Critical Book Spotlight: Dr. Robert Chase

Reblogged with permission from the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Critical Criminology and Social Justice Newsletter

Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, State University of New York (SUNY). He is the author of We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America (UNC, 2020). He is also the editor of Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance (UNC Press, 2019). His work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of American

History, the Boston Review, “Facing South”, and His research has been funded through postdoctoral fellowships with Southern Methodist University’s Clements Center, Case Western Reserve University, and Rutgers University. In 2017, he was a research fellow at the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. Currently, Chase is also the co-director of the national organization Historians Against Slavery (HAS). As a public intellectual, his work on the history of prison and policing reform and state violence has been featured on national media programs through radio, newspapers, and television (MSNBC, CNN, and NPR, Newsweek, Washington Post). His next book project is a history of sheriffs in the U.S. South and South West.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

I am an associate professor of U.S., African American, and Latinx history at Stony Brook University. My specialty and field of research is the rise of mass incarceration and the carceral state, its sources, origins, mechanisms, and current dynamics. The intellectual aim of my research is to offer an intervention to carceral studies that considers prisons and policing in the U.S. South and Southwest alongside histories that reveal social justice movements that confront carceral states. My work demonstrates how different scales of governance, the federal, state, and local policing powers, must be considered as multiple arms of carceral states, rather than a singular, top-down federal carceral state.

As a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park, my dissertation took up the study of prisoners’ rights movements in the American South, particularly in Texas, because of the massive omnibus civil rights case Ruiz v. Estelle (1972-1980). As a student of slavery having studied with Ira Berlin, I wanted to explore how twentieth century mass incarceration, particularly in the U.S. South, drew upon the history and legacy of nineteenth century slavery. And, as a student of the civil rights revolution and state-building having studied with Gary Gerstle, I was also interested in how prisoners turned to civil rights and Black and Brown empowerment to confront the emerging mid-twentieth century carceral state. With John H. Laub’s encouragement, I took up the study of a southern prisoners’ rights movement

through oral histories with incarcerated people.

In addition to We Are Not Slaves, I also published Caging Borders and Carceral States:

Incarcerations, Immigration Detentions, and Resistance (UNC, 2019), which is an anthology that brings together scholars of immigration with those studying the carceral state.

Can you provide readers with some insight into the contents of your book?

We Are Not Slaves is the first study of the southern prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980 and the subsequent construction of what many historians now call the era of mass incarceration. This project is a regional study of civil rights cases across the American South, but the book’s narrative is centered on the social movement that resulted in the landmark case Ruiz v. Estelle, which was a massive omnibus civil rights lawsuit that resulted in the long running civil rights trial over the southern practice of having select prisoners, often white, act as openly armed convict/trustee guards. This southern trustee system was a hierarchical racial regime that empowered and privileged white prisoners to conduct a vicious sex trade in which convict guards were given the tacit approval from the prison administration to use their power to rape other prisoners and engage in the buying and selling of prisoner bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and societal power. We Are Not Slaves draws upon court documents, affidavits, depositions, prisoner letters, and over sixty oral histories to excavate how prison violence was state-orchestrated. I argue that the social structure of prison violence in the American South, particularly Texas, rendered prisoners to a state orchestrated system of double enslavement—a slave for the state in prison fields and an enslaved body and servant within prison cells.

To reveal this carceral regime, prisoners forged an alliance with the NAACP-LDF to contest the

constitutionality of Texas prisons. Behind bars, a prisoner coalition of Chicano Movement and Black Power organizations publicized their deplorable conditions as “slaves of the state” and initiated a prisonmade civil rights revolution and labor protest movement. 

My manuscript shows that this civil rights rebellion, while mounting a successful legal challenge, was countered by a new prison regime –one that utilized paramilitary practices, promoted privatized prisons, endorsed massive prison building programs, and embraced 23-hour cell isolation—that established what I call a militarized “Sunbelt” carceral states approach that became exemplary of national prison trends. By analyzing the transition from southern prison plantations to a Sun Belt militarized prison system, I demonstrate that the prison system itself is an inherently violence space that consciously changes the shape, form, and modalities of its punishment regime as a way to perpetually reproduce new arrangements of carceral violence and power.

What inspired you to explore this topic?

As a historian of civil rights and carceral states, I was immediately interested in challenging

declension narratives for late twentieth century civil rights and racial empowerment. Rather than see a declension of social justice movements in the post-civil rights era, I wanted to chart the origins of mass incarceration and its impact on Black and Chicano/a Power movements. What I found was that as more and more Black and Latinx people were swept into prison through mass incarceration, they took their protest organizing experiences for civil rights and racial empowerment into the prisons. What I didn’t expect to find, however, was the ways in which civil rights cases in the American South, particularly Texas, focused on prison rape as state orchestrated and a systemic part of the coercive labor system. Discovering how sexual violence operated on the southern prison planation was a new revelation that came about only

because of the sixty oral histories that I conducted and the legal affidavits that incarcerated people wrote as a matter of their own truth telling and legal documentation project. 

If you want readers to take away a key message from the book, what would it be?

Three key messages: 1) Most studies of prisoner organizing and radicalism look to the urban North (Attica) and the far West (George Jackson in California), and therefore overlook prisoner organizing and protest in the American South. My analysis of southern prisoner organizing, however, demonstrates that prison labor and profitability are critical and understudied aspects of mass incarceration. I conclude that southern prisons constituted a system of double enslavement through coerced labor in prison fields and through the buying and selling of prisoner bodies in an effective slave market. As such, prison rape was not a product of an individual prisoner’s pathology, but rather functioned as state orchestrated in a

carceral regime of Jim Crow-era discipline. 2) Prisoner documentation, litigation, and legal testimony was not just a legal product; rather, it fostered a transformative and political process that evolved through cumulative phases of individual consciousness, truth telling, solidarity, and collective resistance. 3). Even the most far-reaching and successful prison reform case (Ruiz v. Estelle) was countered by what I call “carceral massive resistance” where states resisted federal court orders and then radically reinterpreted them as the political rationale to expand the prisons system through mass incarceration and militarization. Seeing prisons through the historical lenses of enslavement, labor coercion, sexual violence and racial degradation calls into question whether “reform” of punitive regimes are ever really possible—and therefore grounds abolitionism in the history of the prison’s ability to uphold Jim Crow systems of carceral White supremacy well beyond 1965. From Attica (1971) to the Ruiz trial (1980) to the most recent nationwide prison strikes in 2016 and 2018, prisoners have offered a repeated historical refrain that prisoners are not slaves, that incarceration cannot deny people their right to humanity, and that coerced prison labor remains a constitutional that requires a reconsideration of what constitutes a prisoners’ civil rights.

What is next for you?

My next book project takes up the history of sheriffs through the lens of militarized policing and

anti-insurgent thought. Currently titled Cold War Sheriffs: Policing the Domestic Insurgent and the Criminalization of Race During Mass Incarceration, this project takes up the role of sheriffs as an understudied but critical political and policing force that shaped racialized criminalization and punitive politics. This new project promises to build upon my last book project to further explore how anti-insurgent thought, practices, and policies policed both immigration and Blackness from the late 1970s through the 1990s. I will analyze how sheriffs control political power to police African American communities and migrant Latinx populations, particularly during moments of social, labor, and political protest.

Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University.