In many respects, Mark Cook is an unremarkable prisoner. He plays a lot of chess. He's taught himself more than a few things about the law. His political sensibilities lie firmly left of center. He has children on the outside. And, like many among the incarcerated, Cook keeps a plastic bag under his bed—just in case, he says, he decides to "hang it up in here."
That's where Mark Cook ceases to be unremarkable. He is a world-class chess player. He's authored lawsuits and worked as a researcher in law libraries. He helped create prison-based industries, establish job programs for ex-cons, and organize criminal justice conferences. With four years of college under his belt, he can fix computers, recount obscure history, teach math, and read Egyptian hieroglyphics. Less unremarkable still, Cook has been locked up for more than 22 years—even though he's never been convicted of murder, rape, or drug dealing.
A 62-year-old, hypertensive grandfather, Cook is Washington's only political prisoner. That, at any rate, is what his friends, family, and attorneys call him, along with human-rights advocates throughout the country. And that's what Cook feared he might become on March 10, 1976, when he shot and seriously wounded King County police officer Virgil Johnson while springing from custody a
fellow member of the George Jackson Brigade, a small band of Communists responsible for a three-year spree of bombings and bank heists stretching from Bellevue to Olympia. Cook was also convicted of participating in the botched robbery of a Tukwila bank that ended with the arrest of two brigade members and the fatal shooting of another.
Of the six George Jackson Brigade members convicted of serious—and primarily violent—crimes during the mid-1970s, Cook is the only African American. A latecomer to the brigade, and a minor player, he is also the only one still behind bars. "It's something that we all understood—that I would be the last one out, just because I'm black," Cook said last week from the Airway Heights Correctional Center, a few miles outside of Spokane. "There was no question in any of our minds that I would be the last one."
Such candor hasn't charmed the state's Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, which holds the key to Airway Heights' front gate. Next Wednesday, the parole board's three members will sit down with Cook and give him another chance to explain to them why he deserves to be a free man. The panel turned him down 14 months ago, remarking that Cook "still sees himself very much as he saw himself at the time of the crime—at war with the world around him."
The former Black Panther lieutenant and one-time Maoist's political views indeed remain sharp, but that's as far as Cook says he's willing to go. "I still believe in the philosophy of the working class looking out for the working class, but I don't think that violence is going to get people jobs. There has to be a real plan," he said on a videotape prepared for the parole board. "Violence is something I would avoid and counsel against. I'll stand on the sidelines."
Finding himself on the 50-yard-line of a violent political struggle that March day 22 years ago, Cook was in an unfamiliar position. He had been incarcerated four times before, serving a total of 16 years for several armed robberies and juvenile offenses beginning at age 15. But politics had nothing to do with those transgressions; they were about money, anger, disappointment.
When it came to politics, Cook had always gone the peaceful route. While serving in Walla Walla—where he was introduced to the Black Panther Party—he co-founded one of the first prison-industry programs in the state: an upholstery shop backed by a $250,000 Ford Foundation grant. After winning parole in 1973, Cook helped launch PIVOT, a program that hooked up former prisoners with employers. He also organized an annual seminar called CONvention, where furloughed and former prisoners, crime victims, judges, lawyers, and social workers gathered to discuss criminal-justice issues. He studied math and sociology at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, volunteered for the American Friends Service Committee, raised his daughter and three sons with wife Josephine (who later died), and clung to the edges of Seattle's militant political fringe.
That fringe included the George Jackson Brigade, named after a Black Panther killed during an escape attempt from San Quentin in 1971. The Seattle chapter—predominantly white, as were most chapters throughout the country—was forged by ex-cons Ed Mead and John Sherman, and prison-rights activist Bruce Seidel. Mead met Cook at a CONvention gathering, where he hooked up with prison-rights activists Rita "Bo" Brown and Therese Coupez. From March 1975 to December 1977, the Seattle Brigade robbed at least seven banks and detonated no fewer than 20 pipe bombs—mainly targeting government buildings, electric power facilities, Safeway stores, and companies accused of racism.
On January 23, 1976, the Tukwila branch of the Pacific National Bank was robbed by several armed men. In the ensuing shootout with police, Mead was captured, Sherman was wounded in the jaw, and Seidel was killed. A fourth man—later identified as Cook—fled in a car. Six weeks later, Cook met Sherman and a police escort as they walked out of Harborview Medical Center, where Sherman's gunshot wound had been treated. "I want your prisoner," Cook reportedly said to King County police officer Virgil Johnson before shooting him once in the abdomen. Cook absconded with Sherman, only to be arrested the following day. Johnson survived the bullet, though he underwent some 20 operations and retired from law enforcement. (Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.) Sherman remained on the lam for two years before his recapture.
State and federal juries each convicted Cook of three felonies—all stemming from the Pacific National Bank and Harborview incidents. Judges sentenced Cook to 30 years on the federal charges and two life terms (with 20-year minimums) plus 10 years for his state crimes. Cook left the federal system in 1993 but received no credit toward his state sentence for the 15 years he served.
Questions remain whether Cook was treated fairly when ordered to serve his state and federal sentences consecutively—not concurrently, as is customary when different jurisdictions file different charges stemming from the same incident.
Legal questions aside, parole board members will have to decide how much longer Cook will remain the sole George Jackson Brigade member sitting behind bars. Mead, a bank robber and prolific pipe-bomber, was released in 1993 after serving 18 years in state and federal institutions. Sherman, who later escaped—again—from a federal prison in California, was turned loose last year. Brown, Coupez, and a sixth member, Janine Bertram, are all free after serving four- to eight-year sentences. None has re-offended—a pledge Cook has vowed to keep when he is set free. "Everybody's past is indelible. You can't change it," he says. "As for my future, I think there is a lot I can contribute to organizations on the outside. And I want to give my grandkids and nieces and nephews the direction I never had. I'm 62 years old. I'm too old for militant politics."