Silencing the Cell Block: The Making of Modern Prison Policy in North Carolina and the Nation
“Silencing the Cell Block” examines the relationship between imprisoned activists and civil liberties lawyers from the 1960s to the present in order to solve a puzzle central to the United States’ peculiar criminal justice system: Why do American prisons, despite affording inmates expansive due process protections, continue to punish more harshly than their counterparts in any Western country? To answer this question, “Silencing the Cell Block” begins by tracing the emergence of an interracial movement to unionize imprisoned workers in North Carolina and across the nation. Inspired by robust public sector labor and Black Power organizing campaigns, inmates sought a wide range of improvements, including freedom from racism and violence, fair wages, the abolition of large penal institutions, and a voice in prison governance. It then demonstrates how lawyers’ efforts to establish due process protections for prisoners unintentionally undermined inmates’ ability to organize and secure more substantive victories. In the early 1970s, civil liberties lawyers, moved by the broader due process revolution, shielded inmates from the worst abuses behind bars by winning cases compelling prisons to institute disciplinary hearings, grievance procedures, and other procedural protections designed to curtail arbitrary authority. At first, state officials adamantly opposed such improvements. But as the prisoners’ movement garnered strength and courts threatened increased intervention, they came to embrace internal grievance procedures as weapons to defeat inmates’ more sweeping demands. Ultimately, procedural reforms allowed state officials to convince judges that state penal institutions operated as modern bureaucracies that complied with the rule of law. By advocating for new procedural protections that offered the appearance—though not always the reality—of justice, civil liberties lawyers sympathetic to the prisoners’ cause helped make America’s severe prison practices more difficult to dismantle.
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