The New Republic’s online version today carries a review about a book titled Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson. The book covers the history of the Texas prison system going back to 1848. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the review by Marie Gottschalk, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania: Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, prisoners began turning to the courts for relief. But as Perkinson shows, state and prison officials determined to maintain the core features of the control model eventually eviscerated many of the court-ordered reforms after wars of attrition played out in the legal arena. Perkinson devotes nearly two chapters to the case of David Resendez Ruíz, the lead plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit brought against the Texan prison system in the 1970s. Battered around in the courts for about two decades, Ruíz v. Estelle eventually brought about some significant changes in the state’s penal system. But indirectly it also “helped create an equally severe and infinitely larger prison system in its place.” As for Ruíz, he was kept in solitary confinement in a cramped, dank, dungeon-like cell for decades after the lawsuit was settled. This injustice continued until just months before he died in a prison hospital in 2005 after being denied medical parole. As Perkinson dryly notes, Ruíz “fought the law and the law [ultimately] won.” If history is any guide, Texan prisons, already some of the toughest in the nation, could become even leaner and meaner in the future. State and prison officials in Texas and elsewhere are attempting to cut costs by privatizing more prisons and prison services, intensifying their efforts to exploit penal labor, and slashing spending for inmates’ food and other “luxuries” like vocational, substance abuse, and educational programs. Recently Texas enacted a slew of penal reforms aimed at shrinking its prison population, but its incarceration rate stubbornly remains the second highest in the country. If Perkinson’s analysis is correct, the Lone Star State will not begin shuttering its prisons without enormous political pressure. The control model pioneered by Texas and exported to other states has become a key tool to manage an increasingly diverse society ridden with many politically and economically marginalized groups. On this subject, Texas’s future looks almost as bleak as its past. UPDATE: The following interview with Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, appeared in the March issue of Texas Monthly. The interview was conducted by Mike Shea. 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, especially in the South, turned to crime as a galvanizing issue as they ceded ground on civil rights. As schools and neighborhoods were integrated, policing and penalties grew more intense. Mass incarceration is thus a product of the conservative counterrevolution that reshaped American politics from 1968 forward. Isn’t it a good thing that 2.4 million criminals are off America’s streets? Yes, criminologists call this the incapacitation effect. It works better than deterrence and has been more politically fashionable than rehabilitation. But incapacitation has serious limitations. First, it works only while inmates are actually behind bars. Second, there are moral and practical problems in justifying penalties based on what inmates might do rather than what they actually did; in practice, incapacitation becomes a kind of preventive detention. Third, caring for potential criminals in cages is just about the most expensive crime prevention program imaginable. What made Texas unique among the states in terms of the prison boom? Bigger and badder. Texas’s prison population is around 173,000, a figure that should surpass California as number one in the country when official statistics are released later this year. Texas also leads the nation in prison privatization, supermax isolation, and, of course, lethal injections. The state’s per capita imprisonment rate — 639 per 100,000 residents—recently dropped but is still among the top four states’. But Texas is also interesting because of its contradictions. It’s a law-and-order state that has nonetheless produced remarkably powerful penal reform movements, including a nearly successful campaign by suffragists to turn Texas’s prisons into clinics in the twenties and the convict writ-writer movement of the seventies. Texas is important because it stands for the nation as a whole. If New York and California once served as the country’s bellwether states, Texas does today
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