Robert Chase

As a historian of the post-1945 U.S., my research areas of expertise include: politics and civil rights law; the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Chicano Movement; and, prisons and policing.  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 forthcoming book, Civil Rights on the Cell Block: The Prisoners’ Rights Movement and the Construction of the Carceral State, 1945–1990, 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 “New Jim Crow.”  By placing the prisoners’ rights movement squarely in the labor organizing and civil rights mobilizing traditions, my work reconceptualizes what constitutes “civil rights” and to whom it applies. Focusing on 1945 to the mid-1990s when the nation’s prison population skyrocketed from 300,000 to 2.1 million and became disproportionately Black and Latino, Civil Rights on the Cell Block exposes how the criminal justice system, which was at the heart of an older racial and labor order, fueled a prison-made civil rights movement. My work shows that this inmate 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 “Sunbelt” 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 Sunbelt Prisons and Carceral States: New Histories of Incarceration, Immigration Detention/Deportation, and Resistance (UNC Press), explores how the carceral regimes of prisons, policing, and immigration are intertwined in the American southwest and borderlands.  

My next 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. By offering historical narratives of infamous sheriffs – from Eugene “Bull” Connor to Joe Arapio, I have in mind a new project that will be both regional and transnational in scope and will consider the development of sheriffs and how their policing power shaped and bent the civil rights movement, immigration detention/deportation, and U.S. incarceration within the framework of domestic racial politics and global anti-insurgent thought.

My work has been published in the Journal of Urban History, the Journal of American History, and a chapter in the anthology The New, New South (University Press of Florida, 2012) and my book projects supported by research fellowships at Southern Methodist University, Rutgers University, Case Western Reserve University, and Connecticut University. To reach wide audiences, I have been featured on national media programs through radio, print newspapers, and television. 

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