The deadliest day in San Quentin’s history took place 50 years ago on Aug. 21, 1971. On a single day of violence, three guards and three prisoners were killed.
In the ensuing decades, one name from that day has reverberated throughout the nation’s prisons: George Lester Jackson, 28. He was fatally wounded after being shot by a guard. That single day of violence continues to generate various opinions on what happened.
Regardless of the two storylines of an escape attempt gone bad, or assassination, it was a day that also led to the deaths of correctional officers Jere P. Graham, 39; Frank DeLeon, 44; Paul Krasenes, 52; and prisoners Ronald Kane, 28, and John Lynn, 29.
“Jere Graham was my best friend,” said Mike Loftin, 74, who described himself as a “prison guard,” hired at San Quentin in 1966. “I was sitting in a bar in downtown San Rafael, waiting for Jere to get off work so I could have beer with him.” Hearing the news about his friend, Loftin said he felt “anger.”
“I had no idea what was even going on,” said Loftin in an interview. “It wasn’t until later that I found out. Three (guards) had their throats cut.” CDCR records show that DeLeon was shot.
Jackson’s name produces different interpretations of who he was, depending on whose narrative is read. The state’s official police, prosecution, prison and political storylines describe him as a criminal, cop killer, gang leader, militant, revolutionary, Marxist-Maoist-Leninist and Black Panther.
Many Black prisoners say they view Jackson as an author, activist, comrade, political prisoner, voice of resistance, and a symbol of blackness.
“To me, Jackson was just another inmate,” said Loftin. “He was an incarcerated felon.” He said Jackson was his tier tender in the Carson section. “He wasn’t that militant back then. Then they transferred him to Soledad.”
Azadeh Zohrabi studied Jackson and regarded him as “a writer, political theorist, and Black Guerilla Family leader” (BGF) in a 2012 publication of the Hastings Race & Poverty Law Journal.
In 1960, George Jackson was an unknown 18-year-old to the state prison system. He was arrested in Los Angeles for a gas station robbery of $70. He pleaded guilty to the charge in exchange for a short sentence in county jail. Instead, the judge sentenced him to one year to life in state prison. The sentence placed his fate in the hands of the Adult Authority — the parole board at the time. Jackson spent the next 10 years in Soledad Prison, seven and a half of those years in solitary confinement.
“Jackson first began studying radical political theorists, including Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, in 1962, under the supervision of another African American prisoner, W.L. Nolen, who ran a reading group for prisoners,” Keramet Reiter wrote in her book 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement.
“Nolen, Jackson, and other members of the reading group were ultimately affiliated with the BGF, which was founded sometime between 1966 and 1971. According to its followers, the BGF is a revolutionary political organization; according to prison officials, it is a prison gang,” Reiter wrote.
While in isolation at Soledad prison, Jackson studied law, history, political theory and other subjects — a common practice among Black prisoners of his era.
“I met Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Engels, and Mao when I entered prison, and they redeemed me,” Jackson wrote in his best-selling book, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. One of his goals was to transform “the black criminal mentality into a Black revolutionary mentality,” Jackson wrote.
During a riot at the prison in Soledad, Nolen and two other Black prisoners were reported killed by correctional officer Opie G. Miller. After a grand jury ruled Nolen’s death justifiable homicide, correctional officer John V. Mills was beaten by prisoners and thrown from the third tier in a cellblock on Jan. 16, 1970. Jackson was housed in that block.
The book If They Come in the Morning, edited by Angela Davis, asserts, “Deputy Superintendent William Black stated, ‘We believe that the death of Officer Mills was a reprisal for the death of the three Black inmates.’ And, as if to balance some score being kept, prison officials proceeded to find three Black suspects who, they said, had killed Mills.” Jackson and two other Black inmates, John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo were charged with the killing.
This started the case of the Soledad Brothers. Publicity of the case produced a change of venue from Monterey County, Calif., where Soledad prison was located, to Marin County. The change led to Jackson’s move to San Quentin, where he awaited trial in the prison’s Adjustment Center.
Under the FBI’s Counter-intelligence Program, Jackson caught the attention of federal authorities. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act reveal FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was in continuous communication with the bureau’s field office in San Francisco regarding the Soledad Brothers.
A year before his brother George was killed, 17-year-old Jonathan Jackson was killed when he attempted to free his brother on Aug. 7, 1970. The younger Jackson went to the Marin County Courthouse and took hostages. Three prisoners who were in court were said to have later joined in.
His plan was to “negotiate the release of his brother,” according to U.C. Berkeley Professor William J. Drummond in his book Prison Truth (2020). “Armed with three guns registered in the name of author and former UCLA Professor Angela Y. Davis, Jonathan Jackson attempted to flee the courtroom after seizing the judge, an assistant district attorney, and some jurors.”
The Marin County sheriff gave an order not to fire on the getaway vehicle. However, San Quentin prison guards disregarded the order and fired a barrage of bullets into the van. Four men were killed, including young Jonathan and Superior Court Judge Harold Haley. Prisoners William Christmas and James McClain were also killed. A shotgun had been taped to Judge Haley’s neck. The only prisoner to survive was Ruchell Cinque Magee, who is still in prison.
“Understand that San Quentin has a no-hostage policy,” said former guard Loftin.
“To the Man-Child,” George wrote of his brother in Soledad Brother. “Tall, evil, graceful, bright-eyed, black man-child – Jonathan Peter Jackson – who died August 7, 1970, courage in one hand, assault rifle in the other; my brother, comrade, friend – the true revolutionary, the Black communist guerilla in the highest state of development, he died on the trigger, scourge of the unrighteous, soldier of the people…”
“That was a traumatic time for me,” said Bobby Jackson, 75 (no relation to George). “That changed my whole life, my whole perspective.” The day of what some call the “Courthouse Slave Rebellion,” he’d just gotten off the bus in front of San Quentin, which is where receiving and release was back then. “I was one of the youngest guys here at that time.” He was a 25-year-old Vietnam War veteran who saw combat in Da Nang in 1965 and 1966.
As Bobby Jackson was waiting, he said a prisoner on his way to court in chains turned and looked at him. “We had a connection,” said Jackson. “It was like he was saying to me, ‘This is my last go round,’ like he was saying, ‘I’m doing this for you.’” That prisoner, Jackson said, turned out to be one of the inmates killed at the courthouse. Before that day, he said “I wasn’t really Black conscious. That was a turning point. I became more conscious of who I was. I realized I was part of a group — like I’m part of this.”
Angela Davis’ alleged role in the courthouse incident caused a warrant to be issued for her arrest. She did not surrender and was later designated as one of the FBI’s “most-wanted fugitives,” according to the book Agents of Repression, by Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall. One of her distinctions was “head of the Soledad Brothers Defense Committee and an increasingly effective spokesperson for the movement as a whole.” She faced California’s gas chamber when she was arrested, which started another movement. The call around the world was to “Free Angela Davis Now!” She was later acquitted of all charges.
“She’s the one who got in (George Jackson’s) head,” said Loftin, regarding Jackson’s association with Davis.
“In the prison system we were seeing a rise in Black inmates viewing themselves as ‘political prisoners;’ a view fostered and supported by activists in the community,” wrote former San Quentin Warden Robert Ayers Jr. in an email for this story. Ayers started his career as a correctional officer with the then-California Department of Corrections on Jan. 24, 1968. Decades later he became San Quentin’s warden.
After the courthouse incident, George Jackson may have predicted his own end. “I have a very nearly closed future,” he wrote in Blood in My Eye, published posthumously. “…I can only be executed once.”
“We should never lose sight of who George Jackson was as a man,” said Gerard Trent Jr., 76, who has been incarcerated 51 years. He first arrived at San Quentin in April 1971. “Because, when it’s all said and done, the belief and evidence is conclusive that he fiercely loved his people; and that his people could one day enjoy the freedoms that others notably enjoy. That made George a thorn in the side of many that extended all the way to the office of the U.S. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.”
George Jackson’s Killing
Two days before George Jackson’s trial for the killing of Mills at Soledad prison, he was shot and killed by a guard at San Quentin, outside the Adjustment Center, for allegedly using a gun and trying to escape. His death and the other killings rocked guards and prisoners.
“I had just returned home from (Army Reserve) annual training that day and heard the news on TV that afternoon,” Ayers wrote. He went in to work on his day off, but the Watch Sergeant wasn’t sure he could pay him. But he insisted on working. “To this day I still don’t know if I got paid.”
“I was conversing with a small group on the Upper Yard, under the shed near the North Block chow hall,” Watani Stiner, 73, wrote in an email for this story. He was convicted for conspiracy to commit murder of Black Panthers Alprentice Bunchy Carter and Jonathan Huggins at UCLA in 1969. “We heard two shots followed by a series of whistles,” Stiner wrote. “While standing under the Upper Yard shed, just outside the North Block chow hall, I saw someone running down the ramp near the Adjustment Center. Guards were running all around, down to the Lower Yard and toward the AC building. Several guards quickly lined the gun rail and aimed their rifles down on us. They were screaming: ‘Bury your faces in the ground or get shot – NOW!’”
“I recall a great deal of distrust between many staff and Black inmates,” Ayers wrote. “There had been several fatal assaults on staff throughout CDC.”
Prisoners had control of the Adjustment Center when Lt. Dick Nelson arrived. According to Loftin, “(Nelson) took a weapon onto San Quentin grounds to take back the AC … just to let them know he was there and serious.” Then he fired. The weapon was reportedly a Thompson submachine gun.
Prisoners in the AC yelled, “’We have hostages,’” Loftin said. But Nelson “let out another burst” from the Tommy gun. “If San Quentin ever had a hero, it was Dick Nelson.”
Stiner wrote that guards later “rounded up every prisoner they classified and thought to be a ‘Black revolutionary.’” He was a member of the U.S. organization considered by some as a rival of the Black Panther Party. “We were immediately placed in The Hole (solitary).”
There was all kinds of confusion, according to Bobby Jackson. “Everybody knew something was going on.” He said a local radio station broadcast news about something happening at San Quentin. The night following Jackson’s death, everybody was talking about it, “especially the Blacks.”
“The general thought and feelings were George had been executed, and the inmate population began to brace themselves for the retaliation that everyone knew was coming,” said Trent. “Let me be clear, the majority of guards were not taking part in the executing of that violence against some (prisoners).”
According to Zohrabi, “The entire prison was put on lockdown for more than a month after the shooting.” He described how inmates leaked “a letter to the outside signed by 27 Black, Latino, and White inmates who were on the yard during the shooting and claimed that Jackson died in “an assassination conspiracy,” rather than in an escape attempt, as prison authorities claimed.
“At the time,” Stiner wrote, “I equated Jackson’s struggle, sacrifice and his martyrdom in the same category as Nat Turner.” Their rebellions had a coincidental starting point: Aug. 21, 1971, for Jackson and Aug. 21, 1831, for Turner. “Jackson (in my mind at the time) was a defiant revolutionary killed on the prison plantation. There were chants in The Hole: ‘The dragon is free!’ and ‘Funerals on both sides.’”
Ayers worked as part of the rank-and-file. He knew the staff who were killed. “I knew Frank DeLeon well,” he wrote. “We worked together frequently in Visiting, on the Main Yard, and in housing units. I had limited contact with Paul Krasner. My memory of him is he was a somewhat gruff ‘old-timer.’ I also had limited contact with Jere Graham. My only real recollection of him is his nickname was ‘Barabbas.’”
Ayers wrote that immediately following Aug. 21, several of the prison’s staff resigned, but some returned to work after a few days. “Their issue was rage rather than fear.”
“After the incident, the convicts were on their best behavior because they knew we were pissed off,” said Loftin. He said guards ruined inmate cells. “Someone could have said ‘Good morning,’ and if it was taken the wrong way —”
Ayers confirmed, writing, “My memories of the week or so immediately following 8/21 are a bit haunting. The staff took out their anger on virtually all inmates.” Retaliatory cell searches were routine. “When inmates questioned why their property was being thrown away, they were unceremoniously taken to (The Hole).” He wrote about feeling “quite guilty” for how he treated several prisoners. To remedy the role he played in the retribution, Ayers attended their disciplinary hearings “and told the committee that inmate didn’t do anything wrong and shouldn’t suffer any consequences.”
Contentions that Jackson had a gun and a wig smuggled into the prison by his civil attorney, Stephen Bingham, are still debated. Bingham brought legal papers in for Jackson to review and may have been the last civilian to see him alive. He was later blamed for bringing in a 9mm Astra pistol into the prison for Jackson. “No, I didn’t,” Bingham is quoted in an SFGate story from 2001. “It seems to me there were enough guns floating around the Adjustment Center that there was no particular need for one more.”
“I don’t believe that (George Jackson) had a gun concealed in his hair,” said Trent. “Also, I have never met anyone that even thought it was possible for him to do so.”
Bingham fled the United States after a grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder and one charge of conspiracy. He lived in Europe for more than a decade before returning to the United States to stand trial.
“I was acquitted in 1986,” Bingham wrote in a recent email for this story, adding it is “an acquittal which San Quentin officials astonishingly continue to refuse to recognize in their official SQ publications.”
“I, once again, was under the impression that the justice system failed,” said Loftin about the verdict in Bingham’s trial.
Official accounts of how Jackson died continue to contravene other stories. Bingham, however, views the final outcome of Jackson’s story, writing:
“George Jackson, perhaps even more in his death than when he was alive, was a critical spark in the struggle for the nation’s conscience that led to shining a spotlight on the enormous defects with our criminal justice system and the positive changes which have followed.
“Faced with severe challenges after the killing of George on Aug. 21, 1971, and the killings soon after at Attica, the prisoner rights movement has since come back stronger than ever, as evidenced by: the strength of Critical Resistance; the 2013 hunger strike at Pelican Bay which led to a lawsuit resulting in severe restrictions on CDCR’s power to arbitrarily put people in solitary confinement; numerous judicial decisions finding prison conditions unconstitutional; the erosion of support for the death penalty, as states continue to abolish it; the strengthening of the restorative justice movement; and the remarkable election of progressive prosecutors.”
“The late ’60s and early’70s was a volatile period,” wrote Ayers. Citing the Vietnam War, racial consciousness and tension, and political turmoil, he wrote that “it was like the present-day USA” without the war.
In the Garden Chapel area of San Quentin, next to the Adjustment Center, the American flag flies at constant half-staff, near the memorial to 10 fallen officers — three of whom fell on that notorious day some prisoners call “Black August.”
Fifty years after its bloodiest day, San Quentin is the CDCR’s leading prison for inmate rehabilitation. Today it promotes dozens of self-help groups and programs, educational and college courses, vocational training, and more.