by Robert T. Chase
In the early twentieth century, the brutality of southern prisons became a national scandal. Prisoners toiled in grueling, violent conditions while housed in crude dormitories on what were effectively slave plantations. This system persisted until the 1940s when, led by Texas, southern states adopted northern prison design reforms. Texas presented the reforms to the public as modern, efficient, and disciplined. Inside prisons, however, the transition to penitentiary cells only made the endemic violence more secretive, intensifying the labor division that privileged some prisoners with the power to accelerate state-orchestrated brutality and the internal sex trade. Reformers' efforts had only made things worse--now it was up to the prisoners to fight for change.
Drawing from three decades of legal documents compiled by prisoners, Robert T. Chase narrates the struggle to change prison from within. Prisoners forged an alliance with the NAACP 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 prison-made civil rights revolution and labor protest movement. These insurgents won epochal legal victories that declared conditions in many southern prisons to be cruel and unusual--but their movement was overwhelmed by the increasing militarization of the prison system and empowerment of white supremacist gangs that, together, declared war on prison organizers. Told from the vantage point of the prisoners themselves, this book weaves together untold but devastatingly important truths from the histories of labor, civil rights, and politics in the United States as it narrates the transition from prison plantations of the past to the mass incarceration of today.
"Robert Chase's We Are Not Slaves is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of mass incarceration. This comprehensive account of the postwar transformation of Texas prisons puts incarcerated people themselves at the center of this history and demonstrates how they forged a multiracial, intersectional movement to challenge the brutal regimes of physical, legal, and sexual violence behind prison walls. This is a masterful study that will profoundly influence future scholarship by providing us with a template for narrating a history of prisons and the grassroots." --Donna Murch, author of Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California and Assata Taught Me
"Drawing from three decades of legal documents compiled by prisoners, Chase narrates the struggle to change prisons from within... He finds that these insurgents won epochal legal victories but that their movement was overwhelmed by the increasing militarization of the prison system and empowerment of white supremacist gangs that, together, declared war on prison organizers." -- Law & Social Inquiry
About the Author:
Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University.