Robert Martinson’s Incarceration as a Freedom Rider

face of a prisoner

In 1961, Robert Martinson left San Francisco as a Freedom Rider. Upon reaching Mississippi, Martinson and his fellow Freedom Riders were incarcerated. The biographical blurb for Martinson(1972) states:

His interest in penology began when, as a freedom rider in 1961, he spent 40 days as an inmate in the maximum security unit of the State Penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi.

Sarre (1999) provides the same biographical detail. Martinson (1962) however, differs:

I joined the first California contingent which left San Francisco on June 17 {1961} and was arrested in Jackson, Miss., on June 22. I spent thirty-nine days in jail – a week in the Jackson city jail, two weeks in Maximum Security {at Parchman Penitentiary} and about a week in an all-white male dormitory.

This is a plausible account of a Freedom Rider’s movement through the Mississippi justice system. Martinson (1967) notes:

They {the Freedom Riders} had been given the maximum sentence for “breach of the peace” – four months and $200 fine. Mississippi law permitted release on appeal within forty days and few volunteered to stay longer. The average stay was a few weeks…

Whether in 1972 Martinson exaggerated his jail experience, or an editor misunderstood Martinson’s account of it, is not clear. In Hebrew and Christian scripture, 40 is a number associated with an alien place, trial, and suffering. Maximum security and state penitentiary are associated with harsh punishment. These details present Martinson’s incarceration as a formational experience.

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