In the last decade, racial disparities in American incarceration rates have received considerable attention in scholarly, activist, and public circles. From the 1920s to the 1970s, the national incarceration rate was a stable 100 per 100,000. Yet in about two decades (1980-2008), the rate climbed from 221 to 767 per 100,000, an increase of 247 percent. Although these numbers are commonly quoted in public debates, many researchers fail to acknowledge that as early as 1960, African Americans were five times more likely to be imprisoned than whites. Moreover, African Americans have long been thought to face more extreme conditions in prison than white inmates, although research in that area is limited. Until our forthcoming study, there were no in-depth accounts of these phenomena or studies of the types of black prisoners who are most likely to experience severe punishment practices. Our findings support previous conclusions that African Americans are punished more severely while in prison, and we further show that African Americans labeled “politically radical” are especially vulnerable to indeterminate solitary confinement. We use the identifier black militant to discuss such prisoners because they proudly self-identify as black militants throughout our qualitative data. We do not use the term to reproduce the views held by correctional systems.
Our research is comprised of archival, ethnographic, and statistical data, though this essay solely discusses the archival and statistical data in abbreviated form. Focusing on California, a supreme example of American hyper incarceration, we compiled a state-specific database of public and private archival material (over seven hundred documents) that reveals the construction of black militants as so-called social problems and the consequences of this construction for the prison social system—mainly, the increased use of solitary confinement. We found in particular that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) singled out the Nation of Islam as the first organization for systematic segregation from the general prisoner population. Our qualitative findings are supported by statistical analysis of a nationally representative survey, which reveals that correctional institutions with a Nation of Islam presence are almost fourteen times more likely to use solitary confinement.
Black militants are constructed as social problems because they challenge hegemonic white supremacy, or the taken-for-granted belief that whiteness is normal and blackness is a pathological criminal condition that warrants harsh and disparate disciplinary measures. In California, top prison officials were especially concerned when the late 1950s brought a noticeable increase in black prisoners, many of whom were connected to the civil rights movement or sympathetic to the cause. Between 1955 and 1965, the percentage of black prisoners in California increased from 20.6 percent to 26.9 percent. To control this population, Director of Corrections Richard McGee proposed the Adjustment Center as the optimal policy solution.
California first created Adjustment Centers in the early 1950s to contain and rehabilitate “problem inmates,” which were defined as those exhibiting “psychotic behavior.” Previously, these types of inmates were kept for “long periods of idleness and in isolation or segregation.” Director McGee and his Committee on the Intensive Treatment of Problem Cases were anxious to quench inmate disturbances using a therapeutic approach and to move away from traditional modes of punishment that seemingly exacerbated behavioral issues. As a result, the Committee banned corporal punishment, but nevertheless gave prison workers wide discretion to run the Adjustment Centers. They also put the disciplinary courts—the same courts the Committee accused of displaying “anger and self-righteous compulsion to punish irritating problem cases”—in charge of sentencing prisoners to Adjustment Centers. These decisions ultimately allowed the Adjustment Center to transition from a place of rehabilitation to a torturous punishment chamber—solitary confinement by another name.
The first prisoners systematically targeted for placement in Adjustment Centers were members of black political groups. The CDCR was heavily influenced by the Justice Department and federal-level anxieties about “black extremists” and “civil rights provocateurs.” The CDCR justified constructing black militants as threatening by citing incidents in other states where they were blamed for riots and FBI investigations describing them as “criminals.”
In 1958, the CDCR released Administrative Bulletin No. 58/16 titled, “Special Procedures for Muslim Inmates,” the first administrative bulletin targeting black militants. It outlined a new process for identifying and classifying members of the Nation of Islam newly admitted to reception centers and those already present in the general prison population. In 1961, the CDCR expanded this policy to include all members of black political groups. The term “problem inmate” became synonymous with “black politics.” Once removed, black militants were placed in Adjustment Centers, which had become institutions of indeterminate isolation for black political opposition.
The Department continued to monitor the number of black militants entering their prisons, often using “black Muslim” as the main identifier regardless of whether the prisoner was a member of the Nation of Islam. All black militants were thought to be Muslims, with CDCR employees from the parole division even sending a memo in 1963 titled “The Problem” to top prison officials:
Because the number of Muslims is increasing, the parole division insists that it is prudent to develop a policy, whether or not the increase is from Muslims becoming less secretive about their membership, whether there is an actual increase in membership, or whether the department is becoming more skilled at identifying Muslims. Regardless, they are increasing, so we need a policy to handle it.
That policy consisted of segregating black militants in the Adjustment Centers, as illustrated by a letter written in 1963 by Sacramento-based corrections authorities about how to handle such prisoners:
We explain to him [a black militant] very empathetically that we are not concerned particularly with his individual beliefs and that, as long as he does not attempt to recruit or agitate other members of the population, he can believe what he chooses without any interference from us; however, the minute he attempts to recruit other members of his race, or for that matter anyone . . . or attempts to preach the beliefs of [his] group to others, he will be locked up immediately.
Rather than fearing blackness in general, the CDCR feared black political opposition and conflated such opposition with Islam. Underlying the conflation was a belief that the Nation of Islam is a cult rather than a recognized religion. This stance was supported by the courts each time Nation of Islam members brought lawsuits against the CDCR, commonly arguing “no other inmates are given solitary confinement for praying to God, or subject to punishment for the practice of their religious beliefs” (Williford v. California 1965). At the time, many black prisoners converted to Islam while in prison, a trend that frightened correctional officers, wardens, and prison officials, because the Nation of Islam taught its members that black Americans should stand up not only for their civil rights, but also their right to simply live. This radical stance challenged white supremacy and created the perception that black Muslim prisoners were particularly difficult to control and thus required isolation to prevent their message from politicizing the black prisoner population.
Prevailing understandings about race in prison often group black prisoners together, only separating them by gang affiliation. Yet, our essay suggests that religion has long been an important identifier for the prison staff who seek to control them. Just as black militant became synonymous with problem, it also became interchangeable with Muslim, revealing that prisoners have intersectional identities that influence how they experience discipline in prison. Separately, black, militant, and Muslim are social categories that instill fear in prison officials who compose penal policy and in correctional officers who serve as bureaucratic representatives at the street level. These identities connect to create compound disadvantage, otherwise known as interdependent systems of discrimination, where those with multiple identifiers become labeled as the highest threats to institutional welfare. In reality, the “highest risk level” is ascribed to those subverting hegemonic, taken-for-granted, and normalized white supremacy. Though the punishment manifestations of white supremacy have shifted overtime (i.e., from chattel slavery to mass incarceration), its hegemonic constitution has remained constant.
To further buttress our archival findings, we sought to determine whether the differential treatment of black militant prisoners in California was representative of a larger phenomenon throughout the entire country. To try and answer that question, we supplemented our qualitative work with statistical analysis of a nationwide survey that collected data from prison and jail systems from every state. The results of the statistical analysis convincingly corroborated the archival findings. We found there was a statistically significant relationship between the presence of prisoners identified as members of the Nation of Islam and a prison or jail system’s use of solitary confinement. In other words, prison and jail systems across the country that housed members of the Nation of Islam were much more likely to use solitary confinement than those that did not.
In short, through multiple techniques, our analysis suggests the experience of prison differs depending on an inmate’s race, religion, and political beliefs. Black militant and black Muslim prisoners are disproportionately the focus of punitive policies like solitary confinement. And while prison is, of course, intentionally designed to be a highly coercive experience, differential treatment behind bars based on skin color, religion, or political activity certainly should not play a role in that experience. The mutual constitution of white supremacy, black opposition, and religious difference reveals that American punishment is not solely concerned with inflicting retribution against blackness because of its assumed inferiority. American-style punishment specifically seeks out identifiers that conflict with assimilation into mainstream, Western, or more specifically, white society—in practice, social groups with multiple identifiers of difference (e.g., Black Muslim prisoner) are the most vulnerable for persecution because they are perceived as the most anti-American. White supremacy, in turn, becomes synonymous with preconceived notions about Western dominance, civility, and normalcy—the opposite of extremism.
The release of the 2017 FBI report titled, “Black Identity Extremists,” suggests the longstanding coercion of black political opposition remains a prominent fixture of American punishment. Our analysis proves that this coercion only intensifies behind bars.
All archival documents referenced in this essay come from the following collections: California State Archives: Department of Corrections-Administration-Assistant Director, Investigation Files-Muslim Correspondence, 1961-1968 and California State Archives: Department of Corrections-Director’s Subject Files, Institutions-Adjustment Centers Files.