The Multiple Layers of the Carceral State

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

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Robert Chase’s We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America provides the most thorough and sophisticated look at the Texas prison system of the twentieth century. Chase blends legal and social history, together with sociology and ethnic and gender studies, to place incarcerated people at the center of the tremendous, if bleak, transformations of the state’s prisons from plantation barbarism to high-tech isolation. Chase makes great use of the dozens of oral histories he completed with key but unheralded participants, as well as his expert readings of a bevy of lawsuits and shifts in the structure of confinement. From sexual violence and coerced labor to worker’s strikes and lawsuits, from the “massive resistance” authorities displayed to respecting the human rights of incarcerated people to the internecine violence among prisoners, We Are Not Slaves chronicles the daily rhythms of this carceral capitol with chilling insight.

This deep dive into the Lone Star carceral regime is a welcome corrective to the narrative of the “Texas miracle,” which sees the state’s propensity for spending less per incarcerated person than other states as a model to emulate. Instead, We Are Not Slaves demonstrates that the ostensible frugality of Texas has always been premised on brutality. The “building tender” system, which allowed the state to hire fewer prison guards than other states by equipping select (and typically white) prisoners to function as guards, pimps, and executioners, joined with the widespread coerced agricultural labor that Black, Latinx, and white prisoners were forced to do. Both anchored the Texas prison system in the state, and regional, history of slavery. Indeed, Chase writes, Texas was the vanguard of a “‘Sunbelt’ militarized carceral state approach that became exemplary of national prison trends” (7) and his book offers “a study of how regional difference in time and space shaped a variety of different carceral states and resistance against it” (18).

This conjunction of the universal and the particular in the study of carceral power and prisoner organizing constitutes the most exciting aspects of Chase’s trenchant history as well as some generative disagreement that might help advance the field. The scale of Texas’ prison system is undeniable: Since the landmark Ruíz v. Estelle decision that remade the state’s prison landscape, “the Texas prison system has grown from a population of 30,000 prisoners on fourteen prison plantations to five times that size by 1999 in ninety-one prisons” to more than 160,000 people in prison—more than anywhere else in the country (385). Texas has excelled not only in whole numbers but in the rate of incarceration, locking up a staggering 754 people for every 100,000 residents of the state. And it’s not just Texas. While Chase sees Texas as the most important state in the most influential region—the Sunbelt South—the rate of incarceration in Southern states exceeds most other states in the country. Though We Are Not Slaves is principally concerned with the Lone Star state, Chase brings in examples from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee—as well as recent prisoner strikes in Alabama and Georgia—to illuminate the Southern prison plantation system overall.

The regional analysis in the text is astute and meticulous. More than federal policies, state-level political economies have always been the driving element of mass incarceration. To highlight this regional variation, Chase speaks of carceral states in the plural, whereas many scholars tend to speak of a singular carceral state. The federal government does play a role, however, and Chase’s concept of “carceral federalism” as a way to understand the Ruíz decision and Texas officials’ intransigence and opportunism is a novel and useful way to think through the different scales of governance, funding, and accountability structuring US incarceration.

The devastating cruelties these stories reveal also contain a fundamental truth about prison. Several of the notable issues that characterize Texas prisons can be found elsewhere—and not just in the South. I’ll take two examples central to the story Chase tells: pervasive sexual assault in the mid-twentieth century and the new forms of internecine and structural violence that characterize incarceration post-1980. Chase vividly describes how building tenders owned, traded, and otherwise raped other prisoners. Moreover, sexual violence was a defining feature of the system that prisoner rights lawsuits and organizing tackled. Yet rape defined other prison systems as well. “In most prisons, the primary contradiction is between the races,” Ed Mead told me about Washington prisons in the 1970s. “In Walla Walla at that time, the primary contradiction was one of sexism.” Sexual slavery was so common that Mead started a self-defense organization for gay and vulnerable prisoners. Other people incarcerated in Washington at the time have similarly described the structural prevalence of rape in state prisons as a form of governance and terror. In his posthumous memoir, James Carr describes a similar level of sexual brutality in California prisons at mid-twentieth century. At a federal prison in Lorton, this time period saw the formation of Prisoners Against Rape. While Texas offers an extreme example, prisons nationally allowed rampant sexual terror in the mid-twentieth century.

As mass incarceration accelerated in the 1980s, Chase provides stunning accounts of two interrelated phenomenon: gangs and “supermax” prisons. Prison gangs allowed white prisoners “a means to reassert their prior dominance” that the building tender system had allowed, which then forced some Black and Latinx prisoners to forge their own gangs (369). All of these unsanctioned organizations also sought to control the prison’s illicit economy, especially drugs, while they targeted and murdered key prison activists. As a result, politicians built “supermax” prisons that kept people in their cells for 23 hours a day in near total isolation.

Prison gangs grew out of the government’s experiments with new forms of control. Within prison, mass incarceration meant a cracking down on prison organizing, and gangs emerged in the vacuum created by the loss of more political entities. The severe abjection of the California’s prison system generated illicit organizations that used violence and unsanctioned capitalism to enjoy a measure of power and control. This internecine violence also claimed the lives of several leading prison organizers in California, particularly in the late 1970s but also as recently as 2015, when former San Quentin Six defendant Hugo Pinell was murdered in New Folsom prison. In California, this led politicians to build Pelican Bay supermax prison. Like in Texas, California prison officials governed through racism: they presumed gang status through racial identification and used the pretext of gang policing to structure racist lockdowns and other reprisals. Guards also staged “gladiator fights,” battles by racial/ gang groups, a macabre practice Christian Parenti dubbed the “Balkans in a box.”

A parallel project of gang policing and repression unfolded in the federal prison system, culminating in the Marion control unit. In Washington, the dining hall tables at the Washington State Penitentiary were segregated until the end of the twentieth century. They had to be integrated by force through the same kind of prison-based SWAT teams that Chase describes being developed in Texas prisons at the time.

Parallels can be found in the mundane as well as the spectacular. Prison is, among other things, a profession, and wardens and officials move between state systems—importing and exporting practices between states. As Chase notes, California prison management bookended Texas’s prison experiments. Two career California prison officials took over management of the Texas prison system: James Estelle from 1972 to 1984 (he was the named a defendant in the Ruíz case), followed shortly thereafter by Raymond Procunier.

More significantly, the recent wave of prison strikes that Chase discusses in the book’s epilogue were not simply Southern. As Chase notes, the 2016 and 2018 strikes chose as their start dates the anniversary of the Attica rebellion—an acknowledgment that, even amidst locally specific concerns, prison rebellion is a national (and indeed global) project. The national prison strikes were also catalyzed by specific events in California, where between 2011 and 2013, prisoners staged a rolling series of hunger strikes that, at their height, had 30,000 participants. The strikes were organized from inside a supermax prison by four men who ostensibly represented different gang formations. In addition to their physical strike, the group put out a variety of statements, including an “agreement to end hostilities” between racial groups in prison as a way to undercut the system’s use of racism as a way to divide people in prison.

Dwelling on the broader national dimensions does not detract from necessity of focused regional accounts. What makes We Are Not Slaves so essential is that it argues that prison systems are generally state-based—made up of distinct local histories, groups, and people. But those local histories play out in richly interwoven ways, and one of the most unexpected facets of incarceration is how forms of incarceration and resistance develop in tandem across time and space. The prison particular is always part of the carceral universal.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.