Mass Incarceration and the Metaphor of Slavery

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

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In We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America, historian Robert Chase brings to life the prisoners’ rights movement in the Texas Department of Correction (TDC) from the 1960s-1980s. In the period after WWII through the the 1960s, Texas’ prison system transformed from one of the worst prisons in the South to one of most cost-effective and self-sufficient prison systems in the nation. This “modernization narrative” concealed the primacy of the “inmate trusty” system undergirding TDC’s lauded modernization. Endowed by TDC administrators to control and discipline inmates, building tenders—armed trusties in charge of the prison cells—operated an internal economy, selling and buying not only food and cigarettes, but also sex and bodies. The TDC prisoners’ rights movement exposed a range of brutalities conducted within Texas’s prison system, especially its reliance on the trusty system. The movement took multiple forms, but perhaps the most essential approach was its civil rights litigation campaign led by writ drafters and supported by external allies. This work resulted in Ruiz v. Estelle, an omnibus lawsuit filed in 1972 that brought down the trusty system by the early 1980s.

Chase has written a complex story, expertly told from a prodigious body of sources, including private papers, government documents and reports, oral histories, and newspapers. We Are Not Slaves is a work of comparative history and arguably, it presents a compelling case study of state racial capitalism, though it more explicitly engages the subfields of civil rights, Black Power, labor, gender, and sexuality history. As an interracial movement history, We Are Not Slaves expands the periodization of the civil rights movement beyond the mid-1970s. As a work of scholarship on prisoners’ rights, We Are Not Slaves effectively demonstrates the salience of the South to the larger national narrative on prisons, prisoner resistance, and mass incarceration.

While reading We Are Not Slaves, I grappled with Chase’s and the historical actors’ use of “slavery” to explain their own status within the TDC. While at no point does Chase argue that the conditions prisoners experienced in the TDC were the same as slaves in colonial and antebellum America, I wondered how we might appreciate how and why prisoners self-identified as “slaves,” without falling into a debate, though important, about the 13th amendment but instead foregrounding the geographical, spatial, and temporal dynamics of the historical process they called “slavery.” We know, as the late historian Ira Berlin explained in his classic Many Thousands Gone that there were “societies with slaves” and “slave societies.”

What does it this all have to do with Chase’s We Are Not Slaves and the prison system in Texas? As Berlin wrote, “time and space are the usual boundaries of historical inquiry.”1 While Berlin was explaining the different formations of three distinct slave societies in North America during the 17th and 18th centuries, I want to consider his argument to think about how distinct “slave societies” or perhaps “unfree societies” and different temporalities can overlap not only because of the traces of US chattel slavery in the present but also how memory—real or inherited—shapes how we understand and make sense of time. It also helps us consider how these temporalities and spatial terrains help us make sense of the limits of freedom. In We Are Not Slaves, Chase deftly provides a model to understanding the variety of experiences of those “made to wear unfreedom.”2 The prisoners’ references to “slavery” helped them understand the nature of their unfreedom but also how their condition constituted a slavery of a different kind. Taking the lead from the prisoners and their rights movement, Chase situates this story within the past of “slavery.” At the same time, he takes seriously the time and space of TDC, the trusty system, and building tenders’ internal economy to explicate why prisoners self-identified as slaves. Slavery is employed here by Chase and the prisoners’ movement both as historical referent and their own experience, yet still differentiating the latter from the former. The point here is to consider not only how “slavery” is used in We Are Not Slaves as two distinct spatial and temporal frames but also how they overlap. We Are Not Slaves articulates “slavery” and “slaves” generally in two overlapping ways: prisoners making their own experiences legible by referencing chattel slavery; and Chase’s own historical narrative as a rendering of the historical process. As a historian, he excavates the multiple modalities of the inmate trusty system, particularly the centrality of its most repressive mode, prison rape, as the fulcrum of prison slavery.

In We Are Not Slaves, these ways of knowing the temporal and processual dimensions of “slavery” often occupied the same space. Chase illuminates “slavery” as liminal space between the slave trade and prison slavery in the TDC through his analysis of geographic and temporal disorientation. Here, temporal disorientation describes prisoners’ sensorial confusion as they confront an othering experience that hearkens back to an unknowable, but somehow familiar time. Benny Wade Clewis, an African American prisoner incarcerated in 1955, described his initial journey to the TDC on a bus, as going back in time, akin to time travel. As Clewis remembered:

They had a long chain they would take and put, like you see back in slavery days, when they had those chains around they neck with the big hook . . . And they would run these chains through there and run 40 or 50 inmates, run them through all they necks. Then, they would handcuff you here and have chains here with a big ring through it. . .  Then, they’d bring another chain from that second loop there and hook it through your waist and hook it to that wall. Then, they would bring another chain and hook it down on the floor and put it around your legs through another ring. And that’s where you’d stay (105).

The ride alone was disorienting because TDC’s population had changed from predominately rural to urban in the post-WWII era, reflecting the increase of African Americans and Mexican Americans in urban areas (74). Their encounter with the rural landscape and the experience of being shackled to the wall, the ground, and other prisoners, reinforced this sensorial confusion.

Yet despite their references to slavery, prisoners described their own authentic experiences in a distinctive system of bondage. As We Are Not Slaves demonstrates, the shift from dormitories to cells created new spatial and hierarchical arrangements that fortified the power and control of prisoner trusties. As Chase explains, “the buying and selling of Texas prisoners constituted an internal sex trade where hypermasculine predators were given state sanction to deny men control over their bodies through vicious rape that rendered young men as ‘property’, ‘wives’, and as ‘slaves’” (104). This sexual violence took place within an institution built upon a foundation of white supremacy. All of the TDC guards were white and only whites served as the “head building tender” of a prison. Furthermore, building tenders only disciplined and controlled members of their own racial or ethnic group, except for white tenders, who had authority over everyone.

Nonetheless, prisoners of color also viewed whites as slaves. Accordingly, explained Clewis, “Those slave drivers [prison administrators] . . .  didn’t treat the white no better than he treated the black, you know. You was a convict, you know, and that’s what you were to him, whatever color you were.” (105-106). These shared experiences and the prison system’s carceral geography was not only conductive to consciousness-raising, but also to creating a groundswell of interracial organization and political mobilization (299). The “Eight Hoe” consisted of an interracial coalition of writ writers and the “peaceful riot” of 1978 involved six of the prisons’ fifteen units and approximately fifteen percent of the 29,000 prison population (308).

Chase’s We Are Not Slaves tells a multifaceted story of the often untold, or at the very least unacknowledged, resilience of bondage in the post-slavery and even post-civil rights eras. At the same time, We Are Not Slaves is also a story of the boundless capacity and resilience of humans—even the supposedly undeserved. The TDC prisoners’ rights movement is a template for all of seeking “freedom.” Using political protest, labor strikes, testimonies, and legal writing, they bear witness to their own humanity.

  1. Ira Berlin “Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on British Mainland North America” American Historical Review 85, no. 1 (February 1980): 44.
  2. Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 15.
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Shannon King

Shannon King is an Associate Professor of History and Black Studies at Fairfield University. He is the author of 'Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway?: Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro era' (New York University Press, 2015), winner of the National Council for Black Studies Anna Julia Cooper/CLR James Award for outstanding book in Africana Studies. Follow him on Twitter @KingShannon23.

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