Prison Policy from the Bottom Up

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

Protest outside of the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, February 2019 (a katz / Shutterstock.com)

We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America is a stunning work of history. Drawing on a rich body of sources including lawsuits, internal prison documents, and an impressive 100 oral histories, Robert Chase demonstrates how an interracial movement of imprisoned people dismantled Texas’s brutal plantation model of punishment, which was rooted in coerced labor, sexual violence, and racial hierarchy. To accomplish this feat, imprisoned activists deployed a two-pronged strategy focused on direct action protest and constitutional rights litigation. At the center of Chase’s narrative is the class-action lawsuit Ruiz v. Estelle filed in 1972 by self-taught “jailhouse lawyer” David Ruiz.

In 1980, Judge William Justice of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas issued a sweeping 118-page decision (the Ruiz ruling) that the “totality of conditions” in Texas’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. But the victory was bittersweet. Chase suggests that “at nearly the same moment” imprisoned people dismantled Texas’s prison plantation “the rising tide of mass incarceration erected a new and much larger prison regime defined by militarized policing tactics, gang intelligence, prison overcrowding, privatization, the super-maximum prison, and the onset of violent prison gangs” (23).

Expansive in scope, We Are Not Slaves speaks to a wide range of scholarly debates in the field of post-1945 U.S. history. I will focus here on Chase’s significant contributions to the field of legal history. Taking his cue from Risa Goluboff’s oft-quoted reminder that “legal change…begins with the injuries individuals experience,” Chase offers readers a bottom-up history of the constitutional rights litigation that transformed Texas’ prisons. As he notes, much of the previous scholarship on prison litigation has fallen into two categories, on the one hand, scholars of public policy have focused primarily on the role lawyers, judges, and other government officials have played in remaking prison policy.1  On the other hand, social and intellectual historians have been less concerned about the legal process and have instead mined legal documents to illuminate the cultural production of prison radicalism.2 By tracing the path of Ruiz from its origin in prisoners’ experiences to its implementation nearly a decade later, Chase expands our definition of who counts as a policymakerWe Are Not Slaves offers readers a glimpse into the messy and circuitous ways in which imprisoned people’s legal claims shaped modern prison policy.

As a bottom-up history, Chase begins his book by documenting the horrific conditions and practices that imprisoned people went on to challenge in Ruiz. Central to Texas’s plantation model of punishment was the “trusty” system—shared by prisons in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—that placed some imprisoned people in charge of others. Chase reveals how prison administrators rewarded trusties for their service by looking the other way as they ran an internal prison economy where food, favors, reputations, human beings, and sex were all bought and sold. Most gruesome were the acts of trusty “building tenders” who oversaw the sale of other prisoners as “sexual slaves, subjects of rape, and domestic cell servants” (4). In unflinching prose, Chase recounts the haunting stories of imprisoned people who endured rape and abuse at the hands of other prisoners. By reading internal prison documents alongside imprisoned people’s own words, Chase pushes back against the older body of sociological scholarship that attributed such acts to prisoners’ own “pathology.” He convincingly shows that Texas prison administrators helped produce such violence by enabling and even encouraging it.

Chase’s vivid description of prison life makes clear why imprisoned people turned to the federal courts for help. Forced to endure dehumanizing conditions, imprisoned people drew on any available tool that offered the possibility of improving their situation. While intellectual historians have emphasized imprisoned activists’ critique of the state and its rights-based framework, Chase shows that prisoners “took rights-based claims seriously” even when their rhetoric sought to expose how the state reflected and further entrenched inequality (17). When read primarily as rhetorical documents, imprisoned activists’ lawsuits often appear paradoxical. Why would prisoners appeal to a corrupt state for protection against a corrupt state? By grounding prisoners’ legal claims in the conditions of prison life, Chase makes prisoners’ decision to file lawsuits seem like an obvious one: prisoners hoped the courts would grant them some relief, even if they remained pessimistic about their prospects. This becomes clearer when we look beyond the small number of lawsuits filed by activists like Ruiz. The vast majority of prison litigation was—and is—filed by imprisoned people less concerned with critiquing the state than with accessing basic necessities: medical care, healthy food, protection from mental and physical abuse.

Chase nevertheless shows us that imprisoned people’s critiques had material consequences. One of the highlights of We Are Not Slaves is Chase’s careful attention to how prisoners in their lawsuits and legal testimonies countered prison officials’ glowing descriptions of their work. Imprisoned people argued that Texas prisons, far from modern and efficient institutions, were clear examples of “twentieth-century slavery,” a claim made all the more powerful by the system’s reliance on coerced labor in cotton fields. Chase pauses to note that courts never uniformly viewed prisoners as sharing the legal status of slaves. Even before the federal courts entered the realm of prison policy, some state courts extended limited rights to imprisoned people, despite scholars’ tendency to point to the 1871 case Ruffin v. Commonwealth of Virginia to declare all prisoners “slaves of the state” prior to the 1960s. Yet Chase suggests imprisoned people’s depiction of their incarceration as slavery made the prison system’s coercive labor regime legible to the courts and wider public. It also raised prisoners’ consciousness and helped unify imprisoned people across racial lines. The critiques embedded in prisoners’ legal claims gave rise to direct action. The climax of Chase’s book comes in 1978 when prisoners launched a system-wide work stoppage to show their support for Ruiz and to make clear that “they were not slaves” (308).

Imprisoned people’s activism led to a historic victory. Judge Justice’s 1980 decision in Ruiz, based on hundreds of prisoners’ testimonies, marked the beginning of the end for Texas’s plantation model of punishment, despite state officials’ initial opposition to the ruling. While Chase keeps readers focused on Texas, a wider lens only underscores Ruiz’s importance for imprisoned people. Three years earlier, in 1977, the Supreme Court in Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union ruled prison administrators had the ability to curtail imprisoned people’s First Amendment right to free speech if they deemed the speech threatening to prison security. In the years that followed, prison officials drew on Jones to enact new rules that impeded prisoners’ ability to organize collectively, making them all the more reliant on conditions of confinement cases like Ruiz for protectionJudge Justice’s decision also came right under the wire. In 1981, the Supreme Court’s decision in Rhodes v. Chapman made it more difficult than it had been in the past to prove prison conditions violated the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court’s retrenchment of prisoners’ rights helps explain why Texas officials responded to Ruiz with what Chase calls “carceral massive resistance” (9). Not only were state officials empowered by the rise of Reaganesque law-and-order politics, they also had reason to believe that the Ruiz decision might not stand. As Chase notes, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1982 overturned part, though importantly not all, of Judge Justice’s ruling.

Despite imprisoned people’s success in Ruiz, Chase’s book is ultimately a tragedy. His final chapter reveals how state officials replaced Texas’s prison plantation with a new “militarized” model of imprisonment. In narrating this transition, Chase largely moves away from his focus on imprisoned people as actors and instead highlights the outside forces acting upon them. He demonstrates how the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s led to overcrowding behind bars, which further deteriorated prison conditions and enabled the rise of vicious prison gangs bent on restoring white supremacy. State officials responded, he shows, by embarking on a massive prison building program and implementing punitive new control tactics designed to “wage war” on what they viewed as a “new class of prisoner insurgent” (27). Yet imprisoned people’s legal claims continued to shape the development of prison policy. Prisoners’ appeals, translated and transformed as they made their way through the legal system, helped construct the legal framework through which prison administrators responded to the crisis of mass incarceration. It is no coincidence that, as Chase documents, the same prison administrators who ended Texas’s resistance to Ruiz also established the militarized prison. The militarized prison was also a constitutional prison—at least on the surface.

The years following the Ruiz make clear what many imprisoned activists knew all along: that constitutional rights litigation is a limited tool for addressing abuse behind bars. As Chase notes, the prison is “an inherently violent space that consciously changes the shape, form, and modalities of its punishment regime as a way to reproduce new arrangements of carceral violence and power” (343). To be sure, prisoners’ legal claims succeeded in eliminating some of the worst conditions inside Texas’s prisons. But ending carceral violence will require more than litigation; it will require abolishing the prison—and that will take political work on multiple fronts.

  1. See Keramet Reiter, 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long Term Solitary Confinement (New Haven: Yale University Press 2016) and Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
  2. See Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and Garrett Felber, Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
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Amanda Hughett

Amanda Hughett is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, where she focuses on law, social movements, and criminal justice policy. Her forthcoming book is tentatively titled 'Silencing the Cell Block: The Making of Modern Prison Policy in North Carolina and the Nation.' Follow her on Twitter @abhughett.

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