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Architectural Flaws of the Tombs Prison

by David Marin Quiros


Image: The Tombs: 1926[1]

In 1902, Manhattan welcomed their back prisoners to a newly designed city prison, colloquially called “The Tombs.” The previous structure was torn down after decades of poor conditions as seen by its lack of ventilation and massive overcrowding. Its former Egyptian revival style mimicked a mausoleum,[2] hence where its nickname came from. Its rebirth opted for a Châteauesque design, characterized by its elaborate towers, steeply pitched roofs, and a heavy reliance on ornamentation.[3] Yet despite its best attempts, it could not shake off its name, which it still holds after two subsequent remodelings. New York residents were hopeful of the prison’s new design, as it promised to employ the best sanitation and safety technologies of the early 1900s.[4] Despite massive city funding to make this Châteauesque experiment fit into the grandeur of its metropolis, like its predecessor, it had its impressive features stop at its facade, and failed once more to provide a rehabilitative space for the inmates.

This prison in particular, in this specific time, offers a unique study on how institutional architecture at the start of the modern era influenced the carceral system in large American cities. It is important to point out the lack of literature that separates the culture of discipline within city prisons and rural prisons, as well as the lack of literature on the Tombs prison in general. The design of the Tombs prison provides the retrospect to understand, as well as expand upon, Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power as it first emerged in U.S. prisons. Essential to this discussion is how the manipulation of space leads to the creation of norms and behaviors.[5] Modernity has brought on the ideals that prisons and their structures should be built to reform individuals of their criminal tendencies, in order to produce productive assets for the economy.[6] Architects can design a better prison through a recharacterization of the institution, such as focusing on elements of daylight and air quality.[7] This modernist shift acknowledges inmates as humans rather than as stains on an otherwise productive society.[8] Without the careful articulation of an environment such as a prison, it may not only fail to achieve the standards of the modern era but be a site of physical and mental torment.

Rikers Island might be the scariest jail in America, and certainly New York, though less prominent in the public imagination is the violent legacy the Tombs prison has itself. Even today, with so much focus on reforming Rikers, many former Tombs prisoners have said they hope the city does not forget the prison that “has been too violent for too long.”[9] Despite the shameful lack of statistics, news articles have made it clear that the early years of the Tombs saw frequent executions.[10] Though this tradition of death somehow adopts a grimmer tone, as it has been said that suicides in the facility to have happened weekly.[11]

One particular architectural aspect of the prison, known to the prisoners as the “Bridge of Sighs,” literally connects the inevitability of death to the penal system. This name came from a similar structure found in Venice, where condemned prisoners would walk across the bridge to view Venice for the final time and sigh before being incarcerated or executed. In the city of New York, the bridge connects the Tombs with the Manhattan criminal court,[12] symbolizing expediency, and the inevitability of conviction. This walk of shame happens hundreds of times a day, and each time the emotional response continues to be one of grief and hopelessness.[13] Under these pretenses, the shameful amount of death in this institution begin to make sense.

While it is easy to be critical of a prison built over a hundred years ago, the criticism of the institution has been ongoing since the beginning. There are three systematic elements of the prison frequently cited to contribute to its failure. These three in particular are notable due to their relationship to the physical structure of the prison. The first of these is the abysmal conditions of the prison. Despite prisoners being conscious of these realities, it wasn’t made obvious to the public until an article came out in 1930, saying the prison is collapsing in on itself because of the lack of upkeep, which led to plumbing issues to go unchecked.[14] The overall neglect of the crumbling infrastructure reflected the dehumanized perception of the inmates, where their inhumane environment were acceptable until those issues affected the general health of the public.

The two issues which follows go in hand with each other. The first is the overcrowding of the prison, as the facility was constantly filled passed capacity.[15] While this begs to ask questions about the carceral system as a whole, the over taxing of the structure makes one wonder if the effectiveness of the space was being compromised. Furthermore, the conscious act of ignoring of the architectural limit of the structure speaks to carceral system’s indifference to its own effectiveness. What follows the over incarceration is the generalization of the prisoners themselves. This is to say how inmates, regardless of their sentence time, crime, mental health, or age, were contained together in heterogenous spaces.[16] Young, petty offenders are thus forced to fraternize with hardened recidivists, who might negatively influence any potential reformation the former could have found. The lack of defined spaces makes clear that upon designing the structure, there was no consideration to different needs of individual inmates, at once simplifying them, and also creating the abstraction that is the term “deviant.”

In the pursuit of an effective prison, if we are bold enough to assume there is such a thing, the Tombs prison was not where one could find it. It fails contemporary standards and fails the standards of modernism. Without a thoughtful architectural skeleton, one which might prioritize humanity over costs, security, and expediency, the institution was destined to be unsuccessful. Nonetheless, this prison, throughout all its incarnations, deserves to be looked at with much more depth and scrutiny. Its evolution from the premodern to the contemporary age paints the progression of the carceral state and could allow us to deconstruct the penal system as a way to reform it for the future.

[1] “The Tombs” Print Collection. 8×10. NYC Municipal Archives. Jails Associated Journal. Accessed August 6, 2020 http://nycma.lunaimaging.com/luna/servlet/detail/RECORDSPHOTOUNITARC~15~15~453441~108326:mac_1926?qvq=q:mac_1926&mi=0&trs=1

[2] “Tombs Prison is Doomed,” New York Times, March 7, 1897, 18.

[3] “Châteauesque Style 1860 – 1910,” Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, (August 26, 2015) http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/portal/communities/architecture/styles/chateauesque.html

[4] “Tombs Prison is Doomed,”

[5] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, ( New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 153-154

[6] Foucault, 25.

[7] Leslie Fairweather and Seán McConville, Prison architecture : policy, design, and experience, (Boston : Architectural Press, 2000.) 26

[8] Fairweather and McConville, 62.

[9] John Surico, “The Legacy of Violence at the Manhattan Jail Known as the ‘Tombs’,” Vice, (July 2015) https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/yvx3pv/tales-from-the-tombs-the-legacy-of-violence-at-the-manhattan-detention-complex-719.

[10] Bertram Reinitz, “The Old Tombs Prison Under Critisism Again,” New York Times, June 30, 1929, 156.

[11] Surico “The Legacy of Violence”

[12] “A Tale of The Tombs,” Correction History, http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/histry3a.html#tale.

[13]John Surico, “What I Saw While Spending 16 Hours In Manhattan Criminal Court,” Vice, (May 2015) https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/dp5zjz/i-spent-16-hours-in-manhattan-criminal-court-506.

[14] “Fear Tombs Prison Might Collapse,” New York Times, January 18, 1930, 9.

[15] Reinitz “The Old Tombs”

[16] “Fear”

Prison Organizing against Cruel Women’s Conditions

by Stephanie Green

Great Speckled Bird page 1

1751560_19750710_0013 (1) page 2

Source: Great Speckled Bird, Vol 8, Issue 28, July 10, 1975

My primary source [1] describes a 1975 peaceful protest to eventual riot outside of North Carolina  Correctional Institute for Women. This prison is the only women’s prison in North Carolina and held primarily Black and Brown inmates. [2] This article is in The Great Speckled Bird, more commonly known as The Bird, which was a New Left, underground counterculture newspaper that ran from 1968 to 1976 out of Atlanta, GA by university political organizations at the university level. Given its underground nature, in addition to its younger demographic of curators, this newspaper’s audience is likely intended for those with similar backgrounds and ideologies. This article in particular was likely written to garner sympathy with those affected by the riot, hatred for the prison guards who inflicted violence on innocent protestors, and for the newspaper’s opportunity to take a strong stance against the prisons, the prison industrial complex, and more specifically, the conditions of the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women. This source allows us to learn about the intersection between race and gender in gendered prisons, the lack of health care in prisons, prison organizing, and representation within prisons.

The first demand of the protestors was the abolition of the prison laundry due to the horrific conditions the women had to work in. the conditions are inhumane, being described by The Bird as including ““temperatures of over 120 degrees” where the inmates were pushing pounds weighing several pounds had to be “pushed across a dangerously wet and slippery floor.” These harsh yet gendered conditions present an interesting intersection with how race and gender inform conditions.  The gendered labor of laundry stems from historic ideologies that in order to create respectable women that could fit into patriarchal society, their most lucrative opportunity to regenerate them back into society was to teach them domestic labor practices. Angela Davis describes this process as “criminal women could be rehabilitated by assimilating correct women behaviors–that is, by becoming experts in domesticity–especially cooking, cleaning, and sewing.” Davis argues that this “produced skilled domestic servants among black and poor women.” [4] With the demands and conditions of prison laundry work in this facility, there are evidently racial undertones as well. The conditions of this domestic work, that may be considered too harsh for a docile white woman, further emphasize the topic of Black gendering and ungendering and how these strategies further capitalist production. Sarah Haley explains this double bind as being “forced to endure antiblack and gender-specific violence. They were caught in double binds, double burdens, and double jeopardy when it came to both labor and violence.” This demonstrates both the distinct and intersectional roles that race and gender play in prison laboring practices.

The neglect of inmates’ health care is reflected within protestors’ second demand, which asks for better healthcare facilities, with staff that have the inmates’ health in their best interest. This demand reflects an argument made by Foucault about the role the body has as an intermediary to the greater goal of penal punishment. As the body became less of a spectacle for punishment, Foucault describes how there was a shift in punishment “since it is no longer the body, it must be the soul.” [5]However, this didn’t lead to complete disregard of the body as a means of punishment. While quality, accessible, and affordable medical care can be argued as a human rights, Inadequate medical care can be used as one of the tactics to further this punishment of the body for those both out and inside of the carcel system. The second part of this demand, which asks for the removal of medical staff who are indifferent toward prisoner’s welfare, also plays into a Foucaudian argument related to the role that other institutions had within the carcel state. Foucault specifically calls out doctors as a body that’s “juxtaposing himself as the agent of welfare, as the alleviatior of pain, with the official whose task it is to end life. [6] Both the presence and lack of medical professionals within this facility demonstrate the role that medical providers can have in sustaining the use of the body as a means of punishment within the prison.

Protestor’s third demand related to the prison system as a whole, pointing specifically at delays in court processing and the expense of bail. This demand is particularly important because of the role that cash bail and long court processing can have on Black and Brown convicts. Guilty or not, bail is set so high that poorer families cannot afford, leaving people to risk financial hardship (and continue to face this hardship as they get lawyers, deal with court fees, etc.), pleading guilty to avoid financial burden, or waiting their processing timeout in prison. This can even have further implications, including losing your job or custody of your children. The implication of slow grievances makes it even more difficult to acclimate themselves back into society. However, this demand as it specifically relates specifically to the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women deserves further exploration

Increasing representation and diversifying spaces is not always the answer to fix racist environments, however, protestors’ final grievance was requesting for appointment of a Black man to fill the seven-month vacancy as superintendent of the prison. Of all the demands, this one least matched the abolition type framework presented previously. While this request is likely intended to decrease the racism present within the prison system, this effort is only a band-aid solution to a much larger racialized issue. This effort to mask inherently racist spaces is often used by politicians and organizers who want to appear like they’re doing good work. For example, former Georgia governor and president Jimmy Carter marked his career by “the use of representation to shroud the nascent neoliberal carcel buildup” as he “only incorporated incarcerated women and men into the narrative fold of those deemed worthy of political concern. [7] This demand also relates to the argument of liberal humanism and how it can protect and perpetuate systems of violence by establishing a white standard through pockets of diversity training and initiatives that hit “checkmarks” on different demographics.

This source is significant in understanding conditions of prisons, prison organizing, and protests during the 1970s. The 1970s was a popular time for organizing around prison conditions. The authors work is important to shed light on these issues and further emphasize the work that has been done and how we can use that to inform activism moving forward.


[1]  The Great Speckled Bird, Vol 8, Issue 28, July 10, 1975

[2] Ruralorganizing. “Southern People’s History: In 1975 Women Revolted at a North Carolina Prison.” Rural Organizing And Resilience, 20 Dec. 2018, ruralorganizing.wordpress.com/2018/12/20/in-1975-women-revolted-at-a-north-carolina-prison/.

[3] “How Gender Structures the Prison System.” Are Prisons Obsolete?: an Open Media Book, by Angela Y. Davis, Seven Stories Press, 2010, pp. 60–83.

[4] Sarah Haley. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

[5] “The Body of the Condemned.” DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH: the Birth of the Prison, by MICHEL FOUCAULT, PENGUIN BOOKS, 2020, pp. 3–32.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sarah Haley (2018) Care Cage: Black Women, Political Symbolism, and the 1970s Prison Crisis, Souls, 20:1 58-85Great Speckled Bird 1751560_19750710_0013 (1)Great Speckled Bird

Analyzing the “Australian Mission”

by Nia Williams

Image: “Australian Mission”

Film is a vital primary resource because it has the ability to capture power, which is central to the study of incarceration. Power, being the structure that propels colonization and racial capitalism, is essential to understanding 20th century Australia’s forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families by both state officials and church missionaries, in an era now known as “The Stolen Generation”[2].

In a Getty Images album titled, “1909-1969: Australia – The Stolen Generation”, an unnamed photographer captures striking moments during this part of history. One image in particular, named “Australian Mission”[3], stands out. Taken on July 21, 1960 in the Northern Territory of Australia, the photo depicts a Roman Catholic missionary named Father Cosgrove posing in the center of four Aboriginal boys. Cosgrove, a superintendent of the Daly River Mission, is dawning a white shirt and black glasses with his arms around the two boys in the front, who appear younger than the boys in the back. All of the boys are smiling at the camera, while the man has a more subtle, yet still positive, look. There is a building in the background, presumably a church, that clearly situates them in a religious context. The two boys in the front are holding what look to be hair combs- perhaps this was taken in the morning when they were getting ready for the day.

The caption beside the picture states that the “mission provides education, medical care, food and entertainment for several hundred aborigines in the area”[4], framing the situation in an altruistic manner. The fact that the children are eagerly smiling creates a positive mood for the viewer, signifying that the image was most likely intended for white Australian audiences, as it reflected their patronistic attitude towards Aboriginals. Despite the fact that this is unequivocally an era of Aboriginal Genocide, many Australians felt that they were “bettering” Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders by assimilating them into whiteness and stripping them of their culture[5]. This idea was particularly applied to mixed-race Aboriginals, derogatively called “half-castes”, for white Australians thought it was easier to erase their Aboriginality[6]. For example, in 1927, Dr. Cecile Cook, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, ordered that “full-blooded” Aboriginals be segregated from “half-castes”, in an attempt to prevent the “‘[absorption of] the white population of the Northern Territory [into the Black population]’”[7]; furthermore, “half-castes” were to be “‘reared at European standards and given statutory state-school education’”[8]. Though it is not clear how long these specific policies lasted and whether or not the Daly River Mission, a Catholic institution, took part in the aforementioned schooling, it is reasonable to assume that the values of this mission were driven by the same values of this era.

Despite the positive, happy-go-lucky depiction of these missions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were often brutalized, as they were mentally, physically, and sexually abused; exploited for their labor; and “denied any connection to their Aboriginal lands”[9]; this reveals how Anglo-Australians were largely unconcerned with the humanity and livelihood of Aboriginal children, contrary to what the language at the time often decreed. What this illustrates is that underneath the public desire to “absorb” Aboriginality as a means of creating a more “civilized” society lied the colonial appetite to land ownership and resource exploitation. In other words, the Aboriginals’ connection to the land was an obstacle to capitalist expansion, meaning that cultural assimilation was not just a matter of “whitening” the people, but a matter of destroying Indigeneity itself- it was an economic tool[10]. This unveils a much more insidious background of the photograph, as the conveyed positivity morphs into something dark and painful. In fact, there is a trigger warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before viewing the photo album, clearly displaying the persisting harm this era has caused.

With this information in mind, the photograph becomes a larger depiction of racial capitalism’s role in carceral systems predicated on white supremacy. Much like African-American youth in the U.S. Jim Crow South’s juvenile reformatories[11], Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth were treated as objects to further white capitalist expansion, which was done by stripping them of their resources and land while justifying racial ideologies. In a way, both systems cloaked their goals under the guise of “modernity”[12], as if progress towards some human-made capitalistic pursuit mattered more than the lives of other human beings. Perhaps this was so natural for both Anglo-Australian and white Southern societies because the concept of race created a perceived hierarchy among humans that allowed them to justify such cruelty. After all, capitalism and race are so intertwined that the advancement of one idea further propels the other. In this case, economic expansion paved by erasing Indigeneity brought forth the widespread idea of “full-blooded” versus “half-caste” Aboriginals that was cemented by legislation that designated differential treatment between the two social groups; this parallels how juvenile reformatories in the Jim Crow South further propelled racist notions of Black Americans, and were created as a means for economic gain in the South by seating them closer to the North’s concept of “modernity”[13]. So too were these reformatories painted as forgiving places for Black youth, when in reality they often abused the children they housed[14].

Thus, the image titled, “Australian Mission”, becomes a proxy for analyzing racial capitalism’s role in the era of Australia’s Stolen Generation. Though missionary schools, like Daly River Missionary, were not prisons; they were certainly carceral sites, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were stolen from their families and their land to attend these institutions, and oftentimes abused and exploited for labor. Interestingly enough, many argue that this era has not ended; as contemporary “child protection” practices eerily parallel the language and actions of those during the era of The Stolen Generation[15]. Such news is unfortunately not surprising given that racial capitalism is still expanding through the veins of neoliberalism. Perhaps justice for Aboriginal Peoples is truly not conceivable in a capitalist society.



[1] “Australian Mission.” In Getty Images – 1909-1969: Australia – The Stolen Generation. Seattle, WA: Getty Images, 1960. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cdocument%7C2684146.

[2] Leticia Funston, Sigrid Herring, and ACMAG, “When Will the Stolen Generations End? A Qualitative Critical Exploration of Contemporary ‘Child Protection’ Practices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities ,” Sexual Abuse in Australia and New Zealand 7, no. 1 (June 2016): pp. 51-58.

[3] “Australian Mission.”.

[4] “Australian Mission.”.

[5] Margaret D. Jacobson, “Designing Indigenous Child Removal Policies,” in White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[6] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations, 52.

[7] Jacobson, White Mother, 34.

[8] Jacobson, White Mother, 35.

[9] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations, 52.

[10] Jacqueline Allain, “Stealing Indigenous Children: Canada, the US, and Australia,” (Lecture, Duke University, July 27, 2020).

[11] Annette Louise Bickford, Southern Mercy: Empire and American Civilization in Juvenile Reform, 1890-1944 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

[12]  Jacobson, White Mother, 25-26.

[13] Bickford, Southern Mercy, 6.

[14] Bickford, Southern Mercy, 150, 152-154.

[15] Funston, Herring, and ACMAG, Stolen Generations.

The Rise of Prisoners’ Unions in the 20th Century

by Chirag Bellani

Image: “Support Jackson Prisoners’ Self-Determination Union!!”[1]

            The 1970s was a period in which prisoners demanded better treatment and sought, through a series of strikes and movements across the country, access to their civil and judicial rights. As Dan Berger writes in his book Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights “while prisoners were a central element of the civil rights and Black Power movements,” their movement and organization was not just to expand their rights, but also a “critique of rights-based frameworks.”[2] Such strikes and uprisings were the “product of larger circulations of radicalism” at a time when there was a “massive outpouring of books and articles from incarcerated people.”[3] This chosen primary source is an example of just one of these such articles.

This primary source, a newspaper article titled “Support Jackson Prisoners’ Self-Determination Union!!” written by Mike Minnich, a representative of the Rainbow People’s Party (RPP), was published in the July 7, 1972 – July 21, 1972 edition of the Ann Arbor Sun (The Sun).[4] The article is a call for public support for the formation and recognition of a prisoner’s union at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, which was located in Jackson, Michigan. It can be assumed that the prison was exclusively for males, as indicated by the male names listed under the information for “prisoner’s addresses” in the article.[5] Minnich, the author, served on The Sun’s editorial committee and therefore it can be assumed that he wrote frequently for the publication.[6] What is important to note and is crucial to understanding the nature of the publication is that The Sun was started by the Central Committee of the Rainbow People’s Party (RPP). Founded by John Sinclair in April 1967, The Sun was a biweekly underground, anti-establishment newspaper and was considered to be the mouthpiece of the White Panther Party in Michigan, a far-left anti-racist political collective founded by Pun Plamondon, Leni Sinclair, and John Sinclair.[7] The organization was founded in response to an interview where the co-founder of the Black Panther Party was asked what white people could do to support the Black Panthers. Later on, the White Panther Party was renamed to be the RPP. The organization claimed that they were dedicated to helping organize the Ann Arbor community as an infrastructure so that people could start to come together and combat imperialism, capitalism, racism, and sexism which make the social order unacceptable. Such an article is in line with the organization’s agenda to support the rights of prisoners and the establishment of a prisoner’s union. Minnich’s explicit call for action is typical of such an organization, specifically the suggestion to attend rallies or write letters of support to prisoners as detailed in the article.

It is clear that the intended audience of the article in question was first and foremost for followers of the RPP. As an underground publication, it did not necessarily gain major popularity during the years of its publication. In fact, the newspaper was for a succession of communities around John Sinclair.[8] However, it is worth mentioning that in 1972, when this article was published, the newspaper had become an independent publication spreading views on local issues, left-wing politics, music, and arts.[9] The FBI and the Nixon administration viewed the RPP and by association, The Sun, as a “band of subversives plotting the overthrow of the government.”[10] It had never been popular for convicts to be defended or held in high regard. Certainly, challenging prison labor systems and garnering support for a prisoner’s union was not something commonly done.

The purpose of the article was to call for “massive public support” that had been requested by the Jackson Prisoner’s Labor Union in their “struggle to gain recognition for the Union.”[11] There is a clear acknowledgment that at the time, organization and assembly were difficult in prisons and that support was needed for organized events to be held for the cause outside prison walls. The article voices the goal of the Union, which is to “present before the people of this state, and the body of men selected as our keepers,” a way to bring to an end the “illegal and unjust treatment” faced by prisoners.[12] During this period in the 1960s and 1970s, and according to Sarah M. Singleton of the Indiana University School of Law, there were “cries for sweeping reforms.”[13] It was clear that there was a need for rapid change in certain aspects of the penal system. She highlights that prison employment was one of the most critical problem areas that needed improvement. In the article, it is evident that the Prisoner’s Union argued the same. With regards to convict labor specifically, harms at the time included, but were not limited to, “enforced idleness, low wages, lack of normal employee benefits, little post-release marketability, and the imposition of meaningless tasks.”[14]

At the crux of the article is an outline of the Constitution of the Prisoner’s Labor Union. It is fitting that the publication appeals to its readers via general principals and purposes that they typically supported, such as the belief that “prisons are not the islands of exile, but an integral part of this society,” which sends a message that prisoners are people too and deserve to “retain their human rights and social responsibilities.”[15] Another clear argument of the prisoners is that prison labor is part of the general economy and that they ought to be given the same tasks and rights that were afforded to ordinary state-employed citizens.

Courts no longer saw prisoners as a “slave of the state.”[16] In fact, the judicial standard was that a prisoner has the right to organize if ordinary citizens have such a right and if the right has not expressly been taken away by the state.[17] As of 1973, organizing was occurring in at least six states. In California for example, over 3000 members joined the United Prisoners Union, and in New York over half of the inmates at Greenhaven Correctional Institute became members of the Prisoners’ Labor Union.[18]

Heather Ann Thomspon, a Pulitzer Prize and Bancroft Prize-winning author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy said in an interview that prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history and that in every region of the country they have always resisted.[19] As a result of World War II, there was increased determination among prisoners and along with the Black freedom struggle nationwide. In the 1960s and 1970s, prisoners became particularly active in terms of this resistance.[20]

Prisoners’ demands were two-pronged. At one prong, the prisoners echoed the sentiment of activists – they voiced their opposition of racism, against violence directed at them by the state, for better living and working conditions, for better access to education, and for proper medical care. These are the same goals as listed under the Constitution of the Jackson Prisoner’s Labor Union. However oftentimes, the demands were centered more on fundamental human rights. To put it simply, prisoners demanded over and over again to be treated like people.

The significance of the rise of prisoners’ unions can be established by the sheer number of labor strikes and uprisings that took place in the 1960s to 1970s time period. They achieved a lot in terms of focusing attention on the abusive and inhumane conditions of prisons. However, these movements were only possible with the support of steady organizing initiatives, just like this one supported by the Rainbow People’s Party. It is also prudent to consider the “crowded field of political activity at the time.”[21] Various parties, including prisoners, prison guard, and police unions, prosecutors, and politicians were all leading competing approaches to criminal justice issues.


[1] Minnich, Mike. “Support Jackson Prisoners’ Self-Determination Union!!” Ann Arbor Sun, July 7, 1972, 35 edition. https://voices-revealdigital-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BGEAIGG19720707&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-support+jackson————–1.

[2] Berger, Dan. Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Justice, Power, and Politics)Hein Online. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. https://heinonline-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/HOL/Page?collection=agopinions&handle=hein.slavery/uncaaao0001&id=21&men_tab=srchresults.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Minnich, “Support Jackson Prisoners’”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Collins, John. “Ann Arbor Sun Rainbow Community News Service Editorial” Ann Arbor Sun, December 1, 1972. https://aadl.org/node/195380

[7] Ann Arbor District Library. “Ann Arbor Sun Editorial.” Ann Arbor Sun | Ann Arbor District Library. Ann Arbor District Library. Accessed August 6, 2020. https://aadl.org/papers/aa_sun.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ann Arbor News. Members of the Rainbow People’s PartyRainbow People’s Party. Ann Arbor District Library, November 6, 1983. https://aadl.org/node/383464.

[11] Minnich, “Support Jackson Prisoners’”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Singelton, Sarah M. “Unionizing America’s Prisons – Arbitration and State-Use.” Indiana Law Journal 48, no. 3 (1973): 493–502. https://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2847&context=ilj.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Minnich, “Support Jackson Prisoners’”

[16] Singelton, “Unionizing America’s Prisons”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Blog, OAH. “Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part One, Building Movements.” Process, October 30, 2016. http://www.processhistory.org/prisoners-rights-1/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

Penal Sentencing and the Latino Juvenile Offender

by Taylor Huie

Source: “Latinos in the Juvenile Justice: Youth Crime, but Adult Time”[1]

Written by Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute fellow Angela  Medina in 2001, the article shown above was published by El Editor, a weekly bilingual English and Spanish newspaper based in Midland-Odessa, Texas.[2] This article details the effect of “tough-on-crime” legislation on rulings and treatment of juvenile offenders. Medina focuses on the distinct relationship between race and juvenile rulings under these new legislations – most notably the skewed adult treatment of Latino youth compared to white juveniles. She notes that Latino youth were found three times more likely than white youth to be incarcerated on account of similar public order offenses.[3] Medina shares the story of a 16-year-old Latino boy tried as an adult for a crime he did not directly commit. This narrative is shared to represent the unjust criminal treatment of youth as young as 11 years old under the “tough-on-crime” legislation and specifically the biased criminal rulings for Latino youth.

Though this is a fairly recent document in the scope of history, it provides insight into the relationship between race, age, and incarceration during a highly turbulent time of American penal and racial history. To understand the intended scope of this article, it is important to note its placement and context within the newspaper itself.  The article was published side-by-side in both English and Spanish on the first page of this edition of El Editor. This indicates the relative importance of the article compared to surrounding articles published only in English or Spanish. In fact, this article is the only one in the entire newspaper published in both languages. This suggests its intended message was regarded as so important that is was necessary to take up additional front-page newspaper real estate to ensure all individuals could read and understand its message. Removing any potential language barrier suggests the intended audience was anyone that might have access to the newspaper or come across the article. Therefore, rather than targeting a specific audience, its message was intended to be shared with all audiences. That said, the newspaper’s subheading is “Serving the Hispanic Market Since 1977.”[4] So while Medina perhaps intended for this article to reach a wider audience, its actual scope was likely skewed toward primarily Hispanic individuals in Western Texas.

While the effects Medina addresses on legislation related to decreased tolerance for crime in the United States may not have been the initial intent of these ruling, they have resulted in unforgiving sentencing for juveniles and minority youth. Medina offers statistics on the danger young people face in adult penal facilities and acknowledges that while these statistics are widely documented, no action has been taken to protect these youth.[5] In adult penal facilities, youth are denied opportunities and programs commonly provided by juvenile centers such as less harsh sentences, education, mental health treatment, rehabilitation, and both sexual and physical protection. United States Justice Potter Stewart expressed concern toward the impact of “tough-on-crime” legislation, suggesting it seems to promote a penal system focused on punishment versus rehabilitation.[6] Stewart emphasizes that the initial purpose of a separate juvenile justice system was to “correct a condition,” likely referring to the 70% of juvenile offenders with at least one psychiatric disorder.[7] In the absence of rehabilitative programs, it makes sense why juveniles sentenced to adult penal facilities are less likely to be successfully rehabilitated into good capital subjects with low recidivism. Research on juvenile delinquency and sentencing conducted in Texas found that while harsh sentencing of juvenile offenders may under certain conditions result in decreased recidivism, the cost-benefit analysis was unjustifiable.[8] By trying juveniles as adults and increasing juvenile incarceration, not only is it detrimental to the development of these young people, but it also creates an unnecessary financial burden on taxpayers.[9] Rather than spending the $360 million annually, as the research extrapolates, these funds could instead be invested toward valuable goods and services for the public or within the justice system.[10] Reallocating these funds could work to decrease the number of young people committing crimes in the first place. This shift, however, would require a revolutionary movement to choose to prevent rather than treat or respond to crime.

Just before the publishing of Medina’s article on the juvenile judicial system, Mexico’s newly elected president Vincent Fox vowed to improve the status of its estimated over 3.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.[11] This timely political promise suggests the presence of Latinos in the United States during the early 2000s was largely considered unfavorable, perhaps suggesting there were strong racial sentiments toward Latino immigrants and Latino American citizens. Medina references research analyzing the impact of placing juveniles in the adult criminal justice system.[12] Interestingly, the research does not specify whether the Latino juveniles studied were immigrants or US citizens, a distinction of seemingly increasing political importance. This suggests that the status of criminals’ citizenship was perhaps regarded as less significant compared to their race. Part of the reasoning behind this disregard for citizenship may have been a result of most incarcerated people of Mexican descent claiming US nativity in order to avoid deportation following the end of their sentence.[13] This, however, was not the only instance of racial injustice and disregard for citizenship in the history of the United States penal system. Individuals of African descent also have a long-standing unjust relationship with discipline and punishment in the Western world. In the post-emancipation era, former slaves in both the United States[14] and its territories[15] were legally considered citizens but were strategically prevented from ever reaching the full status of citizenship under the driving forces of racial capitalism and systemic racism. Similar analyses can be applied to the biased treatment of Latino juvenile offenders. This chain of injustice present throughout the penal system, from its inception to present, effectively perpetuates the suppression of minority groups.

While racial injustice is certainly an important aspect of the statistics detailed in Medina’s article, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the other factors of prejudice and social justice that undoubtedly play a role in the minority representation in the juvenile justice system. This article, therefore, serves to only begin to unveil the cruel reality of juvenile and racial criminalization in America, as well as the unjust treatment of juvenile offenders as adults. This article is not just informative, but it is a demand for justice. It is a call to action for maltreated communities and allies to protect their friends, family, and children.



[1] Angela Medina, “Latinos in the Juvenile Justice: Youth Crime, but Adult Time,” El Editor 20, no. 30 (March 14, 2001): 1. https://voices-revealdigital-org.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=ELEDIT20010314-01.1.1&srpos=9&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN-juvenile+incarceration————–1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bonnie T. Zima, “Tough on Crime or Tougher on Those Who Need Care?” Psychiatric Services 59, no. 9 (2008): 955–55. https://doi.org/10.1176/ps.2008.59.9.955.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Simon M. Fass et al., “Getting Tough on Juvenile Crime: An Analysis of Costs and Benefits,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 39, no. 4 (2002): 363–99. https://doi.org/10.1177/002242702237285.

[9] Fass et al., “Getting Tough,” 383.

[10] Fass et al., “Getting Tough,” 386.

[11] “Timeline: U.S.-Mexico Relations,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed July 28, 2020, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-mexico-relations.

[12] Jolanta Juszkiewicz, “Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?” Corrections Today, (February 2001). https://www.njjn.org/uploads/digital-library/resource_127.pdf.

[13] Paul S. Taylor, “Crime and the Foreign Born: The Problem of the Mexican” in Report on Crime and Criminal Justice in Relation to the Foreign Body for National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, (Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off, 1931), 197-243. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/44548NCJRS.pdf.

[14] Sarah Haley, “No Mercy Here,” University Press Scholarship Online, (September 2016): 9.

[15] Dawn P. Harris, “Punishing the Black Body: Marking Social and Racial Structures in Barbados and Jamaica,” University of Georgia, (December 01, 2017): 94.

Convict Leasing and Racial Capitalism

by Genoveva Ntirugelegwa

Juvenile convicts at work in the fields[1]


While we have dissected prison in many different time periods and forms throughout this course, convict leasing is a part of prison history that I have become increasingly interested in. Convict leasing developed throughout the South immediately after the Civil War. In Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, Haley describes convict leasing as a system that emerged in the U.S. South to fill the labor void caused by emancipation. Convict leasing is a process that forces inmates to perform manual labor and sell this labor to private companies. Post-emancipation, imprisonment became a method of extracting the cheap labor needed for the southern plantation economy. I am most interested in analyzing convict leasing as principal example of racial capitalism, a phenomenon that has underlined incarceration in the United States since the nation’s inception.

I found my primary source while searching through the Library of Congress for images depicting convict leasing. The photograph I selected is titled Juvenile convicts at work in the fields. This image was created in 1903, but the original photographer is unknown. From my own research and knowledge of convict leasing, I would reason that the original photographer was likely a member of an organization that was leasing agricultural labor from the prison where these children were being held. What is so striking about this image is the mere existence of child convicts, accompanied by the fact that they were being forced to do hard labor. The word “child” and “criminal” seem to be mutually exclusive in my own mind, but in the U.S. South in the 20th century, this idea was not an anomaly.

I presume the intended audience for this image could have been the photographer’s superiors, as evidence of the work being done. I think the purpose of this photo could be, as previously mentioned, evidence that these children were, in fact, working, or possibly to serve as a historical record of events. I would find it odd to photograph something as bizarre as child prisoners, but convict leasing was prominent in the southern United States at the time, so the sight of child prisoners performing manual labor was likely a normal aspect of life for the photographer.

the year 1903, when this image was created, is in the heart of the convict leasing system. Before the Civil War, prisons were made up of mostly white men – considering the fact that nearly all black people were considered property. In his article Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South, Christopher Muller states: “Just 15 years after the Civil War, African-Americans were imprisoned at a rate more than 12 times that of whites. Racial disparity in imprisonment in postbellum Georgia was twice as large as it is in the United States today” [2]. Emancipation posed both immense social and economic shifts in the U.S. South, and this resulted in a great shift in Southern inmate populations, including Georgia. Southerners could not conceive interacting with their former slaves as freedmen. Imprisonment served as a way to relegate former slaves to second-class citizenship and continue to exploit their labor through the prison system.

Convict leasing is often talked about as slavery by another name, but I would argue that it is yet another manifestation of racial capitalism. Muller provides the following argument: “In postbellum Georgia, the relationship between slavery and imprisonment was characterized by contention more than by functional succession. It was in the counties where African-Americans evaded plantations or established their own farms—not in the cotton belt—that black men were most likely to be imprisoned in the convict lease system”[3].

It is here that the intrinsic entanglement between capitalism and race are made clear. Convict leasing and slavery exist as both racial and economic systems. Race in society creates a hierarchy between those who own the means of production, and those who must sell their labor to the elite class. The U.S. South depended on racial hierarchy to justify the means in which they exploited workers, creating a large pool of cheap labor for the Southern economy. Muller found that convict leasing was more prominent in Georgia counties where black people worked to become the owners of their labor (counties where black people their own farms or did not work on plantations). Convict leasing then served as punishment for African Americans that refused to fill their designated role in the capitalist economy.

Racism and capitalism work together in particularly appalling ways justify the incarceration of children, as depicted in Juvenile convicts at work in the fields. The racialization of black women as detailed by Sarah Haley led to the idea that “that the black female body reproduced criminality and, by extension, a class of subjects that could be made captive and work mercilessly”[4]. Just as racialization has stripped black women of vulnerability and protections associated with white women, it also stripped black children of their childhood. Women could be incarcerated for failures as a parent, and their children could be incarcerated for nothing more than losing their parents.

The idea that convict leasing was slavery by another name fails to consider the larger systemic issue – racial capitalism. Capitalism creates an economic system where inequality is imperative, and racism ensures that a hierarchy is created and sustained. Racialization, with the purpose of creating a class of cheap, exploitable laborers, is the process with justifies stripping vulnerable populations of their perceived vulnerability and is ultimately the reason an image like Juvenile convicts at work in the fields exists.









[1] Juvenile convicts at work in the fields, 1903. Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016818521/


[2] Christopher Muller, “Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South,” American Journal of Sociology 124, no. 2 (September 2018): 368.


[3] Christopher Muller, “Freedom and Convict Leasing in the Postbellum South,” American Journal of Sociology 124, no. 2 (September 2018): 371.


[4] Sarah Haley. No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (United States: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 7.

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.

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.


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.