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We Are Not Slaves

State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners' Rights in Postwar America

By Robert T. Chase

544 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 24 halftones, 3 maps, 4 graphs, 11 tables, index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5357-0
    Published: January 2020
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5358-7
    Published: November 2019

Justice, Power, and Politics

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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.

Published in association with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas

About the Author

Robert T. Chase is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University.
For more information about Robert T. Chase, visit the Author Page.


"Essential reading for anyone interested in the history of mass incarceration, We Are Not Slaves places incarcerated people themselves at the center of the postwar transformation of Texas prisons, demonstrating how they forged a multiracial, intersectional movement to challenge the brutal regimes of physical, legal, and sexual violence behind prison walls. This masterful study offers a template for future historical narratives 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

"Brilliant and richly detailed, We Are Not Slaves is a must-read for those looking to understand the historical relationship between mass incarceration and slavery."--Talitha LeFlouria, author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

"Chase’s excellent work adds a great deal to our understanding of the lives of prisoners, prison discipline, and the complexities of racism, labor, sexuality, and resistance."--Mary Ellen Curtin, author of Black Prisoners and Their World: Alabama, 1865-1900

"A must-read, tragic book, filled with agonizing accounts of state-sanctioned violence, clear analysis of the role of incarceration in shoring up the old Jim Crow, and breathtaking narratives of the struggles of ordinary prisoners to expose the system’s underlying brutality."--Max Krochmal, author of Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era

"A compelling social history of the evolving dynamics of power inside the Texas prison system, especially regarding the way the prison administrations manipulated racial and coercive hierarchies among prisoners to extract agricultural labor. No one else has ever gone as 'deep' into the experiential heart of the Texas gulag. We Are Not Slaves offers a nuanced and rich portrait of the incarcerated human beings who ultimately made the prisoners' rights campaign one of the most significant, if overlooked, social movements of its era."--Alex Lichtenstein, co-author of Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory