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Prisoner Activism and Organization

by Jonathan Schachter

Source: “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day”[1]

This article, from a December 16, 1972 – January 5, 1973 issue, was published by a newspaper entitled Fifth Estate. The piece “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day,” details the sentiments and experiences of a convict laborer at Green Haven Prison in New York. He writes of his life before prison – a life that was stripped away from him once he was labeled with the title “convict.”[2] After some research, I crucially discovered that the Fifth Estate newspaper is a mainly anarchist, anti-authoritarian outlet with an approach to change that is very much action-oriented, as an alternative to the traditional fourth estate of media.[3] It certainly would be in line with this organization’s overt agenda to support the establishment of labor unions, especially if these unions are used to champion the rights of convict laborers, like the Prison Labor Union that the author speaks of. It is similarly unsurprising that this newspaper decides to uplift the voice of a historically disparaged and silenced group, being convicts, with the first-person narrative that the author provides. It is important to note the membership and donation applications presented after the article, as this article hopes to increase both union members and donors.

This opinion-piece in the direct words of a convict laborer certainly is meant to target more liberal-thinking and acting individuals who subscribe to this newspaper (which is presumably almost the entirety of their subscribed demographic). It is clear that they want their readers to support the formation and strengthening of the Prison Labor Union as well as find incarcerated individuals who are interested in joining the union. As convicts are put in a group that is typically not included in discussions of rights and liberties (as these two principles are stripped from them by the state), this is not a mainstream issue and something that Fifth Estate wants to shine light on for their readers. Presumably, they are hoping to grow the membership and support of the Prison Labor Union.

Based on the accompanying image, it can be assumed that the writer of the newspaper article is a black inmate (and statistically speaking it is probable), and there are many more just like him in carceral institutions across the nation.[4] The newspaper’s choice to let him guide the dialogue of the article perfectly elucidates how black inmates and activists alike were able to draw the public’s attention toward the prison, demonstrate the prison as a site of racial oppression, and establish the confinement that carceral institutions promote as a common thread in the lives of black Americans – whether inside these institutions or not – through the specific voices of inmates in this period of history.[5] By the newspaper elevating the personal experiences and sentiments of the inmate writer, he demonstrates that he is not just a convict, but he is a human seeking basic justice (and, overall, nothing too overzealous).[6] Activists like those at Fifth Estate furthered the reach of the ongoing Civil Rights Era and extended it to the voices of those incarcerated. This was a strong and necessary move, as the same injustices that were being exposed outside the prison during this period were major factors in the incarceration of many individuals within the growing prison industrial complex, a majority of which were black. The best way of grappling this intersectionality is through the elevation of black inmate voices in this period, as argued by Dan Berger, a scholar in race studies and prison organization.[7] It cannot be understated that prisons and black politics in a post-emancipation America share a simultaneous history.[8] The writer of this newspaper is not alone, as a black individual locked up while his family is struggling financially and domestically without him. He, along with an entire population of incarcerated black men and women, is stuck in a system that is devised to keep him down while others prosper off the fruits of his labor, and readers are able to establish similarities in their personal experiences.

The same form of legislative action that freed enslaved populations set up barriers to their social and economic mobility.[9] By keeping people just like the author of this piece in prison, the economic systems and social structures that originated before emancipation were allowed to persist, extending the modernity of neoslavery.[10] The Thirteenth Amendment, while emancipating these former slaves, simultaneously provided the foundation for the legal rationale which established the carceral site as the central institution to the sustenance of racial oppression and capitalism.[11] The author of “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day” was a victim of an amendment that outlawed slavery, but not when used as a punishment for a crime.[12] This gave root to the formation of American carceral sites as a place of confinement, suppression, and labor rather than reformation and correction. The author of the newspaper article wants to be able to be a contributing member of American society and stimulate an economic system outside of the walls of his prison.[13] However, he is relegated to a position null of power, where his entire livelihood can be dictated by members of the carceral state (along with any person of great influence, namely white elites), a system that is eerily similar to that of slavery.

Just five years after the printing of this article, all hopes of the burgeoning Prison Labor Union movement diminished. With the Supreme Court decision of Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, the court ruled that the provisions of the First Amendment that protect labor union membership did not apply to prisoners.[14] With this precedent, the joining of prison labor unions was prohibited, meetings of the unions were barred, and all correspondence about unions to prisoners ceased.[15] With one sweeping movement, the court dismantled decades of work and optimism. The detailed and difficult history of prison organization demonstrates how even though resistance within carceral sites may be routine, organized movements – such as the Prison Labor Union this article promotes – are much harder to come by. Set by judicial precedent, legal proceedings, social establishments, and economic foundations, the prison has become a place where incarcerated individuals are stripped of their rights. Prisoners like the writer of “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day” are forced to bolster and support an economic system that never has – and seemingly never will – support them, with little to no say in the matter.



[1] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate (Detroit, MI) 7, no. 19 (1972-1973): 16, accessed July 27, 2020, https://voices-revealdigital-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BFGJBGD19721216.1.16&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-women+convict+labor————–1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “About Fifth Estate,” Fifth Estate, accessed July 30, 2020, https://www.fifthestate.org/about/.

[4] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[5] Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 4, https://heinonline-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/HOL/Page?collection=agopinions&handle=hein.slavery/uncaaao0001&id=25&men_tab=srchresults#.

[6] I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[7] Berger, Captive Nation, 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Sarah Haley, “No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 7, Sakai.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Berger, Captive Nation, 5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “I Make American Flags for Thirty-Five Cents a Day,” Fifth Estate.

[14] Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Union, 433 U.S. 119 (1977).

[15] Ibid.

Malta: The Epitome of a Carceral State

by Gabriela Fonseca

Image: Barred Windows [1]

Carceral states are often thought to be those that rely on prisons and jails, but there are sites of incarceration aside from local jails and state or federal prisons. Immigration detention centers are places of extreme penal oversight often because they operate under different regulations than ‘normal’ prisons and jails. Malta, a small island-nation in the Mediterranean Sea, is often the receptor for African migrants that are rescued from the sea, usually after embarking from the Libyan coast. Using detention as a deterrent, Malta officials push to maintain the mandatory detention of eighteen months for those detained on immigration infractions, usually these detainees consist of the migrants that were rescued. Through the use of mandatory incarceration, Malta situates itself as a space of patrol and control of those they believe do not belong. Through the analysis of a photograph taken by Darrin Zammit Lupi, “Barred Windows” and academic research on the historical and social aspects of Maltese immigration, the intricacies of Maltese immigration policy, and reactions to migrants in general, can be made clearer.

Darrin Zammit Lupi is a photographer currently situated in Malta, focusing on capturing, as much as possible, the realities of African migrants who were detained in Maltese immigration detention camps.[2] Though the audience is unknown, it can be assumed that Lupi took the photo to increase the information that was available about the conditions of African immigrants detained in Malta. For the past several years, Lupi has situated himself in the Mediterranean region to create awareness on the conditions migrants are forced to live in “through and after their journey across the Mediterranean Sea.”[3] The photo in question, “Barred Windows,” was taken on October 11, 2011 as part of his series Malta Detention, 2004-2013.[4] The photo shows two Sub-Saharan African immigrants held at the Safi Detention Centre near Valletta.[5] The two men are photographed through not just the barred windows at Safi, but also the blurred ‘X’ in the top right corner of the photo indicates the photo was also taken through a hole in a chain-link fence. The man on the left has his hands held out with his palms pointed semi-upward, staring in the direction of Lupi’s camera. Photographed in such a way that he looks to be questioning his own detention, almost as if to say, “why am I here?” If that is the case, he would not be the only one to question why Malta mandates 18 months of detention and issues removal orders for all irregular immigrants, unless their asylum claim is pending, in which case detention is only twelve months[6].

From the description of the photo given by the Duke Digital Collection’s team, situates the photo during the period following the end of the 2008 Italian-Libyan Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation.[7] Through the treaty, Libya received a monetary incentive “to increase patrols along its maritime border and to allow Italy to return migrants and asylum seekers to Libya, after they were intercepted at sea.”[8] During the time Libya complied with this treaty, arrivals in Malta decreased drastically, but once the new Libyan government under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi[9] took over, they “focused on other priorities” and arrivals in Malta increased.[10] Since most African migrants embark on their journey across the sea from Libya, more boats were able to evade detection once the patrols lessened in those waters. Once Libya no longer upheld their side of the agreement, arrivals of irregular immigrants skyrocketed. This photo was taken in the later months of 2011, and since over 1,500 individuals arrived in Malta between March 28 and June 1, it is most likely the case that these two men were living in overcrowded conditions due to the growth in arrivals and the long periods of mandatory detention.[11]

This photo forces the viewer to acknowledge the jail-like conditions of Maltese immigration detention centers. Through interviews with formerly detained individuals, Cetta Mainwaring found that they often referred “to the detention centers as a ‘prison.’”[12] This is extremely appalling when taken into account with Daniela DeBono’s revelation that “the criminalisation of illegal entry was expunged from Maltese laws in 2002.”[13] Nations that are members of the EU have a duty and obligation to protect those who enter their borders, but Malta is the only one that “maintains an 18-month, mandatory detention policy for all irregular migrants upon arrival.”[14] Instead of using its position in the EU to find better ways to support immigrants in need and seeking asylum, Malta has been able to position itself as the little island overrun by outsiders. According to Cetta Mainwaring, Malta “has constructed a crisis narrative in order to attract more financial support.”[15] Like many other carceral sites and penal institutions, there is a large financial incentive to housing detainees, but unlike most prisons, Malta does not put them to work, instead it relies on their incarceration to obtain more funding from the EU.

As seen in the photo, the funding is not going toward making these detention centers viable areas for housing. The windows are holes in the concrete walls covered in bars, making the interior of the building, and the people and possessions in near vicinity, susceptible to the elements. . And from the gaps in the cement blocks between the windows, it can be easily inferred that the physical building is in a state of deterioration and neglect. NGOs have criticized these conditions, arguing the centers are often “overcrowded, unhygienic, and inhumane,[16]” but Maltese officials argue this is one more way they use detention as a deterrent for migration.[17] Aside from the horrid conditions migrants must live in for eighteen months, the idea that detention is a deterrent is abhorrent. When faced with detention, there is thought to be a possibility of release, a possibility of freedom.[18] For some individuals, especially those fleeing from political persecution and governmental violence, that possibility of freedom is all they need.

Detention is not the worst thing that could happen, it may be long and full of suffering, but it is also relatively safe compared to war zones and areas of humanitarian crises. Besides, if their asylum claim is granted, or still pending after twelve months, then they are ‘free,’ but not in the sense that some may think.[19] Refugees and migrants have become synonymous with criminals. This “hinders mobility” and makes it increasingly difficult to find work, especially on an island as small and as densely populated as Malta.[20] This is eerily similar to the 1836 Emigration Act of Barbados, that monitored the movement of the formerly enslaved population in order to maintain a cheap workforce.[21] When refugees and migrants are criminalized, they too are left vulnerable to massive amounts of policing and control, and due to the high number of arrivals on the island, even if someone finds work, the pay rate will not be good because competition drives prices down.

Malta was able to create a narrative of a migration ‘crisis’ to gain financial incentives and place itself in a position to not care for immigrants. This was done mainly through the mandatory incarceration of African immigrants, but it was also done through the mass criminalization of those individuals as well. Lupi’s photos show this enhanced criminalization. These men, standing in white shirts, almost as if in uniform, are photographed through barred windows and most likely a chain-link fence. They were photographed on the periphery of society, “out of sight of Malta’s waterfront boulevards lined with hotels that receive over a million tourists every year.”[22] Like most individuals caught in the carceral archipelago, they are easily forgotten about, ignored, and villainized.

This photo is so much more than just two men awaiting the day they are to be told who will claim them or where they will be returned to. It is a window, however barred it may seem, into the reality that is Maltese immigration policy. It represents the neglectful conditions immigrants are forced to live in while they await to hear if their life is in enough danger to save. It signifies the mass criminalization of immigrants by recreating them as de facto prisoners.



[1] “Barred Windows,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives, accessed July 29, 2020 https://repository.duke.edu/dc/lupidarrin/RL11613-TIFF-0159.

[2]Darrin Zammit Lupi, “About Me,” Darrin Zammit Lupi Photography, August 2019, https://www.darrinzammitlupi.com/about.

[3]Darrin Zammit Lupi, “Islelanders: A Photographic Project,” Islelanders(blog), 2014, https://islelanders.com/.

[4] “Barred Windows,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cetta Mainwaring, “Constructing a Crisis: the Role of Immigration Detention in Malta,” Population, Place and Space 18 (June 24, 2012): 689.

[7] Ibid., 689.

[8] Ibid., 689.

[9] Ibid., 696.

[10] “Barred Windows,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives

[11] Cetta Mainwaring, “Constructing a Crisis,” 289.

[12] Ibid., 294.

[13] Daniela DeBono, “‘Less than human’: the detention of irregular immigrants in Malta,” Race & Class 55, no. 2 (October, 1 2013): 75.

[14] Cetta Mainwaring, “Constructing a Crisis,” 687.

[15] ibid., 697.

[16] Ibid., 690.

[17] Ibid., 691.

[18] Ibid., 693-694.

[19]Ibid., 689.

[20] Ibid., 690.

[21] Dawn P. Harris, “Confined Spaces, Constrained Bodies: Land, Labor, and Confinement in Barbados after 1834,” Punishing the Black Body: Marking Social and Racial Structures in Barbados and Jamaica (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2017), 95.

[22] Cetta Mainwaring, “Constructing a Crisis,” 690.

[23] Daniela DeBono, “’Less than Human.’” 78.

Convict Leasing in 1920s Georgia

by Audrey Vila

Source: “Papers of the NAACP: Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation” [0]

Published as an NAACP subject file, the source is a collection of newspaper articles about an alleged instance of convict leasing in Georgia in 1929. Almost 100 Black prisoners were leased from the Atlanta Federal Prison to a county prison outside Savannah, GA, and forced to work on roads. The articles express public outrage at the use of a practice that was abolished 20 years earlier by the General Assembly of the State of Georgia.[1] It seems the intention is to both reflect and provoke the public response to the practice with one journalist stating, “the lease system has been outlawed in the South as the most crude and inhuman method of handling prisoners.” [2] After immense pressure from the public and the US Senate, the lease is ultimately revoked. As a result, however, millions of dollars are given to the federal prison system to expand.

With a wide range of articles, a reader of this collection can gather a full picture of the situation. The newspapers all express outrage at the use of convict leasing. However, the Attorney General of Georgia states the lease as a necessary decision to address the overcrowding and deplorable conditions of the federal prisons, and that the convict labor was not planned, but merely another result of the transfer. The Attorney General then used this spectacle to advocate for $7 million in funding for three new prison facilities. In examining history, these diversion tactics aren’t new. The rise of convict labor was justified on claims that the post-war south did not have places to house the high number of prisoners.[3] The inability to deprive someone of their rights in one way does not garner justification for denying rights in another. As another argument, New York Republican Representative, Fiorello La Guardia, known for his progressive stances, asked: “if it would not be better to repeal some of the laws instead of building more prisons.” The question was only shown in one article of the collection and was quickly dismissed as irrelevant by the attorney general. Naomi Murakawa describes a similar trend a few decades later in the mid-1900s that advocated for the expansion of the law and order systems. During times of unrest and a rising civil rights movement, race liberals supported expanding prisons, which were seen as an effective rehabilitation and safety for society.[4] These sentiments were present long before and long after these articles. Prison expansion is often an argument for progress despite the widely recognized, detrimental effects on individuals and communities. The above image shows that ultimately the federal system was given millions of dollars to enlarge the prison system due to the convict leasing exposure. At this time, for many, it seemed like the right decision. Many prisoners wanted to stay in the new county prison instead of returning to the overcrowded Atlanta federal prison. However, the reasons for prison expansion throughout history are very relevant as we assess mass incarceration today. In this time, prisons were expanding with prohibition laws, but as stated by La Guardia, taking a look at these laws would have been a smart idea to address the overcrowding and may have impacted the makeup of our prison system today.

Next, throughout the articles, journalists point out the discrepancies of race. The 100 Black prisoners were not the only ones transferred, but the groups were divided and moved based on race. White prisoners were moved to a similar facility as the Atlanta Federal prison while the Black prisoners were moved to a county that put them in cages and forced them to work. These distinctions make it seem directly an extension of slavery. If not based on racist ideas, why were the majority of prisoners who are white kept from laboring? Secondly, in almost every article, the word “idleness” describes the state of Black prisoners in the Atlanta prison to justify their transfer. Racist sentiments include the idea that working-class Black people were lazy or “idle” and needed to be put to work. [5] Therefore, convict labor seemed a rational reform for the Black prisoner in the minds of many. At another point, an article mentions that the prisons’ superintendent believed that “the average negro is suited only today labor.” This is in contrast to the white prisoners who have not been contracted or assigned labor because it must be suited to them. Even as legislators and media pointed out unequal treatment, they continued to perpetuate racist ideas.

These racist sentiments become apparent when the media in these newspapers actively condemned the practice of convict leasing without addressing the continued existence of chain gangs and the assumption of labor as punishment. Chain gangs existed in Georgia for another 20 years after this incident and were only distinguished from convict leasing by the labor’s benefactor. Convict leasing could be used by anyone, while chain gains were constrained to only state entities, usually involving public infrastructure. So, it begs the question of how the media and the general public distinguish between the two practices? Both practices of convict labor uphold the notion, through the 13th amendment, that those who commit crime deserve to be punished through unpaid labor.[6] One distinction referenced in the articles is the benefit convicts can have for society. If they are sitting in prison, they do not contribute, but the labor allows them to function. Another distinction, articulated by Whitehouse, is that as subjects of the state, they can benefit the nation.[7]

When looking at newspaper articles, different from textbooks or theory, the general public’s sentiments and narratives can be understood. At this time, significantly more than even 40 years before, people opposed the practice, and the words mark that change. Therefore in 20 more years, with the end of chain gangs, media would show a similar shift, and history would continue.


[0] Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus. “Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation“. Library of Congress. Accessed July 27, 2020.

[1] Taylor, A. Elizabeth. “THE ABOLITION OF THE CONVICT LEASE SYSTEM IN GEORGIA.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 26, no. 3/4 (1942): 273-87. Accessed July 30, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40576850.

[2] Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series A: Africa through Garvey, Marcus. “Prisoner leasing to states and federal prisoner treatment legislation“. Library of Congress. Accessed July 27, 2020., 5

[3] Whitehouse, Mary Rose. “MODERN PRISON LABOR: A REEMERGENCE OF CONVICT LEASING UNDER THE GUISE OF REHABILITATION AND PRIVATE ENTERPRISES.” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 18, no. 1 (2017): 89+. Gale Academic OneFile (accessed July 30, 2020). https://link-gale-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/apps/doc/A565297327/AONE?u=duke_perkins&sid=AONE&xid=e8a15b62.

[4] Murakawa, Naomi. The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. New York;Oxford;: Oxford University Press, 2014., 56.

[5] Kelley, Robin D. G. “”we are Not what we seem”: Rethinking Black Working-Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South.” The Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (06, 1993): 75. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docview/224917635?accountid=10598.


[7] Ibid.


$50 reward for the capture of Henry Williams!

by Xitlali Ramirez

Image: “$50 reward for the capture of Henry Williams!”[1]


The image shown above was created by P. J. Rogger under the Tennessee Coal, Iron, & Rail Road Company (TCI) in the 1880s.[2]  The source claims that a convict named Henry Williams escaped from the Pratt Mines prison. TCI purchased Pratt Mines from the Pratt Coal and Iron Company in 1886,[3] leading me to the conclusion that the wanted poster was made between 1886 and 1889. The poster mentions that Williams has a wife in Hale county, Alabama and that he was convicted in Tuscaloosa, Alabama the previous October. The Pratt Mines are located in Birmingham, Alabama. The poster was therefore directed toward the people of Hale county, Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham because those are the locations that Williams was most likely to be found.


The purpose of the wanted poster was to offer a $50 reward for anyone who was able to find Williams and return him to the Pratt Mines prison.  Pratt Mines had “the richest and most extensive seam of quality coking coal in the entire region,”[4] thereby making it extremely profitable for the city of Birmingham. This, coupled with coal mining’s crucial role in Birmingham’s booming industrial development in the 1880s,[5] surely garnered dependence on and respect for the Pratt Mines. I believe this would have made the people in the area more likely to turn in an escaped convict that worked the mines.


A $50 reward for an escaped convict tells us that there is value associated with the convict. The poster says nothing about the crimes Williams was convicted for, only divulging his physical features and the mine that he escaped from. One could argue that this is because Williams’ value as a convict is only associated with the work that he provides in the mines. More broadly, Williams’ value is associated with Alabama’s convict leasing system.


Pratt Mine’s crucial role in the industrial development of Alabama was not the only instance of mineral exploitation that benefited the state. In fact, postbellum Alabama’s economy experienced a shift away from agricultural toward nonagricultural occupations in the 1880s.[6] Mineral exploitation–such as the coal harvesting that took place in Pratt Mines– increasingly pulled free and convict labor into the mines. Convict labor was the most powerful and dependable labor found in mines. Convicts produced cheap coal, worked regular hours, and their presence prevented labor strikes from gaining traction.[7] Convict’s involuntary role as strikebreakers was extremely important to the coal monopolies of Birmingham, of which TCI was included in. Free coal laborers called for “union recognition and the right to collective bargaining”[8] during critical coal strikes in 1894 and 1908, however the reliable presence of convict laborers who had no choice but to continue to produce coal crushed the efforts of the protestors. Convict labor was therefore positioned as crucial for the powerful companies that ran Birmingham’s mining industry.[9]


While Williams’ role in the convict lease system undoubtedly formed a great part of his convict value, this analysis would be incomplete without considering the aspect of social control that incarceration supports. Foucauldian theory tells us that bodies become useful only if they are both “productive” and “subjected” bodies.[10] Of course, the convict lease system produced immense labor value for Birmingham, but it also worked to keep Black people in their “place”. The poster alludes to Williams’ race by using “complexion black” to describe him. The convict lease system reinstated America’s social hierarchy by targeting former slaves to brutally control and exploit them for the advancement of the country.[11] America’s white supremacist social structure would have made it so that the poster’s audience would want to catch and return Williams to the coal mines: not only because of his economic value to the state, but also because of his “lesser” social position.


As I have shown, the poster puts dual value on Williams incarceration as essential labor and as a mechanism of social control. This source highlights the importance of convict leasing to the southern economy and as a form of social control, thereby demonstrating that the history of American incarceration is likewise a history of producing “productive” and “subjected” bodies.


The poster describes Williams not only as a man with black complexion, but it also claims that he is baldheaded, grey-haired, and “looks to be an old man.”[12] These descriptors are interesting because the poster also claims that Williams is only 35 years old. Williams’ old appearance at such a young age brings us to the story of Bankhead, an escaped convict who was captured by Pratt Coal and Iron Company–the company that preceded TCI’s ownership of the Pratt Mines–in 1883.[13] Bankhead labored at the Pratt Mines and died soon after his release from laboring at the mines, having worked only for a year and a month. The mines “literally worked Bankhead to death.”[14] This comes to no surprise considering the poor conditions of all mining prisons. In a span of 9 months in 1883, 71 percent of Jefferson County convicts died as a result of mistreatment, neglect, or injury.[15] The death rate at one Georgia and Pacific Railroad camp was as high as 40 percent.[16] The extremely poor conditions in Alabama convict camps could explain Williams’ aging appearance. The poster states that Williams was convicted in October and that he escaped on April 18th, meaning that he only worked at the mines for 6 months yet he aged considerably due to terrible working conditions. The source also reads that WIlliams has five or six scars on his back, most probably due to flogging.


This wanted poster is more than just a wanted poster. It is a declaration of TCI’s widespread economic power. It is a demonstration of Alabama’s economic and industrial dependency on convict laborers. It is a facilitation of social control, one that declares black complexion as inferior and deserving of torturous labor. The poster says none of these things, but these truths become apparent upon close inspection.


[1] “$50 Reward for the capture of Henry Williams!,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives, accessed on August 5, 2020,  https://repository.duke.edu/dc/broadsides/bdsal10004

[2] Ibid

[3]Robert Louis Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 1874-1928. (Ann Arbor: Columbia University, 1993), 110, https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/docview/304060337?accountid=10598

[4] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 109

[5] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 104

[6] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 102

[7] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 113

[8] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 115

[9] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 113

[10] Michel Foucault, “The Body of the Condemned,” in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, ed. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House, Inc., 1995), 26.

[11] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 53

[12] “$50 Reward for the capture of Henry Williams!,” Duke University Libraries Repository Collections & Archives, accessed on August 5, 2020,  https://repository.duke.edu/dc/broadsides/bdsal10004

[13] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 51

[14] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 51

[15] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 52

[16] Cvornyek, Convict Labor in the Alabama Coal Mines, 52

Presidio Modelo

by John Markis

Image: Presidio Modelo circa 1930[1]


Captured just before the Presidio Modelo’s opening in the early 1930s, this image depicts the panopticon’s eminence, a towering effigy of state control within the barren landscape.[2] The University of Florida released a complete album of Cuban architecture in 1970 to bolster its collection of miscellaneous Caribbean material, with the output coinciding with bolstered funding for racial and ethnic studies within the university. Despite the anonymity of the photographer, one may presume that the intended audience of this image comprises scholars researching the political structure of post-colonial Cuba.

The fact that the Presidio was constructed thirty years after Cuba’s abnegation of imperial Spain demonstrates the efficacy of modernity as an enduring force. The Cuban revolutionaries considered liberal democracy, justice, and “freedom from all hatred” the foundational tenets of their new society; to leader José Martí, the enemy constituted not only the imperialists but also the scourge of “inhumanity” itself, any manifestation of race- and class-associated hierarchy.[3] Yet as the guerillas evicted their initial oppressors, an even greater threat to Cuban sovereignty emerged: American intervention. Believing that the natives were neither “wise nor prudent” enough to successfully employ self-determination, President W. McKinley quickly overpowered the remaining vestiges of the Spanish army and secured control of the island for himself.[4] With the entire countryside razed, its armies depleted, and its population starved, Cuban leaders had no other option than to submit to annexation.[5] Under the guiding ethos that “the right thing was for civilized people to overcome barbarians,” Americans remained in Cuba until 1902 and departed only upon full acquisition of a naval base at Guantanamo Bay and the right to unabated intercession lest another colonial insurrection occur.[6] Even without these provisions, America maintained economic hegemony over exports of significant value, including sugar and tobacco, and Cuba could not ratify trade deals without explicit permission.[7] Thus, Marti’s vision never came to fruition, with America assuming the position previously held by Spain without sacrificing its own human capital.

Within this supervised political framework, President Gerardo Machado ascended to power. With the United States’ support, Machado decimated Cuba’s democratic institutions, unilaterally altering its constitution to award himself a limitless term in office.[8] Yet the Presidio represented his crowning achievement, a testament to his eradication of opposition. Here, he jailed his political opponents, such as anarchists, Marxists, Soviet Union sympathizers, and myriad university students.[9] Machado pursued these perceived threats to such an extent that onlookers soon regarded the Presidio as the isla de la juventud: island of the youth.[10] With a particular focus on incarcerating “thousands of black men,” the Presidio reminded its inmates of their enduring psychological isolation through its location on the outer precipices of the island, with windows aligned toward the ocean on all sides.[11] The panoptical model allowed for no disobedience within its gaze, and prisoners unaware of this rigidity suffered excruciating penalties, as two men hanged for eating beyond their allotment in the cafeteria realized.[12] Approving only literature that condoned “Yankee imperialism,” the prison considered itself motivated by rehabilitation and released its inmates only upon an effective re-education.[13] The Presidio’s reputation as el monstruo pervaded into the streets and reverberated throughout the villages, where mothers would admonish their children with frightening tales of its interior.[14]

The legacy of the Presidio, preserved in this image, reminds the viewer of two elements essential to understanding the broader history of incarceration. Firstly, the panoptical selection demonstrated a tangible shift in the penal theory. Whereas punishment-as-spectacle had once saturated the slave-replete colony, with whipping stations and shackles ubiquitous, Cuba’s subsequent modernization concealed the execution of justice to the periphery of its territory.[15] Physical tortures now correlated with the “economy of suspended rights,” in which convicts involuntarily relinquished access to physiological necessities until they conformed to the standards prescribed by modernity.[16] The panopticon facilitated such a process, as the prisoner remained under constant surveillance and monitoring. The crimes themselves evolved to concentrate on the impermissible “thoughts, wills, and inclinations,” such as skepticism of capitalism, that could diminish the ruling class’ authority.[17] Rehabilitation operated to enforce proper characteristics that instilled “good moral conduct” that included meek subservience to the politics of the neo-imperialists, with Christianity serving as an integral tool to this mission.[18]

These aspects of the panopticon allude to the Presidio’s second connection to the broader history of incarceration: the durability of the neoliberal social structure accompanied by illusory progress toward liberalization. Although Cuba may have attained its freedom from Spain, its post-war lack of military strength made it vulnerable to re-conquest. Given the degree to which foreign powers relied upon the island for inexpensive labor and abundant exports, neo-colonialists had a vested interest in ensuring Cuba’s docility to free markets. American and Britain could not permit the island to deviate from its subordination, lest such a notion rapidly spread and topple the status quo. Thus, as much as Cubans seemingly ruled themselves, the presence of America, eager to cultivate Cuba’s crops with an assurance of stability, quelled any aspiration for true democracy. The ulterior function of government behooved capital, not the people, and incarceration observed and coerced behavior lest it veer from this goal. The transition away from slavery allowed modernity to allege credible respect for natural rights, yet the legal system, which maintained a high population density and low standard of living, fostered the same pattern of exploitation.[19] Thus, the closing of the Presidio in 1970, less than a decade after the completion of the Cuban Communist revolution and an explicit pledge of Fidel Castro’s, truly delineates between the era of imperial dominance and Martí’s hope for legitimate Cuban sovereignty actualized.



[1] “Circulares del Presidio Modelo de Isla de Pinos,” Cuban Collections, University of Florida Digital Collections, last accessed Monday, August 3, 2020, https://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086530/00001/citation.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Lawrence Tone, War and Genocide in Cuba (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 53, ProQuest EBook Central.

[4] Tone, War and Genocide, 284.

[5] Tone, War and Genocide, 285.

[6] Tone, War and Genocide, 247.

[7] Wilber A. Chaffee, Jr., Cuba: A Different America (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1989), 3, Google Books.

[8] Chaffee, Cuba: A Different America, 4.

[9] Chaffee, Cuba: A Different America, 3.

[10] Pablo de la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo (Havana, La Habana: Centro Cultro, 2000), 211, https://gredos.usal.es/bitstream/handle/10366/21589/ptb_presidio_modelo.pdf;sequence=1.

[11] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 150.

[12] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 296.

[13] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 402.

[14] De la Torriente Brau, Presidio Modelo, 156.

[15] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 9, Sakai.

[16] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 11.

[17] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 17.

[18] Annette Bickford, Southern Mercy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 144, Sakai.

[19] Dawn P. Harris, Punishing the Black Body (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017), 94, Sakai.