“From Attica to the Texas work strike of 1978 to the most recent nationwide prison strikes in 2016 and 2018,” Robert Chase, associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, writes, “prisoners have offered a repeated historical refrain that prisoners are not slaves, that incarceration cannot deny people their right to humanity, and that coerced prison labor remains a constitutional fixture that requires a reconsideration of what constitutes prisoners’ civil rights.”
In this episode of “Rattling the Bars,” Eddie Conway sits down to talk with Chase about his latest book, “We Are Not Slaves,” and the often untold history of prisoner uprisings in the 1970s that expanded the scope and meaning of the civil rights movement in the US. Conway and Chase also discuss how the institutional response to these uprisings would pave the way for the prison-industrial complex we have today.
Texas’s prison system from the end of the Civil War to the 1980s used perhaps one of the clearest continuances of slavery, the prison plantation system. Prisoners were used for agricultural work and overseen by other prisoners using a structure that barely differed from the one used during slavery. The hard work of prison activists and a series of legal challenges in the 1970s and 1980s was able to remove this brutal vestige. However, neoliberal reforms left Texas with a system of intense state control, and outsourced the violence used to control prisoners to prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood.
As the civil rights movement changed the landscape of American society in the 1960s and 1970s, prisoners all over the United States were radicalized. Prisoners were both inspired by and leaders of the Black Power movement, the Chicano rights movement, and other social movements of the time. The activism of George Jackson, the Attica prisoner uprising (itself inspired by Jackson’s murder at the hand of prison guards) and a series of prison labor strikes all speak to this increased activism behind bars, including in the area of racial justice.
“As the Black power movement turns to Black liberation there is a deeper critique about the ways in which the prison system itself is a reproducer of relationships of racial inequality,” said Dr. Robert Chase, an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University and the author of the new book “We Are Not Slaves: State violence, coerced labor and prisoners’ rights in post war America.”
Prisoners are learning about their ties to world-wide liberation movements, studying the works of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist thinkers such as Frantz Fanon. “There is an intellectual transformation. Prisoners are creating a life of the mind; if you can’t escape your cell, you can escape by what you read,” said Chase.
Prisoners have turned to the courts to expand their rights. One of the first cases that broke the hesitation of federal courts to address the needs of state prisoners was Cooper v. Pate, in which the court allowed a prisoner the right to practice Islam and have access to a Quran in Illinois prison. This case did for prisoners’ rights what Brown v. Topeka Board of Education did for desegregation by creating a system in which prisoners could petition the federal courts for their own civil rights. This caused an increase in federal civil rights cases from prisoners from a mere 218 in 1966 to over 18,000 in 1984.
Within this framework of simultaneous court actions and activism behind bars, Texas prisoners began to challenge the ‘Prison Plantation’ system. Texas prisons, and many prisons in Southern states, were highly focused on work—particularly agricultural work. This stands in contrast to the more rehabilitative model that was employed in Northern states. According to Chase, this allowed Texas to create a mythology that their prisons were cheap, productive, and that their “control” method prevented uprisings like those seen in the rehabilitation models of California or New York.
In order to maintain this Prison Plantation model, Texas prison used building tenders. Building tenders were prisoners who were given power within prison systems to control the work of other prisoners. These building tenders were able to gain special privileges by ensuring other prisoners completed work. Building tenders often used brutal means to control worker output, including torture, and even conscripting prisoners into sexual slavery. They were allowed to run informal prison economies whereby they exercised a great deal of power over the life of every inmate under their control.
While Black and Mexican inmates did become building tenders, they were almost never given control over white prisoners. White prisoners, on the other hand, were able to advance to much higher positions of power in the prison, and were often given power that was almost comparable with the (almost exclusively white) prison guards. It is no coincidence that this system echoes the slave driver system, where some Black enslaved people were placed in positions of greater power, but still subject to white overseers.
Political dissent in Texas prisons was also dealt with harshly. Political prisoners and dissenters were often placed in “protective units” which were typically reserved for gay prisoners, in an attempt to make them less accepted by other prisoners, or even to make them the subject of sexual assault. They also would place white political prisoners in Black or Muslim units in an attempt at intimidation. However, these attempts often backfired; frequently, prisoners were able to find solidarity with each other, and inter-prison organizing flourished throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1979, Texas prisons became the battleground of the Ruiz v. Estelle case, one of the largest and most important challenges to prison conditions in the United States. The Ruiz case challenged many aspects of the Texas prison system, but specifically focused on the building tenders system. The courts ruled for the dismantling of this system in 1980, but it took several subsequent lawsuits (including one in 1997) to ensure its complete demise.
The end of the building tenders system coincided with the increase of the Texas prison population (climbing to 165,000 prisoners in the late 1980s) due to increased sentencing and the “war on drugs.” The Texas justice system ends up with the largest prison population, the highest number of executions, the highest rate of prison privatization, and the second highest rate of prisoners in isolation.
These two events, unfortunately, led to a different sort of brutality against Texas inmates. Prisons responded with a dramatic increase in state power and militarization of the penal system with the use of SWAT teams to enforce order, often in a brutal fashion. But they also responded by outfarming the internal work of violent prison regulation, which used to be done by the building tenders, to prison gangs, particularly the Aryan Brotherhood.
“After they win the prisoners’ rights lawsuit and the building tender system begins to be disassembled and the gangs arrive, I argue it’s a kind of neoliberalism with gangs,” said Chase, “The building tender system privileged white prisoners … after that system is disrupted, that’s disrupting white supremacy within the prison system … so the gangs, the Aryan Nations start to assassinate the prisoners who have been politicized … and prisoners made [the claim] that prison administration was working with Aryan Brotherhood, or at least allowing them free reign of violence, particularly when it was targeted against the more politicized prisoners.”
White supremacy within prisons did not end with the removal of building tenders; it merely morphed into a new violent system that upholds the same white power structure. “They built out of the ashes of the Prison Plantation model a new modernized system with outsourcing of violence [to gangs] and bringing in militarized systems of control and isolation,” said Chase.