of Magee seems fruitless for both him and society. The costs of jailing a person for a lifetime are immense, and society's benefits seem negligible. Deterrence also seems meaningless as very few people now know Magee’s name, let alone the details of his case. Instead, this story illustrates the simply punitive nature of the American prison industrial complex, where men live caged forever, with no ambition for any rehabilitation and return to a productive life. Alas, the United States repeats this story with ruined lives and destroyed families, with no aspiration for improvement.
As politicians race to become more ‘tough on crime’ in the midterm elections' run-up, it’s important to remember old lessons. All the previous efforts to get ‘tough on crime’ such as the ‘War on Drugs’ and the three-strikes rules, were unsuccessful in doing anything other than ruining lives and increasing overall misery.
Michael Donnelly investigates societal concerns with an untribal approach - to limit the discussion to the facts derived from primary sources so the reader can make more informed decisions.