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We Are Not Slaves: Rethinking the
Rise of Carceral States through the
Lens of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement

In November 1966 Fred Arispe Cruz sat naked in a darkened cell in the solitary confinement wing of the O. B. Ellis Unit in the Texas state prison system. Cruz was a frequent
visitor to solitary, but this particular stay seemed to him truly unjust, as the cause was the
guards’ discovery of a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his cell. Cruz had been a prisoner
in Texas since 1961, when he arrived at the Harlem Prison Farm on thirty-five-year- and
fifteen-year convictions for aggravated robbery. Within his first year as a prisoner within
the Texas Department of Corrections, Cruz continued legal work on his appeal and became one of the earliest inmate pioneers to learn law and act as a jailhouse lawyer. Texas
prisoners who acted as their own attorneys wrote appeals and writs of habeas corpus for
court-ordered intervention, seeking relief from what they argued were unjust and illegal
detentions.1
Among his fellow prisoners, Cruz was known as one of those “writ writers,” but among
prison administrators he was simply called an “agitator.” He became an avid student of the
law, mastering legal precedents, rules, and procedures, and his reputation among other inmates, particularly among Chicano prisoners and black Muslim prisoners, became such that
they sought him out for help on their appeals processes. As Cruz’s fame grew between 1962
and 1966, so did the animosity of his captors, who increasingly viewed him as a threat to the
prison system’s otherwise-comprehensive control and power. Prison administrators barred
Cruz, and any other writ writer, from keeping legal material in his cell, on the grounds that
it was illegal for any inmate to work on the cases of fellow prisoners. When Ellis Prison administrators found the Constitution in Cruz’s cell, they argued that the framing document
for American government constituted “legal material,” and they subsequently cast Cruz once
again into the darkness of solitary confinement. This action sparked a prison-made civil rights
Robert T. Chase is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University. The author would like to thank the
editorial staff of the JAH, and especially the special-issue editors—Heather Ann Thompson, Khalil Muhammad,
and Kelly Lytle Hernández—for thoughtful suggestions and editorial assistance. The author would also like to thank
Lori Flores, Donna Murch, and Eric Zolov for reading earlier drafts of this work and making valuable revision suggestions. Finally, thanks to Mia Brett for providing research assistance for this article. Many thanks to the William
P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, the Rutgers Center for Historical
Analysis, and the African American studies postdoctoral fellowship program at Case Western Reserve University for
providing postdoctoral fellowships that supported research for this article.
Readers may contact Chase at robert.chase@stonybrook.edu.
1
“Minutes of the Texas Board of Corrections,” meeting no. 3733, Nov. 27, 1966, November 1966 folder, box
1998/3813, Minutes and Meetings Files, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Records (Texas State Library and
Archives Commission, Austin.).

doi: 10.1093/jahist/jav317
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

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Robert T. Chase

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2
On “slaves of the state” and its establishment as a legal status of prisoners, see Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va.
790 (1871).
3
On the prison riots of the late 1960s and early 1970s, see Charles E. Silberman, Criminal Violence, Criminal
Justice (New York, 1978); Tom Wicker, A Time to Die (New York, 1975); and Bert Useem and Peter Kimball, States of
Siege: U.S. Prison Riots, 1971–1986 (New York, 1989). On prison radicalism in California and New York, see George
Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Chicago, 1970). On prison radicalism in New York and
California, see Dan Berger, “Prison Radicalism and the Long Shadow of George Jackson, 1960–2012,” in Sunbelt
Prisons and Carceral States: Incarceration, Immigration Detention/Deportation, and Resistance, ed. Robert Chase and
Norwood Andrews (Chapel Hill, forthcoming). Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of
1971 and Its Legacy (New York, forthcoming).
4
On prison uprisings’ upset of the sociological model of authoritative order, see James B. Jacobs, Stateville: The
Penitentiary in Mass Society (Chicago, 1977); Mark Colvin, The Penitentiary in Crisis: From Accommodation to Riot
in New Mexico (Albany, 1992); David B. Kalinich, The Inmate Economy (East Lansing, 1980); and John Irwin, Prisons in Turmoil (Boston, 1980). For a critical account of the California prisoners’ rights movement by a historian, see
Eric Cummins, The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement (Stanford, 1994), ix.

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movement that would challenge the emerging carceral state’s adherence to the legal and social principle that prisoners had no rights and were consigned merely as “slaves of the state.”2
Cruz may have been relegated to the deep solitary dungeons of the Texas state prison system, but he was certainly not alone. In the late 1960s and early 1970s prison administrators
became increasingly alarmed over a series of nationwide prison revolts inspired by the prisoners’ rights movement but seen by many in the press and cast by “law-and-order” politicians as
examples of lawlessness and violent criminality. There were five prison riots in 1967; fifteen in
1968; twenty-seven in 1970; thirty-seven in 1971; and forty-eight in 1972—the most prison
riots in any year in U.S. history. The cases gaining the most national notoriety, however, were
instances of state violence in California’s Soledad Prison and New York’s Attica Prison. While
writing Soledad Brother, the prisoner George Jackson became the “American Frantz Fanon,”
and his death at the hands of California prison authorities in the summer of 1971 elevated
Jackson as a cause célèbre by New Left activists outside prisons and a continuing source of
political mobilization among African American prisoners who looked to him as a martyr for
the cause of black liberation. Occurring only a month after Jackson’s murder, the September
1971 Attica Prison riot, in particular, alarmed the nation’s prison managers as nearly 1,300 of
the prison’s approximately 2,200 prisoners revolted and seized control of the prison, taking
thirty-nine corrections officers hostage for over four days. The Attica revolt ended in a bloody
police assault ordered by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller that resulted in thirty-nine deaths, including twenty-nine prisoners and ten corrections officers and civilians.3
This is where the traditional narrative of a concerted and politically aware prisoners’
rights movement tends to end, however. At the story’s apex are the death of George Jackson in August 1971 and the September 1971 assault by New York state police forces at
Attica; historians have generally cast those gripping moments as the last gasp of the prisoners’ rights movement before it was undone by mass incarceration and the era of “lawand-order” politics. Sociological studies of prisoner uprisings, for instance, tended to cast
the rising tide of racial unrest and demands for civil rights as threats to the tranquility of
an otherwise ordered and authoritarian prison community. Historians of the mid-twentieth century, meanwhile, hardly considered the prisoners’ rights movement. When historians have considered that movement during the 1960s, they summarily dismiss it as a
“naïve casting of prisoners as society’s potential leaders” and as “one of the fatal mistakes
leading to the demise of radical politics” in the world outside prison.4
Rather than serve as the denouement of the prisoners’ rights movement and herald the
beginning of post-1960s declension narratives, the tragedies at Attica and Soledad Prisons
instead inspired two decades of struggle by prisoners across the nation who demanded

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5
On drug laws and their contribution to the racial disparity of mass incarceration, see Julilly Kohler-Hausmann,
‘The Attila the Hun Law’: New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Making of a Punitive State,” Journal of Social
History, 44 (Sept. 2010), 71–95; Michael Tonry, Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America (New
York, 1995); Jerome G. Miller, Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System (New York,
1996); and Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York, 1999). Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley, 2007); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, 2012).
6
Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in
Postwar American History,” Journal of American History, 97 (Dec. 2010), 703–34. For legal and institutional histories
of prisoner litigation, see “Beyond the Ken of the Courts: A Critique of Judicial Refusal to Review the Complaints of
Convicts,” Yale Law Journal, 72 (Jan. 1963), 506–58; Steve J. Martin and Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Texas Prisons: The
Walls Came Tumbling Down (Austin, 1987); Chad R. Trulson and James W. Marquart, First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System (Austin, 2009); John A. Filter, Prisoners’ Rights: The Supreme Court and Evolving Standards
of Decency (Westport, 2001); John J. Dilulio Jr., ed., Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution: The Impact of Judicial Intervention on Prisons and Jails (New York, 1990); and Malcolm M. Feeley and Edward L. Rubin, Judicial Policy Making

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that institutions of criminal justice also act as spaces of social justice. This untold story of
a 1970s–1980s struggle over prisoners’ rights erupted in the courtroom and in the prison
courtyard through peaceful work strikes, civil rights protests, and efforts to turn prison
hostage situations into calls for media visibility to highlight the abusive conditions of
mass incarceration. During the late 1970s and early 1980s prisons experienced unprecedented levels of overcrowding due to drug laws and the punitive turn in sentencing.
Overcrowding worsened prison conditions, exacerbated racial tensions, and accelerated
state-orchestrated sexual and physical violence. To ameliorate these worsening conditions,
the prisoners’ rights movement developed a two-pronged strategy, using mass protest tactics alongside civil rights cases and class-action lawsuits to demand public visibility. The
movement asked the courts to reconsider how the state punished those who committed
crimes and reminded the public of prisoners’ humanity and their constitutional rights. In
all these cases, prisoners pushed to be seen and heard in a crucial national debate over the
growing power of America’s rising carceral state. Prisoners of the 1970s and 1980s understood the dangers of mass incarceration before many on the outside did.5
This essay takes up Heather Ann Thompson’s charge that historians must critically inquire
into how mass incarceration contributed to the declension narratives of the mid-to-late twentieth century. It does so by offering a brief survey of the southern prisoners’ rights movement
in the 1970s and 1980s, analyzed as a legal and civil rights struggle and as a social movement
drawing on the language and ideology of the black power and brown power movements.
While most studies of prison radicalism have typically looked to either California or New
York as the pioneering intellectual spark for prison rebellion, this essay shifts the terrain from
the West Coast and urban Northeast to the more rural American South and Southwest. Previous analyses have offered intellectual histories of the cultural production of prison radicalism
or offered top-down legal and institutional histories that focused on attorneys, prison administrators, and judges. Scholars have drawn on this work and turned to social histories to place
the prisoners and their grassroots social movement at the center of the struggle for prisoners’
rights. This essay builds on that narrative by returning the focus to the prisoners and by chronicling the prisoners’ rights movement through the lens of prisoner-initiated civil rights complaints and social protest. By demonstrating the agency and voice of the prisoners through
oral histories, prison letters, and legal testimonies, this essay shows how prisoners anticipated
the overcrowding of mass incarceration and tried to curb its growth while also furthering the
cause of civil rights by overturning the legal tradition of prisoners as slaves of the state.6
A series of prisoner resistance movements after the Attica uprising evolved into three
primary branches: a prison abolitionist movement of free intellectuals and protonationalist

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and the Modern State: How the Courts Reformed America’s Prisons (New York, 1998). On the cultural production of prison radicalism, see Joy James, ed., Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion (Lanham, 2003); and Dylan Rodríguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (Minneapolis, 2006). For works that place prisoners at the center of the struggle for prisoners’ rights, see Angela Y.
Davis and Other Political Prisoners, If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance (New Rochelle, 1971); Jamie Bissonette, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: A True Story in the Movement for Prison Abolition (Cambridge, Mass., 2008);
Christopher E. Smith, “Black Muslims and the Development of Prisoners’ Rights,” Journal of Black Studies, 24 (Dec.
1993), 131–46; and Ronald Berkman, Opening the Gates: The Rise of the Prisoners’ Movement (Lexington, Mass., 1979).
7
On revolutionary nationalist liberation politics as a metaphorical language of prisoner resistance in the California prisoners’ rights movement, see Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
(Chapel Hill, 2014). On prison unions in the South, see Donald F. Tibbs, From Black Power to Prison Power: The
Making of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union (New York, 2011). On the legal and social struggle surrounding prison overcrowding and the denial of prisoners’ rights, see Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of
America’s Prison Empire (New York, 2010), 252–85; Mumia Abu Jamal, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. (San Francsico, 2009); and Robert T. Chase, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States (Chapel Hill, forthcoming).
8
Angela Y. Davis, “From the Prison of Slavery to the Slavery of Prison: Frederick Douglass and the Convict
Lease System,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden, 1998), 74–95; Loïc Wacquant, “From Slavery
to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the U.S.,” New Left Review, 13 (Jan.–Feb. 2002), 41–60.
On the centrality of southern prison labor to the prisoners’ rights movement, see Robert T. Chase, “‘Slaves of the
State’ Revolt: Southern Prison Labor and a Prison-Made Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1980,” in Life and Labor in
the New, New South, ed. Robert H. Zieger (Gainesville, 2012), 177–213. On the culture and everyday life of prison
labor hierarchies during the Great Depression, see Ethan Blue, Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas
and California (New York, 2012). On unions and prison guards, particularly outside the South, see Heather Ann
Thompson, “Rethinking Working-class Struggle through the Lens of the Carceral State: Toward a Labor History of
Inmates and Guards,” Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas, 8 (Fall 2011), 15–45.

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African American prisoners that drew on international revolutionary liberation movements
against colonial regimes; a prison union movement that attempted to deliver the tactics of
labor mobilization behind bars; and a legal, civil rights, and social struggle over prison overcrowding and the denial of prisoners’ rights. Although each of these branches of the national prisoners’ rights movement managed to share sources of support, inspiration, members,
ideologies, strategies, and tactics, they remained state-by-state campaigns that were shaped
by geographical differences, regional histories, individual prison practices, and state laws.7
In the American South, thirty years of prisoners’ rights lawsuits and civil rights litigation from 1965 to 1995 yielded some great victories. Throughout the region the prisoners’ rights movement successfully demanded an end to racial segregation and the southern
practice of having fellow inmates act as guards while it also relied on the federal courts to
order states to alleviate prison overcrowding, improve inmate health care, and grant prisoners access to attorneys and legal representation.
Integral to the southern prisoners’ rights campaigns was a language of resistance that
claimed that southern prisons, in particular, were explicit examples of twentieth-century
slavery. Southern prison systems eschewed rehabilitative programs and any warehousing
practices that left prisoners idle. Hard agricultural labor structured southern prison life
and its attendant control regime. Southern prisons were therefore particularly susceptible
to legal and social movement claims that aimed to match the experience of southern (and
unpaid) prisoners toiling on former plantations and picking cotton with the historical
memory of slave labor. Moreover, in southwestern prisons, particularly in Texas, Mexican
American prisoners, inspired by the Chicano movement, saw that the conditions of southern incarceration left both black and brown inmates literal and legal slaves. This essay,
therefore, considers how geographical differences among carceral states shaped the discourses and outcomes of prisoner resistance. Excavating the prisoners’ rights movement,
considering its successes and the resistance it faced from the state, bridges historical discourses about American law, constitutionalism, policy history, and state building with histories of social justice struggles, civil rights, and black power and brown power critiques.8

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From “Slaves of the State” to Imprisoned Citizens: Rethinking Civil Rights, Legal
History, and Citizenship

9
Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 21 Grat. 790 (Va. 1871). For a legal history of the loss of citizenship rights by those
convicted of a felony, see Pippa Holloway, Living in Infamy: Felon Disenfranchisement and the History of American
Citizenship (Oxford, 2013). Cooper v. Pate, 324 F.2d 165 (1963); Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964). On the history of Cooper v. Pate, see Toussaint Losier, “‘. . . For Strictly Religious Reason[s]’: Cooper v. Pate and the Origins of
the Prisoners’ Rights Movement,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, 15 (nos. 1–2, 2013),
19–38. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). On the increase in the number of prisoner rights lawsuits between 1966 and 1984, see Annual Report of the Director of the Administrative Office of United States Courts for
each year. Jim Thomas, Prisoner Litigation: The Paradox of the Jailhouse Lawyer (New York, 1988), 61. On the ways
histories of struggle for national citizenship must also consider region, locally specific histories, and labor, see Evelyn
Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (Boston, 2002)
10
The prison systems in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas were all declared
unconstitutional. Georgia and Louisiana, meanwhile, had their principal maximum-security facilities under similar
federal court orders, and Florida had its entire system under court order. Virginia remains the only southern state
that did not have its prison system either declared unconstitutional or have its principal prison under federal court
order. Feeley and Rubin, Judicial Policy Making and the Modern State, 40–41. Nonsouthern states with limited prison-litigation cases include Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Vermont, and Wyoming. In New York, the

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At the heart of this untold narrative lies a debate over who deserved civic rights. This
debate represented a major shift in American constitutional law. Prior to World War II
the law considered inmates as slaves of the state, and courts at state and federal levels
maintained a “hands-off” doctrine of nonintervention regarding the conditions of state
captivity. The legal tradition that denied prisoners the ability to seek court-ordered intervention and relief has its origins in emancipation and the struggle over Reconstruction.
While the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the private ownership of human beings, it
expanded states’ control over the lives and work of convicted criminals. This expansion
was confirmed by the 1871 Virginia decision Ruffin v. Commonwealth, which ruled that
convicted criminals are “for the time being a slave of the State. . . . He is civiliter mortuus;
and his estate, if he has any, is administered like that of a dead man.” Beginning in the
1960s, prisoner activists turned to section 1982 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which allowed citizens to sue states in federal court for violations of their constitutional rights. In
their demands for constitutional protection, prisoners relied on the First Amendment’s
protection of free expression, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ due process clauses, and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The
1963 Illinois case over religious freedom for prisoners, Cooper v. Pate, found that prisoners could challenge the practices of prison officials in federal court. The 1964 Supreme
Court decision on the case ignited a nationwide civil rights movement for inmates, doing
for prisoners’ rights what Brown v. Board of Education had done for education and civil
rights ten years earlier. In the aftermath of Cooper v. Pate, the number of prisoners’ rights
suits dramatically increased from 218 in 1966 to almost 18,477 in 1984. Between 1970
and 1996 the number of prisoner civil rights lawsuits leaped an astonishing 400 percent.9
Thanks to federal cases such as Cooper v. Pate, as well as escalating prisoner activism,
southern state prison systems came under intense scrutiny after 1965. From 1965 to 1995,
federal courts found that eight of the eleven states of the U.S. South had unconstitutional
prison systems and ordered those state systems into federal receivership. Only four of the
thirty-nine states outside the South (Alaska, Delaware, New Mexico, and Rhode Island)
have been subject to a similar intervention from the federal courts. Individual prisons in
nonsouthern states did come under court order, usually due to overcrowding, but federal
courts declared few state prison systems outside the South unconstitutional.10

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legal efforts of Malcolm X. Sostre, a New York prisoner and black Muslim, centered on cruel and unusual punishment while in solitary confinement, his right to practice Islam, and his right to receive the political publications to
which he subscribed. Despite winning some valuable victories against New York’s effort to restrict religious freedom,
his cases did not result in the kind of class-action civil rights lawsuit that sent many southern prison systems into
federal receivership. Sostre v. Rockefeller, 312 F. Supp. 863 (1970); Sostre v. McGinnis, 442 F.2d 178 (1971); Sostre v.
Otis, 330 F.Supp. 941 (1971). Warren L. Schaich and Diane S. Hope, “The Prison Letters of Martin Sostre: Documents of Resistance,” Journal of Black Studies, 7 (March 1977), 281–300.
11
Gates v. Collier, 349 F.Supp. 881 (1972). On the “last vestige” of state-sponsored slavery, see Janine Robben, “Profiles of the Law: Lessons from Parchman Farm,” Oregon Bar Bulletin, Jan. 2007, https://www.osbar.org/
publications/bulletin/07jan/profiles.html. David M. Oshinsky, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (New York, 1996).
12
Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F.Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980).

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Behind many of these landmark cases was a network of outside legal organizations,
such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense
Fund (naacp ldf ) and the American Civil Liberties Union, insisting that the struggle for
prisoners’ rights could not be separated from the civil rights movement. When forty-five
freedom riders, including James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and John
Lewis, spent thirty-nine days incarcerated at Mississippi’s Parchman Prison Farm, the link
between civil rights and prisoners’ rights was forged. Following the well-publicized incarceration of freedom riders at Parchman Prison, the naacp ldf and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under the Law formed what became known as the Farish Street Lawyers Group. From the confluence of civil rights and prisoners’ rights came Gates v. Collier,
a 1972 civil rights lawsuit for the prisoner Nazareth Gates filed by the attorney Roy
Haber, who argued that Parchman Prison Farm was the “last vestige of state-sponsored
slavery.” The federal court that heard the argument eventually dismantled the southern
trustee system of Mississippi. Evaluating these cases as the bridge between the civil rights
movement of the 1960s and the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1970s demonstrates
that the civil rights struggle continued well beyond 1968; the cases also raise questions
about post–civil rights era declension narratives.11
Perhaps the most sweeping prisoners’ rights case coming out of the South during the
1970s and 1980s was the Texas prisoner class-action civil rights lawsuit Ruiz v. Estelle.
First filed in 1972, Ruiz v. Estelle was the culmination of an almost decade-long struggle
between keeper and kept. It was a massive omnibus lawsuit demanding that Texas outlaw the practice of having inmates act as guards, and ordering the state to alleviate prison
overcrowding, improve inmate health care, and grant inmates access to attorneys and
legal representation. Central to the case, however, was the southern practice of dividing
prison labor between those inmates who worked in the field and a group of select inmates
who served the prison administration as convict guards, known as trustees or building
tenders. The building tender (inmate trustee) system was a hierarchical labor regime that
constituted a system of violence and domination relying on the economic incentives and
deterrents of an internal prison economy, acts of sexual violence, and the power of racial hierarchy and brute physical force to maintain control, order, and discipline. It constructed a vicious sex trade in which building tenders were given the prison administration’s tacit approval to use their power to rape other inmates and engage in the buying
and selling of inmate bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and
societal power.12
Building tenders drew their ranks from a racially segregated prison society, in which
members of any of the three major racial classifications—blacks, whites, Mexicans—could
become a building tender. White inmates, however, ruled the hierarchical building tender

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“Slaves of the State” Revolt: The Slavery and Convict Lease Discourse as Prisoner
Mobilization
“Arise, arise, Strike! For your lives and liberties. . . . Let every SLAVE on the . . . SLAVE
CAMP do this and the days of the Slave Holder are numbered. . . . You cannot be more
oppressed than you are. You cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Let
OUR motto be: Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!” Such words of resistance came not
from antebellum abolitionists or a group of rebelling enslaved peoples but instead from
a political pamphlet by the prisoner and Black Panther John Eduardo Swift, who was
embroiled in the struggle over the U.S. prison regime during the mid-1970s. Swift was
one of many prisoners who mobilized a grassroots movement to actively assist the legal
campaigns against abusive Texas state prisons through self-defense, work strikes, and a
system-wide letter-writing campaign to judges, state legislators, the governor, the media,
and civil rights attorneys to bring visibility to the cause. Swift wrote the tract to call
Texas prisoners to the movement, but he was not alone in his efforts. Other groups, including the Prisoners Solidarity Committee of Texas, Prisoners United, the First Inmate
Reform Strike (first), the JailHouse Lawyers Association, and Allied Prisoners Platform
for Legal Equity, joined the movement.14
13
Michael Jewell to Chet Brooks, Michael Jewell folder, box 1999/136-21, Records of Chet Brooks (Texas State
Library and Archives Commission).
14
For John Eduardo Swift’s mobilizing pamphlet, see Inmate Correspondence and Writings 1973–1974 folder,
box 2004/016-55, General Counsel’s Office Ruiz Litigation Case Files, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Records.

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system in serving as lead building tenders: inmates with comprehensive power that derived
from close working relationships with a top prison administrator. The prisoners’ rights
movement hoped to highlight, however, that the occurrence of state-orchestrated prison
rape was accelerating because inmate trustee-guards were waging a social war of escalation
with prisoners of color who rebelled against a white trustee–ruled prison. In a letter to Texas senator Chet Brooks the prisoner Michael Jewell explained how the accelerating power
of inmate trustees created an atmosphere of sexual violence. “Every time I leave my cell,”
he warned, “I do so with the feeling that I’m entering a jungle, and the beasts could spring
from behind any bush. The building tenders here have created a situation wherein one cannot feel safe, where tension is so thick you can drive nails into it, where there is no peace,
nor freedom from fear. We simply cannot live under such conditions.” When viewing such
experiences through the lens of prisoners’ rights and civil rights, historians should reevaluate prison rape as more than an expression of an individual’s coercive power. By drawing
on the voice of prisoners through legal testimonies and oral histories, historians can bring
to light prisoners’ claims that prison rape was a hidden but calculated political tool of the
state used to silence the prisoners’ rights movement and ensure comprehensive control.13
Ruiz v. Estelle, which addressed state use of abusive convict guards, was at that time
the largest and longest civil rights case in the history of American jurisprudence. The trial
convened in October 1978 and adjourned in late December 1980, when Judge William
Wayne Justice ruled in favor of the prisoners and declared the Texas prison system unconstitutional. At the heart of the case was a major shift in constitutional law and legal
history. Ruiz v. Estelle also represented a social movement struggle over the internal and
often-hidden world of prison society and its attendant powers of sexual rapaciousness, racial hierarchy, physical abuse, and prison labor.

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June 2015

Outside the South, the discourse that prisons constituted slavery was a metaphorical organizing principle that condemned the entire prison system as a form of American
apartheid challenged only by rallying African Americans to the prison abolitionist cause.
In nonsouthern states—particularly California, Illinois, and New York—black prisoners formed organizations and printed underground newspapers, hoping that the slavery
discourse might galvanize African Americans across the nation toward collective action.
In Illinois, for instance, the New Afrikan Prisoner Organization was established in the
aftermath of prison uprisings at Stateville Correctional Center and the state penitentiary
in Joliet, while in California the San Quentin Six—those men charged with the deaths
of three guards and two prisoner trustees on the day of George Jackson’s death—also employed the prisons-as-slavery discourse.15
Across the American South, however, the charge that prisons constituted twentiethcentury slavery had the added physical reality that southern prison farms forced unpaid prisoners to toil on former plantations in racially segregated groups to pick cotton
under the supervision of white prison “bosses” and convict guards, and the prisoners faced routine corporal punishment and state-orchestrated sexual assault. While the
black power movement outside the South lit fire to the charge that African Americans
went from the “prison of slavery to the slavery of prison,” in Angela Davis’s words, prisoners in the South underwent a distinct geographical imprisonment that made their
15

Berger, Captive Nation, 177–222; Losier, “‘. . . For Strictly Religious Reason[s].’”

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In this 1978 photo David Resendez Ruiz leaves federal court during the proceedings for Ruíz v. Estelle, 503 F.Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980). Courtesy Alan
Pogue.

Rethinking the Rise of Carceral States

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16
James, ed., Angela Y. Davis Reader, 74–95. On labor’s centrality to Southern prison regimes, see Chase, “‘Slaves
of the State’ Revolt.”
17
“first Edition 1981, March, Critique of the Estelle Program,” 1981 folder, box 1998/038-60, Assistant Director for Special Services Files, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Records.

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legal condition as slaves of the state a visceral indictment against southern prison practices. Southern prisoners’ rights campaigns, therefore, sought a strategy that drew upon
metaphorical discourses and applied them to the physical geography of southern prison
farms to frame contemporary incarceration as the living legacy of slavery bound by regional and historical practices that applied equally as well to the enslaved and the incarcerated.16
Throughout Texas, a series of political prisoner organizations formed and adopted a
similar language to construct a counternarrative to the southern prison modernization
success story; these organizations spoke of a “backwards” prison system tied to slave
practices, racial brutality, and plantation labor. References to prison as a “slavocracy”
littered prisoner letters, which explicitly called attention to unpaid prisoner work as
slave labor. In one tract, “Ally or Die,” a proclamation was issued to fellow “members
of a totally enslaved class” within which “we are total slaves inside and disenfranchised
wage-slaves outside.” In another pamphlet, first issued a call to all prisoners, “Blacks,
Browns, Yellows, Reds, Whites,” and “gays and straights,” to “rally the support of families, friends, sympathizers, legal and political groups” to initiate a system-wide prison
work strike against “the slave plantation.” The Prison Solidarity Committee also sent
out a handbill, “Texas Prisoners Resist Texas Slave System,” charging that the conditions of imprisonment in Texas “are the prison conditions of a century ago, of the pre–
Civil War era. . . . It is scarcely what a reasonable person would expect to find in 1978
with a reputation for modern methods and proud structures.” The handbill mocked the
southern prison claims of modernity, stating that “the distance from the prison farms
of East Texas to the nasa Space Center is greater than the distance from the Earth to
the Moon.”17
As these passages suggest, the universality of prison abuse in the American South allowed prisoners of non–African American dissent, particularly Chicano prisoners, to
share in the discourse that southern prisons created modern slavery. From 1973 to 1980
the number of Mexican Americans in Texas prisons more than doubled, from 2,442 to
5,168. In view of this shared criminalization of people of color, many Chicano prisoners
drew on the Chicano movement—or, as George Mariscal termed it, “El Movimiento”—
and understood that the conditions of southern prisons created a common experience
with African Americans. Following his 1972 release from prison, Fred Cruz announced
in the Chicano newspaper Papal Chicano the formation of the Texas Jail and Prison Coalition. Led by Cruz, the coalition aimed to unite those outside of prison and those still
in prison for a statewide lobbying effort at prison reform. He hoped to link the black
and brown coalition behind bars to the wider Chicano movement out on the streets. In
his appeal to Chicano readers, Cruz promised to help launch a statewide effort “to bring
about a humane prison system based on justice, tempered with mercy and compassion,
that will give men hope for the future.” Salvador Gonzalez, Cruz’s childhood friend, fellow prisoner-activist, and leader of the Prison Solidarity Committee, spoke directly to
Chicano prisoners’ common cause with the history of racial oppression against African
Americans. “What is really happening in this prison,” Gonzalez charged, “society refuses
to believe because they really believe in a humane world. . . . No one wants to be enslaved.

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To be powerless, to be subject to the arbitrary exercise of power, to not be recognized as
a human being, is to be a slave . . . an object, a number, a thing, or worse a no-thing.”18
For Alvaro Hernandez Jr., an organizer of the 1978 system-wide prison strike, the
fact that black and brown prisoners collaborated and remained nonviolent in their cause
showed that victory for the prisoners’ rights movement was finally within reach: “Remember one of the objectives was to show the public our humanity. To show the public
that hey, we’re not animals. . . . Should we tear this place down? Should we try to take
it over? . . . We’ll just sit—we’ll riot peacefully.” This black-brown coalition of prisoners
defined themselves collectively as “slaves” and saw their incarceration on southern prison
farms as a moment of literal and legal enslavement. By adopting a lens that views prisons
as a legalized form of twentieth-century state enslavement, historians can reevaluate how
black-brown coalitions formed around the shared predicament of criminalization and
mass incarceration.19
In other parts of the South, prisoner mobilization campaigns expanded the slave resistance discourse to include modern struggles over the history and collective memory of the
convict lease. During the mid-1970s Tennessee prisoners filed a series of lawsuits against
the Tennessee Department of Corrections based on claims of overcrowding, filthy and
18
1980 Annual Statistical Report, Ruiz Discovery–Crowding folder; box 2004/016-31, General Counsel’s Office Ruiz Litigation Case Files, ibid. George Mariscal, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano
Movement, 1965–1975 (Albuquerque, 2005). On Chicano prison mobilization, see Juanita Díaz-Cotto, Gender,
Ethnicity, and the State: Latina and Latino Prison Politics (New York, 1996); R. Theodore Davidson, Chicano Prisoners: The Key to San Quentin (New York, 1974); Joan W. Moore, Homeboys: Gangs, Drugs, and Prison in the Barrios
of Los Angeles (Philadelphia, 1978); Alan Eladio Gómez, “‘Nuestras Vidas Corren Casi Paralelas’: Chicanos, Independentistas, and the Prison Rebellions in Leavenworth, 1969–1972,” in Behind Bars: Latino/as and Prison in the United
States, ed. Suzanne Oboler (New York, 2009), 67–96; and Robert T. Chase, “Self Taught, Cell Taught: Urban Chicanos in Rural Prisons,” Journal of Urban History, forthcoming. “Pagina de Fred Cruz: Remember the Prisoners,”
clipping, Papal Chicano, June 1–7, 1972, Issues of Papal Chicano and Assorted Newspapers folder, box 94/042/1,
Frances Jalet-Cruz Papers (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Austin, Tex.). Salvador Gonzales to Senator
Chet Brooks, July 29, 1973, box 1981/217-93, Records of Senator Ron Clower (Texas State Library and Archives
Commission).
19
Alvaro Hernandez Jr. interview by Robert T. Chase, March 23, 2007, digital recording and transcript, Civil
Rights in Texas Prisons Project (Institute for Oral History, Baylor University, Waco, Tex.).

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This photo shows Texas prisoners picking cotton in 1968. Such widespread agricultural stoop
labor by inmates was virtually eradicated in the South by 1995. Courtesy Bruce Jackson.

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83

20
“House Votes to Put Prisoners in Stripes,” Tennessean, May 1, 1984, p. 1; “Earlier Prison Problems Left Unresolved,” ibid., July 7, 1985, p. H1; “State Prisons’ Rate for Death by Violence Highest in Country,” Nashville Banner, Nov. 2, 1985. Grubbs v. Bradley, 552 F.Supp. 1052 (M.D. Tenn. 1982). “Inmate Killed after Tennessee Prison
Riots End,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 1985, p. A8.
21
“Inmate Killed after Tennessee Prison Riots End.”

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unsanitary living conditions, and physical abuse and rampant violence. Such deplorable
conditions, the prisoners claimed, violated the Eighth Amendment’s protections against
“cruel and unusual punishment.” Two years after the Ruiz v. Estelle decision the Tennessee trial court ruled against the Tennessee Department of Corrections in the prisoner civil
rights suit Grubbs v. Bradley. Despite their victory, however, Tennessee prisoners experienced a period of intransigence as Gov. Lamar Alexander’s “Plan for the 80s” offered a
“law-and-order” approach that passed tougher sentencing laws, sending more and more
prisoners into a vastly overcrowded system. When the state legislature in 1985 decided to
change its prisoners’ uniform from blue denim to a striped material that harkened back
to the era of convict lease, the inmates revolted, gathered their retroconvict uniforms,
burned them, and engaged in a system-wide prison uprising that resulted in a hostage
situation similar to the one that Attica Prison inmates had created in 1971. The legislature
and Governor Alexander insisted on these prison uniforms as a “law-and-order” fusion of
the new “get-tough-on-crime” approach and the old public imagery of convict lease, even
though the Tennessee Department of Corrections opposed the striped uniforms “because
it is associated with the old Georgia chain gang.”20
During the 1985 Tennessee state prison hostage crisis, however, prisoners avoided the
bloodbath that Attica prisoners had experienced. The Tennessee prisoners offered to return
their hostages peacefully in exchange for the opportunity to have a live television news conference so that prisoners could make the public aware that the state was ignoring federal
court orders. As the prisoner Mike Garrard repeatedly reminded the press, “Do you remember when this court situation began? 1975. . . . Yet it’s the same rhetoric, and the prison
system hasn’t improved despite winning the 1982 lawsuit.” “It wouldn’t blow up all over the
state unless something was drastically wrong,” the inmate Mike Phillips agreed. One sign in
particular connected the southern prisoners’ rights movement to northern resistance, while
also reminding the prisoners and their keepers to learn from the tragedies of the past. The
hand-painted sign, done in sharp yet dripping red letters on a large cloth spread over the
front of the prison, offered a simple but poignant admonition: “Remember Attica!!”21
Even when some prisons erupted in seemingly nihilistic riots, the causes of prisoner violence centered on two countervailing forces bound up in the struggle over prisoners’ rights.
Perhaps the most disquieting example is the February 1980 uprising at the New Mexico
State Penitentiary in Santa Fe. During that tumultuous riot, prisoners took twelve officers
hostage and engaged in a sadistic frenzy of rape, murder, and torture of fellow inmates
that resulted in the death of thirty-three prisoners. While the riot is a disturbing example
of prison violence, historians must contextualize it as a response to the legal struggle over
prisoners’ rights, on the one hand, and the worsening of prison conditions, on the other.
Following a 1976 collective prison work strike, officials at the New Mexico State Penitentiary initiated a divisive and dangerous surveillance program known as “snitching,” which
rewarded inmate informants with better housing, improved classification, furlough and
parole, and sometimes cash and drugs. When a prisoner refused to be an informer, however, prison officials threatened punishment by giving them a “snitch jacket,” which endangered their lives in falsely marking them as an informant to the general prison population.

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June 2015

Snitches, meanwhile, routinely made false allegations to gain state rewards. Desperate to alleviate “snitching” and prison overcrowding, the inmate Kevin Duran, a civil rights movement veteran and an anti–Vietnam War protestor, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the
prison system. In 1977 his legal efforts were combined with those of the American Civil
Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. The result was a federal consent decree, Duran v.
Apodaca, meant to alleviate poor prison conditions. State prison officials resisted the decision, however, and the “snitch” system and prison overcrowding continued unabated. Even
the nation’s most disquieting prison riot must therefore be placed within the historical context of the struggle over prisoners’ rights and the encroachment of mass incarceration and a
more punitive prison. When viewing the Santa Fe riot in hindsight, Duran aptly surmised,
“We all knew something was bound to happen. The state was moving too slow.”22

The Prisoner Litigation Reform Act and Silencing Prisoners’ Rights
The thirty-year era of federal court intervention on behalf of the prisoners’ rights movement came to an abrupt end in 1995. In the wake of the “conservative revolution” of
1994, Senate majority leader Bob Dole and Arizona senator John Kyl introduced the
Prison Litigation Reform Act (plra) to “discourage frivolous and abusive prison lawsuits,” restrict the power of “liberal Federal judges,” and return control of the prisons
to “responsible parties”—that is, state governments. Once passed in 1996, the plra restricted the power and scope of federal intervention by significantly lowering plaintiff
attorney fees and by limiting the court’s involvement to only two years. By stipulating
22
Duran v. Apodaca, CIV-77-721-C (D.N.M. 1980); Colvin, Penitentiary in Crisis, 117–19, 125–26, 138, 170;
“Duran Warned State Pen Was a Time Bomb,” Albuquerque Journal, Nov. 9, 1997.

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The Tennessee prisoners shown here are holding a press conference to publicly air their grievances in exchange for peacefully ending the July 1985 state prison uprising. Courtesy Nashville
Public Library.

Rethinking the Rise of Carceral States

85

23
Margo Schlanger, “Inmate Litigation,” Harvard Law Review, 116 (April 2003), 1555–706, esp. 1559–60n13,
1649. Prison Litigation Reform Act, 110 Stat. 1321 (1995). Matthew T. Clarke, “Barring the Federal Courthouse to
Prisoners,” in Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor, ed. Tara Herivel and Paul Wright (New York, 2003),
301–14. For Tom DeLay’s statement, see Michelle Mittelstadt, “Rider Would Limit Court in Prison Cases,” Austin American Statesman, Nov. 21, 1997. On prison litigation after the Prison Litigation Reform Act, see Schlanger,
“Inmate Litigation”; Brian J. Ostrom, Roger A. Hanson, and Fred L. Cheesman, “Congress, Courts, and Corrections: An Empirical Perspective on the Prison Litigation Reform Act,” Notre Dame Law Review, 78 (no. 5, 2003),
1525–60, esp. 1531; and Derek Borchardt, “The Iron Curtain Redrawn between Prisoners and the Constitution,”
Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 43 (Winter 2012), 469–520.
24
Alicia Frezia-King to Robert T. Chase, Dec. 5, 2008 (in Robert T. Chase’s possession). On the brutality of northern prison systems and the need for civil rights cases to address that brutality, see Heather Ann Thompson, “Blinded
by a ‘Barbaric’ South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of Penal Reform in the Postwar United
States” in The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, ed. Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino (Oxford, 2009), 74–98.

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that relief in a civil action should “extend no further than necessary,” the act severely
curtailed the power and scope of federal intervention. The plra required prisoners to
exhaust “such administrative remedies as are available,” which meant that they had to
file a formal grievance within the prison and lose all their appeals before they could petition the federal court. It also restricted in forma pauperis, which had previously allowed
inmates to file a civil rights complaint without paying the associated (sometimes costly)
fees. Thus, the legislation carefully aimed at limiting a prisoner’s ability to file a civil
rights complaint as comprehensive as Ruiz v. Estelle. Since the passage of the plra, the
number of prisoners’ rights lawsuits nationwide has fallen 43 percent while the nation’s
prison population has increased 23 percent. If Texas writ writers had labored under such
a restrictive law, prisoners such as Fred Cruz, who filed many unsuccessful writs before
being heard, would have been silenced. Indeed, when speaking on behalf of the Prison
Litigation Reform Act, Speaker of the House Tom DeLay promised that “Texas should
be in control of its prison system, not a federal judge.”23
Despite this congressional reversal, between 1965 and 1995 the prisoners’ rights movement successfully advanced the claim that prisoners were not slaves. In the South this
movement eradicated the southern prison farm, racial segregation, the trustee guard system, and agricultural stoop labor. Gone were the southern prison’s public images of slavery,
the chain gang and convict lease, plantation field labor, and inmate charges of brutal sexual
and physical abuse at the hands of the southern trustee system. In short, nearly all the aspects that made the prisons of the South uniquely southern were dismantled after 1985.
Since the Ruiz v. Estelle decision Texas has held more prisoners in private prisons than any
other state: 18,720 in 2006. This suggests that the turn to privatized prisons in the American South may have been one way for state legislatures to circumvent the power and oversight of federal courts. Indeed, the prisoners’ legal and labor protest strategy had implications beyond the South, particularly in the sun belt but also in the North, as prisoners’
rights suits expanded in the mid-1980s beyond southern labor conditions and looked to
the ways prisoners across the nation were entitled to constitutional protection. By focusing
on prison overcrowding, internal systems of abusive control and surveillance, religious freedoms, health care, and better access to the law, the prisoners’ rights movement attempted
to curb the punitive effects of mass incarceration. Reactionary and conservative politicians
at the national level responded to the successes of the prisoners’ rights movement by passing the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which made lawsuits such as Ruiz v. Estelle nearly impossible to duplicate. Nevertheless, histories of prisoner resistance and the concurrent construction of carceral states must attempt the difficult task of disentangling geographies that
create temporal variety and strategies of resistance bound to the physical reality of region.24

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June 2015

By looking for political debate over mass incarceration through a top-down national
lens political and social scientists have concluded that the rise of the carceral state faced
very little political opposition. When the historical lens shifts from national political debate over prisons to consider instead regional, state, and local resistance by prisoners—
specifically their legal activism and prison protests between 1965 and 1995—historians
will need to rethink the claim that the carceral state went unchallenged. These histories
of multiple prisoners’ rights movements reveal that there was a great legal, political, and
social struggle that sought to check and challenge the construction of carceral states. This
branch of the prisoners’ rights movement was ultimately stifled by political calculations
made by reactionary conservatives who used the power of the national legislature to return the control of prisons to state legislatures and thereby weaken federal judicial intervention for prisoners’ rights in individual states. Nonetheless, a full accounting of the rise
of the carceral state must look at how prisoners sought to counter the rising tide of mass
incarceration. Continuing this research and excavating multiple histories of prisoner resistance might well offer a path to confront the ways a variety of carceral states have taken
such deep root across American politics and society.25
25
For an overview of political and social science literature that claims that the rise of the carceral state faced
very little political opposition, see Marie Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in
America (Cambridge, Eng., 2006).

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Displayed during the 1985 Tennessee state prison uprising, this hand-painted sign
connected the southern prisoners’ rights movement to northern resistance and
served as a poignant historical admonition. Courtesy Nashville Public Library.

 

 

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