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Can social change be ignited from behind bars? A look at the lives of two of prison's greatest revolutionaries who refused to allow incarceration to silence them.

Many political activists and revolutionaries across the globe have unjustifiably been silenced within the walls of a prison cell.  Yet few remain who somehow possess the strength to continue the fight, even from behind bars and from within the confines of a corrupt prison system.

Bobby Sands fought back against the system using his body as the only tool available to him, publicly neglecting his biological needs in order to garner attention and support for his cause.  Arrested in 1977 for possession of firearms, Sands was sentenced to 14 years in prison at HM Prison Maze (also known as Long Kesh).  From behind bars, Sands wrote journalism and poetry and was frequently published in An Phoblacht, an Irish Republican newspaper.  At Long Kesh, IRA political prisoners achieved an amazing feat; they were able to turn their H-blocks into virtual IRA training grounds.  Three years into his imprisonment, Sands was elected as an Officer Commanding of the IRA political prisoners at Long Kesh.  In response to this organization, prison officials attempted to break down the systems set in place by treating all of the political prisoners as common criminals.  Sands helped to orchestrate a series of protests designed to regain their status as political prisoners.  They started with the “blanket protests,” in which they refused to wear regular prison uniforms and wore blankets instead.  In response to fierce brutality from prison guards, Sands and other IRA Long Kesh Officials organized the “dirty protests,” in which they smeared excrement along prison walls.  Finally, Sands started the 1981 Hunger Strike by refusing food for 66 days which led to his premature death at the age of 27.

Shortly after the hunger strike began, Independent Republican MP Frank Maguire died of a heart attack.  Sands decided to run in the by-election under the label “Anti H-Block / Armagh Political Prisoner,” and thereafter became the only person ever elected to Parliament from behind the walls of a prison, not to mention the youngest MP ever elected.  He was never allowed out of the prison in order to take his oath, and he died less than a month after being elected. 

Sands’ political activism had great long-lasting effects, both from within the UK and globally.  His winning of the election shook British politicians to their core, and caused Parliament to pass the Representation of the People Act 1981, which prohibits convicted criminals from running for office while serving jail time.  More importantly, his sacrifice served as an inspiration to millions; his death sparked riots all over Northern Ireland.  IRA activity boomed in the aftermath of his death and activity within The Troubles rose drastically.  The legacy of Bobby Sands serves as a global reminder of one man’s ability to affect change, even while enduring oppressive imprisonment.

In his 1839 play Richelieu, playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  One of the many revolutionaries to prove these prophetic words true was George Jackson.  Imprisoned as a felon, Jackson faced a sentence of “one year to life” at the age of eighteen.  His crime?  Stealing $70.00 from a gas station.  Over the course of his twelve years in San Quentin and Soledad prisons, Jackson educated himself in political economy and other subjects with books from the prison library; the letters that he wrote to his friends, family, and attorney during this time would later go on to be published in the book Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson.  The book not only details the injustice of his situation and the pain of his confinement, but also discusses the social implications of his sentence, and questions the underlying causes which found, not only himself, but so many other young black males of his generation, behind bars.  The book offers an emotional account of Jackson’s journey, which serves as a paradigm for his race and generation and provides a scathing attack on the social infrastructure which landed him there in the first place.  Additionally, the book exposes the racial biases and the corruption of the so-called “criminal justice system” in the US. 

On 16 January, 1970, Jackson was indicted for the murder of prison guard John Mills, who had been acquitted of the murder of three black activists under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”  Perhaps the warden was fearful of Jackson’s ability to inspire revolution, or perhaps it was just blatant racism, but for whatever reason, Jackson was sentenced to twenty-three hours per day of solitary confinement, in spite of the fact that there was no evidence to convict him of the murder.  This absurd conviction was a great set-back to Jackson’s hopes for making parole, and the despondence of his plight is evident through the tone of his letters that followed this incident.  Yet, in spite of his perilous situation, he continued to produce his revolutionary writings from the confinement of his cell. 

Jackson’s potent words served as an inspiration to many revolutionaries, including his seventeen-year-old brother, Jonathan, who was killed on 7 August, 1970, after bursting into a California courtroom, taking Judge Harold Haley hostage at gunpoint, and making the fateful demand: “Free the Soledad Brothers by 12:30.”  Fourteen days later, George Jackson was killed by a guard during a prison riot, what officials would later call an “attempted escape.”  Just two weeks before his untimely death, his collection of letters and essays arrived at the publisher’s office and were later published under the title Blood In My Eye.  The book serves as Jackson’s intellectual and revolutionary insight on the topics of armed conflict, the class wars, communism, and fascism.  Today, Jackson is regarded around the world as one of the great black revolutionaries of his time. While in prison, he was elected Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party and prisoners across the country rioted upon the news of his death.  In 1971, Walter Rodney wrote: “George Jackson was jailed ostensibly for stealing 70 dollars. He was given a sentence of one year to life because he was black, and he was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle.”

From across an ocean, Bobby Sands and George Jackson shared a great likeness.  Both were minorities in a system that hated them.  Both were sentenced unjustly and severely for petty crimes, due to their affiliation.  Both continued their fight from within a corrupt prison system.  And both died essentially because they refused to let their confinement interfere with the revolution.  Sands and Jackson serve as a reminder to us all of the power of the revolutionary spirit, each proving in his own way that the will to fight, coupled with unconventional means, can be a more powerful tool than even the deadliest of weapons. 

1st January 2008
A Tribute to Bobby Sands and George Jackson
By Allyson Spelvin