Carceral Studies and Same-Sex Intimacy

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves.

Prisoners at Dade County Correctional Facility, FL (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)

Robert T. Chase’s book, We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America, offers an ambitious, deeply researched, and persuasive account of the Texas prison system in the period from the 1940s-1980s. Chase traces the rise of a new prison regime after WWII that incorporated highly profitable agricultural work—often on former slave plantations. The funds raised by this exploitative regime allowed the state to modernize and build facilities at very low cost, which made the Texas model attractive to other states, especially in other sunbelt states where prisoners could be coerced to pick cash crops. Chase traces how incarcerated people, influenced by the African American and Mexican American struggles for civil rights, developed a multifaceted challenge to labor exploitation. He argues that important legal victories, culminating in the landmark class-action case Ruiz v. Estelle, resulted from sustained activism by incarcerated people—many of whom forged coalitions across racial lines despite the unique obstacles posed by a segregated and violent carceral regime.

Chase combines an antiracist and antihomophobic theoretical apparatus with rigorous empirical research methods, including sixty personally conducted oral history interviews, which he has deposited at Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History for use by other researchers. His analysis of the “building tenders” system developed by post-World War II prison reformers—which produced “a hierarchical labor regime that constituted a vicious sex trade”—deserves to be read across the social sciences (9). And his contention that prisoners, particularly in the Ruiz case, “consciously called attention to sexual assault not as solely a mark of individual prisoner pathology but as a product of state orchestration,” has expanded historians’ understanding of activism by incarcerated people (155). In the third chapter, Chase provides one of the most in-depth accounts we have yet had of sexual violence among incarcerated men—a topic many historians of sexuality have touched upon but few have attempted to examine in depth, largely because of the apparent paucity of readily available manuscript sources. Yet Chase’s combing of state records and the massive archive produced by Ruiz proves it can be done. This analysis is rooted deeply in feminist scholarship on sexual violence against women, especially Talitha L. LeFlouria’s groundbreaking model for reading historical silences surrounding sexual violence against incarcerated women, and, to a lesser extent, Regina Kunzel’s work..

Chase suggests that fear and disgust toward same-sex intimacy was not only an effect of but an influence on the physical and cultural architecture of prison reform. But he goes much further, arguing, “The post-World War II shift to a new arrangement of cells over dormitories hid the extent to which Southern prison administration relied on state-orchestrated sexual violence” (103). In particular, this change “had the unexpected and unplanned effect of enhancing the power, prestige, and influence” of the small minority of prisoners who were designated as building tenders (103). Building tenders could move about the prison freely and could stockpile and resell commissary goods. Two other privileges—they could relocate other prisoners, and they were armed—were crucial to their control over what Chase argues was a vast, “vicious sex trade” inside Texas prisons (103). As one prisoner wrote in a 1981 affidavit, “The job of the ‘B.T.’ [building tender] is to do the job of the paid guard . . . They have complete control over the inmates. They use their authority to gain commissary from others, to get forced sex from others, to beat others as they wish. They are to keep us inmates ‘in line,’ so to speak” (112).

Chase’s chapter is filled with graphic accounts of brutal violence, emphasizing the hypocrisy of Texas officials for whom protective measures were almost always a shield used to hide violence. One head building tender claimed he used his power to shield first-time, young offenders from aggression and violence, but other prisoners under his charge told the court that he “and his lieutenants continuously robbed other prisoners, forced them to submit to homosexual acts and forced them to pay for protection” (120).

For historians of sexuality, there is much to chew on here. Kunzel devotes much of her chapter on sexual violence to the way in which it became the dominant narrative about prisons after the 1970s, one that obscured that sexual relationships behind prison walls could also be intimate, affectionate, and consensual (180-188). Chase, whose work benefits from more than a decade of subsequent scholarship on the carceral state, is attentive throughout his account to the existence of such relationships and devotes significant attention to gay men’s experiences of victimization. He offers, as well, a vivid analysis of a rare and precious early-1980s photograph of a multiracial group of young gay men gathered behind the bars of a “punk wing,” or protective custody unit for gay men. Such units, he argues, were “the only genuinely integrated space of the Texas prison system prior to the 1980s” (128). Chase also offers a brief but memorable discussion of Goree State Prison Farm, until 1975 Texas’s only state prison for women, which confined lesbians in an “aggressive homosexual” wing (152).”

And yet for all their overlap, there is a basic dissonance between Kunzel’s story and Chase’s. Where Kunzel argues carefully and persuasively that American culture since the 1970s has overemphasized sexual violence as the defining feature of prison life, Chase argues implicitly that historians of the carceral state have underemphasized it. Kunzel decenters the “story of black aggression and white victimization” (Kunzel, 170), pointing out that this narrative “erased the existence of white assailants and black victims” (180). Chase recognizes the existence of intimacy in passing but views predation as the fundamental dynamic at play. “Sexual violence suffused the cell blocks and working-class world of southern prisons during this period,” Chase writes (104). For Chase, this sexual order structured all prisons, involved all prisoners, and was scripted by the state and was inseparable from white supremacy. Black men and Chicano men could be building tenders, but in nearly all prisons only white men served as head building tender—a position at the apex of the prison’s social hierarchy (108-9). Head building tenders held extraordinary power to negotiate with wardens and even exert limited authority over white guards.

Chase touches on questions of sexual identity only fleetingly, and there are certainly places in his account where LGBTQ historians will find much in his rich material that is of interest, and in which they might be drawn to different elements than he is. For example, Chase notes that in 1936, a new prison classification system continued the racial segregation first mandated by the legislature in 1909. In the new system, African American and Mexican American prisoners were organized and housed by race, age, and whether the prisoner was a first offender or a recidivist. “White prisoners, however,” notes Chase, entered a much more complex classification system that assessed them on the basis of their physical ability, mental acuity, and sanity, drug addiction, and sexuality identity (“homosexual” or “heterosexual”). Young white men were worthy of separation from men classified as “homosexual” while black and brown men received no such protection” (39).

This extraordinary discovery raises questions about the state produced gayness as white, erasing the experiences of queer, trans, and nonbinary African Americans and other people of color. What might we find in the records of other states’ prison systems? The material here poses major questions that will be read with tremendous interest by scholars of LGBTQ history. Among many other conversations, we might productively read We Are Not Slaves alongside Thomas A. Foster’s account in Rethinking Rufus of sexual violence against enslaved men in the US. For scholars of the mid- and late-twentieth century, Chase’s book joins the growing body of work that “reconsiders the degree to which the path to mass incarceration was politically uncontested” (9).

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Timothy Stewart-Winter

Timothy Stewart-Winter is a historian of sexuality, gender, and modern US politics. His first book, Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (Penn, 2016), was awarded the 2017 John Boswell Prize by the Committee on LGBT History. He is now working on a book about Walter Jenkins, a longtime aide to Lyndon B. Johnson who resigned from the White House staff in 1964 after being arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Follow him on Twitter @timothysw.