Hugo “Yogi” Pinell (1945-2015)

September 3, 2015

From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters

On Aug. 12, Hugo “Yogi” Pinell (1945-2015) was killed in the California State Prison-Sacramento. Pinell was a comrade of George Jackson, W.L. Nolen, James Carr, and other founders of the modern prison movement. He was released from solitary confinement in 2014 after 45 years, the longest any state prisoner has spent in solitary.

Hugo Pinell in 1976 during his trial as one of the San Quentin 6 and in 2011, while still in solitary confinement.

Hugo Pinell in 1976 during his trial as one of the San Quentin 6 and in 2011, while still in solitary confinement.

At the time of the attack Pinell was the last one in a canteen line. He knew to watch his back and chose to be last. A guard allowed another prisoner to join the line after it was closed, and one more dashed in; these men were the killers. It was only after Pinell’s murder caused outrage among the prisoners that the so-called “riot,” reported by the mainstream press, happened in which others were injured.


After the attack some guards posted racist, hate-filled messages on social media. It has been reported that some held a party to celebrate the murder. California Department of Corrections (CDC) must bear most of the responsibility for Pinell’s death. The potential for an assassination was clear. Pinell had received death threats, yet the CDC insisted on placing him in jeopardy.

A statement by Luis Bato Talamantez, David General Giap Johnson and Willie Sundiata Tate read:

“We mourn the loss of our comrade brother, Yogi…The prisoners who did it acted as agents of the state. It comes at a time when prisoners are collectively trying to end decades of internal strife. Those who took his life have done a disservice to our movement; their actions served the cause of the same oppressor we fought against!”

The timing may not have been coincidental either. August is celebrated as Black August for the founding of the prison wing of Black liberation. It is an anniversary of the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes, as well as the 2012 Agreement to End Hostilities.

Yogi Pinell reflected recently on his life: “For me, it begins with the new W.L. Nolen in San Quentin in March in 1967, because I remember the old W.L. in Soledad, in 1963-64, when he was consistently messing up, as were most of us youngsters. Therefore, when the new W.L. greeted me in San Quentin, and he was handing me some literature and telling me about the Black Consciousness studies, the Self Reliant Principles of living, the Black Liberation Movement and the building of the New Man, he became my principal example because I noticed the positive and significant changes in him. He used Malcolm as our primary example of self-transformation and he felt that all of us brothers could make that same transformation…Most of us were very young, doing short sentences (supposedly), had been through the gladiator stations, Tracy and Soledad, and the time and place was right for self-change. We had the teachers, examples, the literature, the means and the opportunities, so it was up to us, how seriously devoted we would be toward real self-change…to join the liberation movement we had to understand the meaning of liberate and, to embark on a commitment to freedom, we had to do away with old ways, old habits, f—d up mentality, the club, homeboy set mentality and attitude.”

This discovery of revolutionary thought was part of a worldwide movement that was transforming the consciousness of oppressed people—workers, peasants, women, LGBTQ people, the disabled, the youth, the outcast. In turn, what these men created was an astonishing collective act that picked up on the developing racist backlash against the 1960s revolutionary movements and saw that the counter-revolution was going to strike its blows against the Black and Latino working class through mass criminalization.

The future of the historic Agreement to End Hostilities hangs in the balance. In the past, guards have been successful in setting prisoners against each other after the prisoners themselves started to cooperate. Will the guards’ divide and conquer strategy fail this time? One thing is clear: the young prisoners, who hadn’t been political before coming into prison, are getting radicalized by this.

—Urszula Wislanka, Gerry Emmett

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