Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Robert T. Chase

-What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

Trained as a specialist in twentieth century history and race, I am interested in examining the intersection of social, legal, and political history, African American and Chicano/a history, and the study of civil rights and social justice. I received my PhD in 2009 and my dissertation won the University of Maryland’s EB and Jean Smith award for best dissertation in political history. Previously, I was the public historian for the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, where I organized a large conference on Black Power. I am currently an assistant professor in the Department of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY) where I am completing revisions on my book manuscript, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: Prisoners’ Rights Movements and the Construction of Carceral States (UNC, Chapel Hill). I am also presently co-editing an anthology entitled Sunbelt Prisons and Carceral States: New Histories of Immigration Detention/Deportation, Incarceration, and Resistance (UNC, Chapel Hill).


-What is the project you’re currently working on?

My forthcoming manuscript, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: The Prisoners’ Rights Movement and the Construction of Carceral States (UNC, Chapel Hill), addresses the contemporary crisis over criminal justice reform by posing three historical questions: 1) how did the United States come to have the world’s largest carceral state; 2) what have been the sources of resistance to America’s carceral state in the post-civil rights era (1965 to present); 3) what is the political relationship between the two?

My book will be the first study of the southern prisoners’ rights movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and the subsequent construction of what many historians now call the era of mass incarceration. This project is therefore 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 lawsuit that demanded that Texas outlaw the practice of having inmates act as openly armed guards. This southern trustee/guard system was a hierarchical racial regime that constituted a vicious sex trade in which convict guards were given the tacit approval from the prison administration to use their power to rape other inmates and engage in the buying and selling of inmate bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and societal power. As a regional model, the Ruiz case inspired prisoners across the South to wage a historically mindful public campaign for visibility that sought to convince the courts and the wider public that southern prisoners suffered terrible abuses as twentieth century “slaves of the state.”

My manuscript shows that this inmate civil rights rebellion, while successfully ending the existing system, failed to make conditions in Texas prisons more humane. As a result, the new Texas prison regime — one that utilized paramilitary practices, promoted privatized prisons, endorsed massive prison building programs and tolerated gang-related warfare — established a new prison system that reaffirmed its law and order focus while sublimating the legal and human rights of prisons. This new “Sunbelt” carceral approach, I conclude, became exemplary of national prison trends.


-How did you arrive at this topic?

When I started this research in the early 2000s, there were relatively few historical studies of twentieth-century prisons and almost none of the prisoners’ rights movement. Despite the development of a “long civil rights movement” historiography, I found that the literature simply did not discuss the ways in which what we now call mass incarceration has turned the gains of the civil rights revolution into another age of racial disparity.


-What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

First, historians need to explain how and why the vast expansion of state power as expressed in the massive prison buildup of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without much public debate. Conservative backlash theories have provided one such explanation, but locating the growth of the prison simply in reactionary “law and order” politics fails to adequately explain how it is that the places where the prisoners’ rights movement scored the most victories, namely the South and Sunbelt states, have come to dominate the major trends of the modern-day carceral state. The question of legal success for prisoners’ rights in the South, on the one hand, and yet nearly simultaneous massive prison build-up in Sunbelt states, on the other, is a major historical problem that my forthcoming book will address.


Second, the history of resistance to carceral states reveals that regional, state, and local histories are integral to the shape of mass incarceration. By demonstrating how a variety of prisoners’ rights movement resisted mass incarceration, I make the argument that regional histories and different state prison practices constructed not a single carceral state but a variety of carceral states across the American prison landscape.


When activists, policy makers, and reformers attempt to curb mass incarceration, they must seek redress not only at the federal level through national legislation but perhaps more importantly they must encounter the ways in which policing and mass incarceration are governed at the local and state level where the American state is indeed strong. One suggestion that my forthcoming book offer is that social justice movements against mass incarceration should continue to focus as much attention on changes in local and state government as the civil rights movement once did when it sought civil rights as a matter of national and federal intervention. To dismantle this encompassing thicket, we must utilize the spade of history to reveal just how deep we must cut to reach the roots of intertwining carceral states.