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Chasing Slavery | The Prison and Detention Center

Prisons, detention centers and asylums shape the 20th century experience of work and the meaning of civil rights.  These three scholars trace how people in prisons and asylums challenged their sterilizations, their forced labor and their illegal enslavement in Texas and California. Together, the case studies point to multi-racial gender dynamics, deeply intrusive forms of exploitation, and the assertion of civil rights in asylums and prisons.

Jermaine Thibodeaux | University of Texas at Austin & Cambridge School of Weston

Raising Cane, Razing Men:
A Gendered View of Life on Texas Sugar Prison Farms, 1884-1920

Jermaine Thibodeaux examines relationships among men in the prisons that provided labor to the sugar plantations that emerged in the Texas Gulf Coast in in the aftermath of Reconstruction.  Thibodeaux examines biennial reports – against the grain – to track the daily rhythms of life and forced labor on plantations in Texas’ Sugar Bowl – an ultra-masculine world where no one talked about masculinity, a system that became the leading edge of state segregation in Texas.  

Natalie Lira | University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

“Nobody Paid Me Anything:”
Race, Disability and Forced Labor in California’s Pacific Colony

In 1918, the State of California established Pacific Colony, a state asylum that housed and sterilized teenagers designated to be incapable of being adults. Focusing on detainees of Mexican origin, historian Natalie Lira examines the labor dimension of inmates’ lives, forced to watch over other children, clean and maintain dormitories, and hired out to local farms. Lira argues that inmates felt the contradiction of doing adult jobs while being denied the privileges of adulthood and charts the way teenagers challenged their loss of freedom.

Robert Chase | Stony Brook University

“We are not Slaves”:
Strike Waves, Prisons and Civil Rights in Post-War Texas

Building from oral histories, prison interviews, legal cases and freedom of information requests, historian Robert Chase examines a vast prison rebellion in 1970s Texas and its importance to our understanding of civil rights.  Following the language people used to explain their experiences in prison, Chase charts rebellions against forced agricultural labor outside prison walls and sexual exploitation within. These strike waves and the legal decisions they spawned established new civil rights in Texas.

Presentation Title
Session Q&A


  • Dwight Watson (session chair) | History, Texas State University
  • Jermaine Thibodeaux | University of Texas at Austin & Cambridge School of Weston
  • Natalie Lira | University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • Robert Chase | Stony Brook University