Leftist Author Jessica Mitford, One of Six Famed British Sisters, Takes on the U.S. Prison System

Though she never went to college, she is just begins a teaching stint at San Jose on. And she has just become a distinguished professor of sociology at San Jose State College.”

…from Judy’s notebook, 2020

Once upon a time there were six beautiful British sisters most of whom grew up to be extremely political and widely known. There was Diana, considered the prettiest, who married the famous fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. Unity, who adored Adolph Hitler, became a nazi, and failed to blow her brains completely out. Nancy, a socialist, moved to Paris and became a quite good novelist. Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire was probably the most traditional. And then there was Jessica, who took the opposite path. She moved to the United States, became a communist, also became a writer. Her most acclaimed book, “The American Way of Death,” chronicled abuses in the funeral industry. I interviewed her in 1973 during her tour for her book on American prisons, “Kind and Usual Punishment.”

The Washington Star-News, September 12, 1973: Jessica Mitford has been tilting with the Establishment since 1936 when she was 18 and ran away from home to the Spanish Civil War where she was hoping to fight as a guerrilla soldier.

“Actually, I’d been saving my money to run away since I was 12,” says Miss Mitford, who grew up in a family of British aristocrats as long on good looks, dash and eccentricity as noble connections. She was in town yesterday to publicize her new book, “Kind and Usual Punishment,” in which she does to the prison system much the same as what she did to the mortuary business in an earlier book, “The American Way of Death.”

Miss Mitford enjoys talking about her youthful escapade, the first of many. She went to Spain with a radical distant cousin, Esmond Romilly, who at 18 was the youngest member of the International Brigade. It was not an elopement; she says she was “madly in favor of the Loyalists” and wanted to help the cause.

Her parents promptly made her a ward of the court and Anthony Eden, later prime minister, sent a destroyer to bring the young couple home. “But we insisted on going to France,” says Miss Mitford, noting wryly that deploying a destroyer to retrieve two upper-class runaways did not go unnoticed.

Questions were asked in the House of Commons. There was a huge row.”

The couple eventually did get married and came to America in 1939. Romilly, who had volunteered for the Canadian Air Force when World World War II began, was killed in action in 1941 and Miss Mitford became an American citizen in 1944.

“Then I was stranded here. I couldn’t go back to England. They wouldn’t give me a passport because they said I was a subversive.” Was she a subversive? Miss Mitford breaks into one of her engaging grins. “I was! Terrifically! I was on the subversive list.” She earned this distinction in the “McCarthy days” as secretary of the Civil Rights Congress in Oakland, Calif., from 1949 to 1955. “I guess I’m an old radical,” she says comfortably. The Congress, she says, advocated civil rights “for people like Communists and the blacks,” and was against the loyalty oath.”

She says she hated President Harry Truman — “that kind, loveable old soul” — because he started the list and ordered the oath. “He was the beginning of our trouble and it led to Nixon’s enemy list,” says Miss Mitford, noting with regret that she’s not on that one, too.

But she’s among about 60 persons whom the House Internal Security Commission has classified as undesirable for speaking on college campuses.

“The list has some strange bedfellows. It had John Ciardi (the poet), whom I regard as a conservative; Angela Davis, a friend of mine; Abbie Hoffman. It is an across-the-board list of all sorts of weirdos, including me,” she laughs. Ciardi, she notes was eventually dropped from the list along with about eight others.

“Not me, though. If I had been, I’d have fainted in dismay.” The publicity brought her an offer to speak at Princeton. And she has just become a distinguished professor of sociology at San Jose State College.”It’s amazing,” she says. “I’ve never been to college. Mother taught us to read. When I was filling out the form and came to the place asking for academic background, I wrote ‘nil.’”

Three years of research for her book on prisons has put Miss Mitford more than ever on the side of the oppressed, and that is how she regards the imprisoned in America. “The administrators try to palm off on the public the criminal as a wild, depraved creature.”

She interviewed George Jackson, one of the Soledad Brothers, three months before his death. “I had to get a court order to get in the prison to talk to him. They told me he was desperate, hostile man. They wanted to put a guard in the room with us, or post one outside, or put a heavy wire between us, but I said, no, it’s to be private.

“Jackson came into the room, his face wreathed in smiles and his hands stretched out. “I’m so glad to see you,” he said. “Protest from behind bars is incredibly dangerous. George Jackson is an example of this. In my view, the prison system killed him.”

Miss Mitford’s suggestions for prison reform are not popular with the Establishment: “There should be a total end to all indeterminate sentences; much much shorter sentences to start with; decriminalization of all the non-victim crimes; and starve corrections, don’t feed them. By that she means a moratorium on all new prison buildings. But she’s realistic: “Obviously, this society isn’t going to abandon prisons; they’re essential to our economy.”

As for Watergate, “it’s smashing from my viewpoint. I’ve always said the arch-criminal was Nixon. “How can you equate someone coming in your home and taking a TV with someone who spends $100 million to beautify his estate? There are 12,000 murders a year in this country, rather a bad scene. But how many murders did Nixon commit in a totally illegal war in Cambodia ?

“Even if he is impeached, he won’t go to the stir. He’ll probably get a lovely pension and live out his days in San Clemente behind that wonderful security fence you and I built,” Miss Mitford says, smiling ironically.

Miss Mitford says that she has no plans beyond her teaching stint at San Jose, which ends in January. “I’ll retire,” she says, unconvincingly. Right now, “after three years of being mired in prisons, I feel I’m on parole.”

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.