We Are Not Slaves

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

By Robert T. Chase

We Are Not Slaves

Approx. 512 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 23 halftones, 3 maps, 4 graphs, 12 tables

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5357-0
    Published: January 2020

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. Told from the vantage point of the prisoners themselves, this book highlights untold but devastatingly important truths about the histories of labor, civil rights, and politics in the United States.

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


"This book is 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. A must-read, tragic book."--Max Krochmal, author of Blue Texas: The Making of a Multiracial Democratic Coalition in the Civil Rights Era

"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, American University