Date of Award

Fall 2010

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Barbie Zelizer

Second Advisor

John Jackson

Third Advisor

Michael Delli Carpini


This dissertation analyzes black and Puerto Rican prison protest in the 1970s. I argue that prisoners elucidated a nationalist philosophy of racial formation that saw racism as a site of confinement but racial identity as a vehicle for emancipation. Trying to force the country to see its sites of punishment as discriminatory locations of repression, prisoners used spectacular confrontation to dramatize their conditions of confinement as epitomizing American inequality. I investigate this radicalism as an effort to secure visibility, understood here as a metric of collective consciousness. In documenting the ways prisoners were symbols and spokespeople of 1970s racial protest, this dissertation argues that the prison served as metaphor and metonym in the process of racial formation. A concept and an institution, the prison was embodied in protest, hidden in punishment, represented in media, and known in ideas.

This dissertation examines the multifaceted mechanisms by which social movements attempt to effect change through creating new ways of knowing. I examine prison visibility through two extended case studies. First, I study a coterie of radical black prisoners centered in California and revolving around militant prisoner author George Jackson. Through appeals to revolutionary action as racial authenticity, this grouping—which included Angela Davis, Ruchell Magee, and the San Quentin 6, as well as the Black Panther Party and others—described black prisoners as slaves rebelling against the confinement of American society writ large. The second case study addresses the successful decade-long campaign to free five Puerto Rican Nationalists imprisoned for spectacular attacks on U.S. authority in the 1950s. Understanding colonialism as a prison, U.S.-based Puerto Rican nationalists in the 1970s (including the Young Lords, the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional and others) defined the freedom of these prisoners as a necessary step toward national independence. Through strategies of visibility, black and Puerto Rican prison radicals used collective memory to overcome the spatial barriers of confinement. Such memories were recalled through a wide range of tactics, from bombs to bombast, from alternative media to community organizing, as prison radicals fought to control the terms of their visibility.

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