We Are Not Slaves — An Author’s Response

During a symposium on We Are Not Slaves, Ernest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.

I am so humbled and thankful for the incisive and generous reviews by Dan Berger, Charlene Fletcher, Amanda Hughett, Shannon King, Robyn Spencer, and Timothy Stewart Winter. Their collective work inspired me and forms the field’s future direction. My remarks consider intersections between them on the themes of oral history, civil rights law, slavery/neoslavery, sexuality and gender, and a closing reflection on the particulars and universals that constitute mass incarceration.

This work started as an oral history project to uncover Southern prison organizing. To do that work, required hard-won networking and word-of-mouth. But largely thanks to Ray Hill’s Prison Radio Program, I discovered many activists similar to Ernest McMillan, whose collective life trajectories represent what Bruce Franklin identified as the moment when “the political activist [was] thrust into prison, and the common criminal thrust into political activism.” Hicks offered a rhetorical query that I sometimes heard, which was that many people, including academics, might “question the legitimacy of lawbreakers using the legal system to improve prison living conditions.” Hicks’s astute comparison between twentieth-century Texas prisoners and Isabel De Olvera in seventeenth century Mexico, showed that both declared “I demand justice” because they understood that society’s dismissal of their humanity made them vulnerable to enslavement and societal elimination. That’s why their stories matter.

As Berger put it, We Are Not Slaves places incarcerated people are at the center of the transformation from “plantation barbarism to high-tech isolation,” while Hughett notes how my book challenges policy historians by asking “who counts as a policymaker?” As a “bottom-up history” of civil rights law, my work excavates the prisoners’ rights case Ruiz v. Estelle (1972-1979) to reveal how labor, sexuality, and political organization operated in tandem on the Southern prison plantation. Hughett calls this narrative a “tragedy” in three parts because ultimately appealing to “constitutional rights is a limited tool.” However, my approach was to study the law as more than a legal product, but rather to cast prison lawsuits as a politicizing process that I called “testimonies of resistance.” Civil rights lawsuits enacted what prisoner organizer Alvaro Luna Hernandez called “litigation as radical demand.”

King asks us to move “beyond the metaphor of slavery” to grapple with my use of prison slavery as a historical concept that co-existed in different temporalities. Prisoners positioned their “enslavement” within “two distinct spatial and temporal frames” such that coerced and brutal Southern prison labor exemplified “unfree society” and the metaphorical public memory of Antebellum slavery enacted political and legal pressure. Hughett calls attention to my work’s discovery of a legal duality—courts never uniformly held that prisoners were legally “slaves of the state,” even as the prisoners’ “slavery” claims made “the prison system’s coercive labor regime legible to the courts.” King takes up Ira Berlin’s formulation of “slave societies” and “societies with slaves” to show that prisoners are today’s “unfree societies” that represent “the limits of freedom.” I also draw upon Berlin’s idea that “slavery was both a model and a metaphor,” which meant that “slavery was never made, but instead was continually remade” to reassert power and control. Similarly, incarceration is never fully made and its contestation over time is quite often at the center of its disciplinary reformulation and the new modalities of its punishment.

Fletcher, Hicks, and Winter consider my contention that the prison plantation utilized state-orchestrated sexual violence as a disciplinary enforcer of Jim Crow white supremacy. Fletcher reminds us that there is a long history of Southern trustees, but incarcerated people also engage “in consensual relations for their own pleasure.” Similarly, Winter highlights a critical difference between my findings on the ubiquity of sexual violence and Regina Kunzel’s work, Criminal Intimacy, which argued otherwise. We Are Not Slaves does offer a few examples of consensual same-sex prison relations, but I found it necessary to focus on how the state-sponsored trusty system offered prison rape as a state reward. When I asked Ray Hill, a formerly incarcerated gay activist, about the practice of “prison marriages” as evidence of meaningful relationships, he scoffed, “You say husbands and wives—but there are no relationships there. Sex is a commodity . . . To have a relationship, you’ve got to have trust and that’s what’s missing in prison is trust.” 1

My study offers social history to corroborate Kunzel’s assessment that the “sexually rapacious Black prisoner” was a false cultural production. In 1970s Texas, the most predatory prison rapists were white building tenders. Indeed, Black men faced such peril that they formed anti-rape squads. Berger adds that sexual violence and organization against it were not exclusive to Southern prisons. While I don’t know the intricacies of Ed Mead’s important anti-rape organizing within Washington State Penitentiary, one important distinction might be that sexual violence in Texas operated as an open tool of disciplinary and labor oppression that granted bodies as explicit state reward. What’s clear is that prison sexuality and sexual violence must be at the center of future historical work.

Although I did explore Martha Quinlan’s activism (she was otherwise unknown), Hicks argues that women organizers could have received more attention because the prison has historically been a space of “incessant violence” against Black women. Moreover, Hicks points out that women’s resistance to  “carceral violence and exploitation” requires that we place women’s prison activism alongside their active feminism. These are fair criticisms—but I would only point out that the social structure of men and women’s prisons operated quite differently, particularly the systems of male Building Tenders and women “key girls.” Only a handful of women testified during Ruiz—fewer than ten, compared to 100 men. Revealing intimate prison sexualities and prisoner organization in both societies was therefore dependent on oral histories. As it happened, I did three interviews with women and one trans prisoner with the intent to do more, when suddenly Texas stopped my prison interviews. One of the limitations (and ironies) of producing “deep” prison histories is the historian’s dependence on the carceral state itself.

To conclude, Berger offers the useful framework of the “particular and universal” to argue that “the prison particular is always part of the carceral universal,” and this is never more true than in the post-1980 formation of mass incarceration. Concluding We Are Not Slaves at the end of the 1980s made it abundantly clear that the collapse of Jim Crow’s prison plantation and its near immediate replacement with a Sun Belt militarized system was part of a national convergence where mass incarceration invented new modalities of disciplinary control. Gang intelligence units, Supermax 23-7 cell isolation, and SWAT-like prison units represented a national turn to militarization.  In light of the first-ever national prison strike in 2016 and again in 2018, we agree that today’s “prison rebellion is a national (and indeed global) project,” but importantly it must also draw upon historic lessons, which the prison particular shaped even if aimed against the carceral universal. During the national work strikes, critical organizing came out of the particular experiences of prisoners in the US South from the Free Alabama Movement and End Prison Slavery in Texas, while the issue of prison labor struck a chord with organizers across the nation.

Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are Not Slaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.

  1. Ray Hill interview with the author, November 8, 2005, Institute for Oral History, Baylor University.
  2. Kinetik Justice conversation with the author, November 22, 2020.
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Robert T. Chase

Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York (SUNY). He is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners Rights in Postwar America (UNC, 2020). He is also the editor of Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance (UNC Press, 2019).

Comments on “We Are Not Slaves — An Author’s Response

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    Looking for an abolition movement to abolish incarceration and liken it to one to abolish slavery is confusing slavery with a prison. It’s unfortunate one becomes a slave but one becomes a prisoner as the result of a conviction of a legal matter.

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