Silencing the Cell Block:
The Making of Modern Prison Policy in North Carolina and the Nation
[Manuscript in progress]
During the early 1970s, imprisoned workers in North Carolina and across the nation launched a surprisingly successful movement to unionize. My manuscript reveals how state officials stymied their efforts by leveraging prisoners’ newly expanded procedural rights to undermine their ability to organize and secure more substantive victories. Inspired by robust public sector labor and Black Power organizing campaigns, prisoners’ unions sought a wide range of improvements, including fair wages, a voice in prison governance, and the abolition of large penal institutions. Imprisoned activists also worked together with civil liberties lawyers to file lawsuits that compelled prisons to institute disciplinary hearings, grievance procedures, and other procedural protections. At first, state officials opposed such reforms. But as the prisoners’ movement garnered strength, many came to embrace them as weapons to defeat imprisoned people’s more sweeping demands. State officials pointed to the procedural reforms to persuade judges that prisons were modern bureaucracies that complied with the rule of law. Once designed to ensure human dignity and due process, procedural reforms, I argue, ironically made America’s severe prison practices more difficult to dismantle.
While recent scholarship suggests the prisoners’ rights movement fell victim to conservative electoral backlash in the 1970s, my work moves beyond an exclusively political framework to demonstrate how constitutional law shaped and constrained the prisoners’ movement. Drawing on deep archival research and oral histories, I fuse the stories of diverse actors—state attorneys, civil liberties lawyers, prison administrators, U.S. Department of Justice lawyers, judges, legislators, and imprisoned people—to illuminate both the ideological and institutional dilemmas created by the extension of constitutional rights to prisoners. Constitutional rights litigation, I show, succeeded in making prisons more rational, transparent, and procedurally fair, but it was also highly individualized, making it difficult to use litigation to reach the structural inequities undergirding American prison policies. Government officials who opposed the prisoners’ movement easily drew on this individualized model to stymie imprisoned people’s calls for further reforms. They learned they could point to the state’s protection of prisoners’ rights to undermine the collective action that threatened to radically transform America’s system of punishment. The prisoners’ movement fell short of its goals, then, not only due to politics but also because of the limitations of constitutional law.