fyi...aj wright // ajwright@...
From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...
Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2002 1:17 PM
Subject: H-South Review: Curtin Responds to Minter's Review
I am grateful to Patricia Minter for her review. She raised several
important issues, but I would like to focus my response upon her
observation that both "defiance and acquiescence to white authority"
existed inside prisons.
In the late 19th century, the state of Alabama and county authorities
leased their prisoners to work primarily to two private companies: the
Tennessee Coal and Iron Company and the Sloss Iron and Steel Company. Under
the convict-leasing system, prisoners were forced to mine a required quota
of coal, up to 5 tons a day, or be whipped. One part of the "world" Black
Alabama prisoners found themselves in was a nightmare of forced labor,
beatings, overwork, torture, and other horrors.
It is extremely difficult for historians of the southern convict leasing
system to detail change over time within the prison system and to recapture
the voices of the prisoners themselves. The lack of first-hand accounts and
the administrative nature of most prison documents have left us with little
sense of day to day life in most southern prisons. Although we have some
idea of the brutal way in which southern prisoners were treated, there is
hardly any indication of how they responded.
The sources I found in Alabama, however, were most unusual. Nearly fifteen
years of correspondence between Chief Inspector Reginald H. Dawson and his
two subordinates Dr. Albert T. Henley and William D. Lee, (along with other
sources) allowed me to track changes in prison conditions and prisoner
behavior over time. I was able to create periodizations central to my
interpretation of how, exactly, prisoners living within an oppressive
system could also -- at times -- exert some degree of control over their
The periodization is crucial. After the civil war and throughout the 1870s,
the state did not interfere in the affair of labor contractors; prisoners
could try to escape or endure. But Dawson, who served as Chief Inspector of
the Alabama Penitentiary between 1883-1896, made a difference.
Dawson forced companies to supply prisoners with "time cards" showing when
they were to be released, awarded "short time" pardons for good behavior,
encouraged extra wages for overtime work, and institutionalized regular
letter-writing to families. He also went along with Julia Tutwiler's plan
to create prison schools. Dawson implemented these reforms to improve
discipline and production, and his authority often did not extend into the
county camps; nevertheless, prisoners interpreted these changes to mean
that Dawson was, to some extent, on their side and responded accordingly.
The number of escapes fell. They wrote letters to him, to the Governor, and
to lawyers about their treatment and complained when held overtime or
denied time cards.
During Dawson's regime as Chief Inspector, some Alabama prisoners took
advantage of prison reforms, going beyond the letter of the code to appeal
to inspectors as their protectors and advocates. Dawson did not determine
HOW prisoners behaved; their demands often surprised and enraged him, and
he cracked down hard against arson and other forms of rebellion. But his
tenure as Chief Inspector enabled prisoners to act WHEN they did, and upset
the absolute authority of the contractors that had previously gone
There are plenty of examples in my book of prisoners acquiescing to
authority and complying with rules. What I think Minter objects to is my
interpretation of what some of that behavior might mean. As I explained in
the introduction, my definition of "agency" came from the historical
sociologist William Sewell, meaning the ability to exert "some degree of
control over the social relations in which one is enmeshed." Prisoner
"agency" did not always mean defiance. When prisoners refused to be goaded
into arguments with guards, or tried to win "short time" pardons by
complying with production quotas and rules, or did not attempt to escape, I
think this can be interpreted as exercising "some degree of control"
because they chose options that they thought would enable them to be
released from prison and return home more quickly than if they disobeyed
rules and tried to escape.
To note that prisoners acquiesced is important, but it is also important to
understand what motivated them to comply with rules and orders.
Likewise, lists of allegedly "bad" prisoners are not all they seem and do
not necessarily indicate acts of "resistance." Coal companies regularly
passed on false "bad" conduct reports to inspectors, hoping to deprive
prisoners of short time and keep skilled miners perpetually incarcerated.
Accusations, right or wrong, of bad conduct, placed many highly skilled
prison miners in a "double bind." They needed to demonstrate their skills
in order to produce their quota of coal and survive, but TCI and Sloss were
not about to release men with such profitable talents.
Sydney Holman was one skilled prison miner caught in such a bind. Minter
objects to my characterization of his suicide as illustrative of both
despair AND choice. Although I do not think these are mutually exclusive
categories, I accept that this is a question of interpretation and
reasonable people can disagree. His skill as a miner, the refusal of his
short time, and the method of his suicide, detailed by Inspector Henley,
led me to make the interpretation I did. I would like to correct a mistaken
impression, however. When Sydney Holman closed the gate in the heading of
the mine and trapped the gasses therein, the explosion killed only him, no
To paraphrase Ralph Ellison, the sum of black prisoners' lives consisted of
more than what was done to them. The documents from Dawson's era indicate
that the "world" of black prisoners extended outside of the prison to black
communities, their families, the courts, and the free laborers they
sometimes worked alongside of. Convicts have often been compared to slaves,
but these prisoners had a vision of themselves as free men and women, and
their main goal was to be released and returned to their families. Although
the means -- escape, defiance, or acquiescence -- differed, their goal of
freedom remained the same.
Mary Ellen Curtin
University of Essex