Born to first generation parents of Eastern European Jewish parents, Mitchell spent his formative years in Newark, N.J. During these years, Newark was going through a sociological succession, whereby, African-Americans from the South were replacing the mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants from a generation or two before. As Mitchell turned ten, his parents realized their American dream of owning their own house in the suburbs. But even at this young age, Mitchell understood, at some level, what white flight was. This left an indelible image on him. His lifelong struggle for the rights of the oppressed and discriminated against is best understood in this context.
In high school, Mitchell excelled in academics and political/philosophical debate. He was president of the National Honor Society, starred in the senior play, played football and wrestled.
It took him three universities and six years to graduate from college (Rutgers) with a degree in English. During the next several years, he spent one year at Seton Hall Law School and earned a teaching degree from a New Jersey teacher’s college. He was working as a social worker in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when his mental illness was first diagnosed. He carried the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia through most of his adult life, only to be correctly diagnosed as bipolar during the last five years of his life. This is critical because he was unable to stop his schizophrenia medication due to the side effect of the tardive dyskiensia, which results when these drugs are no longer taken after years of use. In 1974, after, his third breakdown, his childhood friend Lenny Tischler invited him to visit. Lenny and his family were living in Silver Cliff, Colorado. Mitchell was to spend the rest of his life there. .
Custer County was arguably the most conservative county in Colorado. At the same time, a growing number of latter-day “hippies” who were fleeing the cities arrived in Custer County. As one would expect, confrontations were not rare. Mitchell became something of a “jailhouse lawyer.” He was dependent upon the director of social services for his disability check. He, nevertheless, relentlessly fought the director when she denied claims to his friends that he felt were deserved. He had so many of her decisions overturned that by the end of his life, she would occasionally seek his opinion.
In 1984, Mitchell married Lisa A. Schwartz who had moved to Custer County from Indiana. They had two girls: Natalie (1984), and Kate (1990). At the time of this writing, Natalie is living in Boston working for a Massachusetts State Representative of the 14th Middlesex District, and Kate is a sophomore at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. She is a guide on the Arkansas River during the summers.
During the mid-1980s, as the Custer County old guard continued to pressure the counter-culture types to leave, Mitchell and his friend Lenny wondered “…Who could we bring here that would bother them (the old guard) more than us?” The answer was African-Americans. Out of this tongue-and-cheek joke came one of the seeds that helped found the “Jazz in the Sangres” festival, which took place every August for nearly twenty years.
When the government announced plans to build prisons in nearby Florence in the early 1990’s, Mitchell immediately became involved in the incipient anti-prison industrial complex movement. To Mitchell, prisons were another aspect of American racism. Prisoners were disproportionably Latino and African-American from urban settings.
Prisons like those in Florence were far from the cities, making it much harder for prisoners' lawyers, friends, and families to visit them. Next, he learned about “the supermax” – prisons where prisoners were kept in tiny cells (6’x8’) for 23.5 hours a day. Before Florence, there was only one other in the country. By any rational definition, this was torture. Amnesty International agreed. Mitchell was beyond outraged that anything like this could exist anywhere, but to have one in his own backyard was totally unacceptable.
His response was to build an exact replica of a supermax cell and have the cell put on a trailer. He drove the “cell” around the state and spoke about the new prison to anyone he could get to listen. When one of my friends who had heard his presentation realized that Mitchell was my brother, he told me: “…Mitchell Kaufman, it was like being in a room with Che Guevara!” The intensity of this work drove him into his final bout of mania. He ended up in the state mental hospital against his wishes. The irony was complete. His work for prisoners led to his being a prisoner of a different sort.
After recovering, he returned home to Silver Cliff where he spent the rest of his life doing what he did best, raising his daughters. He died at the age of 54 from a reaction to one of his prescription medications.
(Written by Joel Kaufman, brother of Mitchell Kaufman)
From the guide to the Mitchell Kaufman Media Collection, 1970s-1993, (Colorado State University-Pueblo Library, University Archives and Special Collections, )
|creatorOf||Mitchell Kaufman Media Collection, 1970s-1993||Colorado State University-Pueblo Library, University Archives and Special Collections,|
|associatedWith||Aiyetoro, Adjoa A.||person|
|associatedWith||Earth First! (Organization)||corporateBody|
|associatedWith||Hinds, Lennox S.||person|
|associatedWith||Martinez, Rita J.||person|
|associatedWith||Pueblo Coalition Against Prison Repression||corporateBody|
|associatedWith||Southern Poverty Law Center||corporateBody|
|Place Name||Admin Code||Country|
|Mexican Americans--Civil rights|