A Q&A with Robert Perkinson

Robert Perkinson
Photograph by Minako Kent

In Texas Tough, the Yale-trained historian looks at the explosion in modern America’s prison population. He finds the Texas penal system setting the pace in both the number of prisoners and the harsh conditions of their imprisonment, with the occasional surprisingly positive development. Perkinson is a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii. This is his first book.

When and why did you become interested in prisons, perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of the criminal justice system? My mother’s parents were white Mississippians opposed to segregation—a rare breed—so I was always interested in race relations and civil rights. In college I started thinking about the politics of incarceration. During the administration of the first President Bush, the drug war was in full swing and prisons were going up faster than Walmarts. In many states, prison expenditures surpassed higher-education spending, so I focused my graduate school research on criminal justice and discovered that prison populations, historically, correlate only weakly with crime rates and that the rise of imprisonment since the seventies has been concentrated overwhelmingly among young African American men, a trend unexplainable by criminal offense data. My questions led me back to the South, where the growth of imprisonment has been most intense, and finally to Texas, which, in the prison field, is where the real action is. Texas is ground zero in America’s prison boom.

If not crime rates, what factors do you find relate to rates of incarceration? Over the course of the twentieth century, crime rates have sometimes risen with imprisonment rates; other times the opposite has occurred. Pundits claim that increased incarceration caused the crime drop of the nineties, but this ignores the long-term data, as well as international comparisons. In Canada, for instance, crime similarly fell in the nineties but with no incarceration boom. Crime can’t explain the fact that the U.S. imprisonment rate has quintupled since the seventies and that the United States now manages the largest penal system on earth, with 2.4 million Americans under lock and key. I think a political shift is responsible. In the sixties, conservatives,

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