Prisoners’ Rights, Resistance, and the Law

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

Inmates from the Female Prison of Salvador, 2016 (Joa Souza / Shutterstock.com)

Robert Chase’s compelling book, We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America, made me think about the seemingly unlikely pairing of Isabel De Olvera and the incarcerated Texans with whom the book focuses.

In 1600, Olvera, a woman of African and indigenous heritage, sought protection from the mayor of Querétaro, Mexico, through a petition that would validate her rights as a free woman to join an expedition as a servant, not a slave, of a Spanish woman. She knew enough about the power of New World slavery and the legal system to have a petition drawn that she hoped would serve as a defense against those who might see her race and gender as compatible with bondage. It is not clear if Olvera received the protection that she sought but she certainly believed her rights should be safeguarded. In fact, the last words of her petition forcefully state, “I demand justice.”1

Indeed, both Olvera and the Texas prisoners covered in Chase’s book demanded justice when they employed the law to improve and provide protections for their lives. Thanks to Robert Chase’s meticulous research and well-written narrative, we know a lot more about the prisoners’ rights movement in twentieth-century Texas. Chase looks closely at how incarcerated men and women argued that the coerced labor and prison abuse they experienced was, in fact, modern-day slavery. We Are Not Slaves shows how Texas prisoners used the law to demand justice by examining how they became politicized in response to the myriad abuses they experienced in the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC).

We Are Not Slaves focuses on the centrality, and eventual success, of prisoner-initiated civil rights complaints and social protest. The civil rights lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle—initiated in 1972 and concluded in 1980—ruled that the conditions of imprisonment within the TDC prison system violated the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution regarding “cruel and unusual punishment.” According to Chase, prisoner David Ruiz’s 1972 “twelve-page, handwritten complaint” that became the impetus for the lawsuit “started a mass movement within the prison that initiated a new phase for prisoners’ rights in Texas” (274). Influenced by the civil rights, Chicano, and Black Power movements, Ruiz and other Texas prisoners disrupted the TDC’s powerful public image of efficiency and order by exposing the impact of coerced labor and brutal violence that, they argued, replicated slavery. The longstanding practice, in existence as late as 1978, of only using African American men who served longer sentences as “houseboys” or live-in domestic servants (89) in the homes of “top administrators and wardens” (91) served as but one example of how the TDC’s unofficial practices appeared to represent the servitude long-associated with southern enslavement. In 1970, “Texas prison industries put 1,300 men to work and grossed $2 million a year” when in 1972 “the cost per prisoner remained one of the nation’s lowest, at $3 per prisoner per day” (97). TDC officials touted the dignity and necessity of work to fill idle minds (60), prisoners documented experiences of “slave labor” where they toiled in the fields “ten hours a day, six days a week” (73) without renumeration while creating one of the “state’s biggest agribusinesses” (67).

The TDC maintained its harsh labor regime and production quotas by using varied types of carceral violence including corporal punishment. Guards used their horses to “stomp over indolent or exhausted prisoners who tarried” in the fields (79). Sustained and effective violence, however, stemmed from those prisoners chosen by TDC administrators to be building tenders (BTs), who engaged in “routine but unreported beatings and maimings of fellow prisoners” (108). Equally disturbing, David Ruiz’s complaint letter in 1978 to TDC director W. J. Estelle highlighted not simply BTs’ ability to orchestrate and inflict vicious prison rapes, but also the key role BTs played in an internal economy where certain prisoners could be claimed as sexual property and trafficked to different inmates (102-103). Chase contends that the BT system shaped a structure of carceral violence where men could experience a type of “double enslavement—a slave for the state in prison fields and an enslaved body and servant within prison cells”(105).

We Are Not Slaves illustrates growing prisoner resistance to the TDC’s “prison plantation” by emphasizing inmates’ use of the legal system. Activists known as writ writers taught themselves the law and drafted legal arguments for themselves and other incarcerated persons. Prisoners like Ruiz appealed their convictions and used their experience to fight more broadly against carceral abuse and violence through studying the legal system. For TDC officials, an inmates’ attempt to learn the law often meant that he was a threat and an agitator. In fact, as more prisoners became jailhouse lawyers, the TDC restricted their use of “legal material.” For example, prisoner Fred Cruz was placed in solitary confinement when a copy of the U. S. Constitution was discovered in his cell (160). Fellow prisoner, Floyd Patterson, recalled that Cruz “was smarter than the law. . . . He knew when the officials in the prison system was breaking the law. He knew their law, . . .  he knew their American Constitution, he was just a lawyer. And he was a threat” (214). Cruz inspired others to action and the prison movement he helped build garnered attention from social justice advocates outside of the TDC who kept prisoners’ grievances in the courts. Over the course of a protracted struggle, male prisoners and their allies convinced the federal government that the TDC violated prisoners’ civil rights.

Chase also discusses the challenges prisoners faced in Goree Prison, the TDC’s only women’s facility. Scholars such as Beth E. Richie, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kali N. Gross have documented the incessant violence that Black women—Goree’s largest incarcerated population group—faced in the carceral system, but Chase suggests that the punishments women prisoners encountered at Goree were less violent (321-322). On the surface it may appear that women were treated better, but there were a vast number of differences between the men’s prisons and Goree. A more thorough investigation would clarify what cruel and unusual punishment meant for women prisoners. One might consider the common practice of having “other prisoners as medical staff performing intimate pelvic exams” a deep violation not replicated similarly in men’s prisons. Indeed, this practice became a part of several women’s grievances against the TDC (321). One wonders, how else did women resist carceral violence and exploitation besides formal complaints?

In addition to other social justice movements, how did the women’s movement and feminism, as Emily L. Thuma has shown elsewhere, help to politicize Goree? Did the very public cases of North Carolina’s Joan Little and the “Free Angela” movement for Angela Davis in California encourage incarcerated women to think about improving their own living conditions? Did Mexican-American women prisoners—who Chase notes experienced discrimination and mistreatment because of their smaller numbers and language barriers—join Black women in protest (151-152)? Chase’s focus on Martha Quinlan, a successful writ writer who had “three litigation suits pending against the TDC,” (321) and who testified in the Ruiz case, is quite important but is one story among many narratives that have yet to be uncovered. I acknowledge that some of these questions fall outside of We Are Not Slaves’ framework as Chase explains that he is studying “prison masculinity,” (22) however, I hope that someone is working on excavating the twentieth-century lives of incarcerated southern women and their activism in the same way that Chase has done for male prisoners.

As it exposes the harsh terrain of state-sponsored human abuse and control, We Are Not Slaves also illuminates the connections between how movements for social justice outside of the prison emboldened activism among the incarcerated men and women within the TDC. Most importantly, the book encourages readers to expand their imaginings of struggles for justice and resistance against oppression by taking more seriously the perspective of the prisoners’ rights movement.

In 2020, the Covid-19 crisis illuminated how Americans are still grappling with the legacy of how to treat incarcerated individuals humanely. In Virginia, protests outside of the Richmond City Justice Center led to the arrests of eleven activists after they demanded that prison officials provide appropriate healthcare as well as personal protective equipment to the imprisoned after “more than 100 inmates and staff” tested positive or were exposed to someone who tested positive during an August outbreak. In September, when California was struck with deadly wildfires, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would provide an opportunity for incarcerated firefighters, many of whom are paid $1 an hour, to seek employment as professional firefighters once they had served their time. These firefighters risked their lives in multiple ways to provide a public service that saved people and property, leading some to ask, were they essential workers or slave labor? Also in September, a news report revealed that the state of Texas “had more inmate deaths related to the coronavirus than any other prison system in the nation.” With 162 coronavirus deaths, Texas’s handling of incarcerated individuals in the twenty-first century mimicked the neglect that Chase documents in the previous century.

Prisoners, however, still demanded humane treatment during the pandemic. In March 2020, Texas’ elderly prisoners sued the Department of Criminal Justice for violating the Eighth Amendment and their disability rights. On September 29th, a federal judge “ordered the Texas prison system . . . to provide more protective measures against coronavirus” because they had “acted with deliberate indifference toward inmates’ medical needs and recklessly disregarded obvious health risks during the pandemic.” After reading We Are Not Slaves, the TDC’s neglect and the prisoners’ demands for justice should not elicit surprise. Indeed, Robert Chase’s work reinforces the significance of carceral state history and contexualizes activists’ ongoing battles against the prison system’s cruel and inhumane treatment of incarcerated individuals.

  1. See Daina R. Berry and Kali N. Gross, A Black Woman’s History of the United States (Boston: BeacPress, 2020), 9-10; 14-16; also see Dedra S. McDonald, “To Be Black and Female in the Spanish Southwest: Toward a History of African Women in New Spain’s  Far Northern Frontier,” in African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000, ed. Quintard Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 31-52.
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Cheryl D. Hicks

Cheryl D. Hicks is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. Her research addresses the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the law. Her first book, Talk With You Like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935 (University of North Carolina Press, 2010) received the 2011 Letitia Woods Brown Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. Follow her on Twitter @CherylDHicks1.

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