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Robert Chase on the Prisoners’ Rights Movement

Robert chase photoRobert T. Chase is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York (SUNY). He is the author of the forthcoming book Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and Carceral States (UNC Press). He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Sunbelt Prisons and Carceral States: New Histories of Incarceration, Immigration Detention/Deportation, and Resistance (UNC Press). His work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of American History, and a chapter in the anthology The New, New South (University Press of Florida, 2012).

His article “We Are Not Slaves: Rethinking the Rise of Carceral States through the Lens of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement” appears in the June 2015 Journal of American History special issue on “Historians and the Carceral State.” It is freely available to the public.

Could you briefly describe your article?

My article asks historians to reconsider the conventional declension narrative that the national embrace of “law and order” politics in the 1960s and early 1970s foreclosed the possibility of meaningful political resistance against the carceral state. While political and social scientists have utilized a top-down and national lens to conclude that the construction of the carceral state faced very little political opposition, my article argues that when we shift the historical frame to consider instead regional, state, and local resistance by the prisoners themselves we need to rethink the claim that the carceral state went unchallenged.

The article offers a brief overview of the prisoners’ rights movement from 1965 to 1995. My essay demonstrates that in the American South thirty years of prisoners’ rights lawsuits and civil rights litigation yielded some great victories by fashioning a language of resistance that claimed that southern prisons, in particular, were explicit examples of twentieth-century slavery. This argument had the added physical reality that southern prison farms forced unpaid prisoners to toil on former plantations in racially segregated work-lines where they picked the cash crop of cotton, worked under white prison “bosses,” were controlled by armed convict guards, and faced routine corporal punishment and state-orchestrated sexual assault. By demonstrating the agency and voice of the prisoners themselves through oral histories, prison letters, and legal testimonies, this essay shows the ways in which prisoners successfully argued that spaces of criminal justice can also act as spheres of social justice.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?

This essay offers four historiographical interventions. First, it evaluates resistance to carceral states as the bridge between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1970s. In doing so, the essay demonstrates the ways in which the civil rights struggle continued well beyond 1968 while it also questions post–Civil Rights era declension narratives.

Second, by revealing the southern and southwestern prisoners’ rights movement, this article shifts the political geography of prison radicalism. Until recently, the historical narrative of the prisoners’ rights movement emphasized that prison activism was largely a late-1960s phenomenon that had a spectacularly violent end in 1971 with George Jackson’s death at the hands of California prison officials (August 1971) and New York’s Attica prison uprising followed by a state police reprisal that resulted in 39 deaths (September 1971). But rather than serve as an end to prisoners’ rights, the two decades after Attica witnessed a vibrant social, political, and legal coalition of prisoners, civil rights attorneys, liberal state politicians, and federal judges as well as Black Power and Chicano organizations. While most histories of prison radicalism look to the Northeast (New York, particularly) and the West (California), this article suggests instead that some of the most far-reaching successes of the prisoners’ rights movement in the aftermath of Attica occurred in the American South and southwest (Sunbelt states).

Third, my essay contributes to new political histories of state-building by suggesting that political histories of resistance to mass incarceration should adopt the lens of multiple prisoners’ rights movements and a variety of carceral states. Sentencing laws, indeterminate sentencing, parole, probation, prison labor, cell conditions, the granting of trustee powers and authority, racial segregation, mail censorship, access to legal material and attorneys, solitary and cell isolation: each of these control elements of the carceral state are determined by individual state laws and specific regional histories. To understand the gains and reverses of prisoners’ rights, historians and activists alike can reconsider its results in light of the fact that carceral states are products of what William Novak calls “horizontal” state-building rather than solely state-building projects at the federal level. Excavating this previously untold narrative of southern prisoner resistance reminds historians that regional histories, state laws, and internal control mechanisms of individual prison systems constructed a variety of carceral states and prisoners’ rights movements.

In my forthcoming book, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States, I draw on state-building literature centered on the “myth of the weak American state” to make the argument that there is not a single carceral state but a series of “carceral states.” This claim is only signaled in this short article but featured more centrally in the larger book project where I make the argument that we can’t effectively dismantle the “carceral state” until we grapple with the fact that a multiplicity of “carceral states” developed during the late twentieth century. My work suggests that regional histories are crucially important to this generation of historians, just as a more careful consideration of time and space had been for an earlier generation of historians charting the changing history of American slave societies over a variety of spaces and at different times (from “societies with slaves” to “slave societies”).

Finally, this essay contributes to new scholarship on the Chicano and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s by exploring the degree to which this movement made possible opportunities for inter-racial organization.

How can other historians best incorporate this work into their teaching?

When I started this research in the early 2000s, there were relatively few historical studies of twentieth-century prisons and almost none of the prisoners’ rights movement. Despite the development of a “long civil rights movement” historiography, I found that the literature simply did not discuss the ways in which what we now call mass incarceration has turned the gains of the civil rights revolution into another age of racial disparity.

Collectively, the articles in this special issue take up this absence by asking historians to place mass incarceration at the center of declension narratives for the late twentieth century. My contribution to this rethinking of post-1965 narratives is to demonstrate that the civil rights rebellion reached prisoners as well and that their collective efforts extend the struggle for civil rights into the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, my use of oral histories, legal depositions and affidavits, and courtroom testimony provides an example to students of the ways in which they can uncover the voice and agency of the prisoners themselves. Drawing on prisoner legal and social discourse demonstrates how a coalition of Mexican American and African American prisoners employed the prisons-as-slavery discourse to great legal and political effect in the American South. Finally, the successes of a southern prisoners’ rights movement demonstrate that the struggle over Jim Crow justice did not end with mid-1960s civil rights legislation.

How does your project speak to contemporary concerns about the carceral state?

This essay, which draws on my larger book project Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States, offers two important interventions to contemporary concerns over the carceral state.

First, historians need to explain how and why the vast expansion of state power as expressed in the massive prison buildup of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without much public debate. Conservative backlash theories have provided one such explanation, but locating the growth of the prison simply in reactionary “law and order” politics fails to adequately explain how it is that the places where the prisoners’ rights movement scored the most victories, namely the South and Sunbelt states, have come to dominate the major trends of the modern-day carceral state. The question of legal success for prisoners’ rights in the South, on the one hand, and yet nearly simultaneous massive prison build-up in Sunbelt states, on the other, is a major historical problem that my forthcoming book will address.

Second, the history of resistance to carceral states reveals that regional, state, and local histories are integral to the shape of mass incarceration. By demonstrating how a variety of prisoners’ rights movement resisted mass incarceration, I make the argument that regional histories and different state prison practices constructed not a single carceral state but a variety of carceral states across the American prison landscape.

When activists, policy makers, and reformers attempt to curb mass incarceration, they must seek redress not only at the federal level through national legislation but perhaps more importantly they must encounter the ways in which policing and mass incarceration are governed at the local and state level where the American state is indeed strong. One suggestion that my article and forthcoming book offer is that social justice movements against mass incarceration should continue to focus as much attention on changes in local and state government as the civil rights movement once did when it sought civil rights as a matter of national and federal intervention. To dismantle this encompassing thicket, we must utilize the spade of history to reveal just how deep we must cut to reach the roots of intertwining carceral states.