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Robert Chase


Associate Professor (Ph.D., University of Maryland, 2009)
Office: SBS N-331A

Interests: Carceral Studies; Post-1945 U.S.; civil rights law and politics; the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Chicano movements; prisons and policing; labor and working class; public and oral history.

The nexus of my research centers on the ways in which social justice movements, civil rights, and the prisoners’ rights movement have confronted mass incarceration and the carceral state. My first book, We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners Rights in Postwar America (UNC Press, 2020) won four book awards, including the American Society of Criminology’s Best Book Award, Division of Critical Criminology and Social Justice and the H.L. Mitchell Award for Best Book on Southern Labor and the Working Class from the Southern Historical Association. We Are Not Slaves examines the southern prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and the subsequent construction of what many historians now call the era of mass incarceration and the and "New Jim Crow". This southern trustee 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 engage in what I call state-orchestrated sexual assault through the buying and selling of prisoner bodies as a sexual commodity that signified cultural standing and societal power. To confront the carceral regime, 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. My work shows that this prison-made 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 and "Sunbelt" and militarized carceral state approach that became exemplary of national prison trends.
A second book project brings together historians of immigration and immigration detention with historians of the carceral state. This project, an anthology entitled Caging Borders and Carceral States: Incarcerations, Migration Detention, and Resistance (UNC Press, 2019), explores how the carceral regimes of prisons, policing, and immigration are intertwined in the American southwest and borderlands.  

My third book project is a history of sheriffs in the U.S. South and South West. As elected politicians and as law enforcers, sheriffs occupy a unique position in American history that mark their policing role as significantly different than in other nations. 
My work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of American History, and the anthologies The New, New South (University Press of Florida, 2012) and Darker Angels of Our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of Historyand Violence (Bloomsbury, 2021); and my book projects have been supported by fellowships at Southern Methodist University, Rutgers University, Case Western Reserve University, and the University of Connecticut. To reach wide audiences, I have appeared on national media programs through radio, print newspapers, and cable news television (CNN and MNSBC).

In 2022-2023, I received, along with my collaborators Susan Scheckel (English) and Zebluon Miletsky (Africana Studies), a Sustaining Public Engagement grant from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). With that grant, we initiated the digital humanities project “Writing Beyond the Prison: Reimaging the Carceral Ecosystem with Incarcerated Authors” which will publish the writings of incarcerated authors and make them publicly available in a “Living Archive” website and build a curriculum around their writing. As such, this program draws inspiration from the Federal Writers Project’s “slave narrative” project to create an ongoing archive that will give voice to those often rendered voiceless and bound to mass incarceration and the carceral state.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with graduate students interested in taking up carceral studies and the history of race, civil rights, labor, and politics in the post-World War II world.

Recent Publications: