The New York Times
Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empireby Robert Perkinson
"In the prison business, all roads lead back to Texas. A pioneer in criminal justice severity - from mandatory sentencing to prison privatization, from supermax isolation to assembly-line executions - Texas is the most locked-down state in the most incarcerated country in the world. Texas Tough, a sweeping tour of southern justice from slavery to the present,… See more details below
"In the prison business, all roads lead back to Texas. A pioneer in criminal justice severity - from mandatory sentencing to prison privatization, from supermax isolation to assembly-line executions - Texas is the most locked-down state in the most incarcerated country in the world. Texas Tough, a sweeping tour of southern justice from slavery to the present, explains how this punishment colossus came into being and how a plantation-based penal system once dismissed as barbaric became a template for the nation." "Drawing on archival research and interviews with prisoners, guards, judges, and lawmakers, historian Robert Perkinson reveals the southern origins of America's prison state. He traces the development of two modes of criminal discipline, the North's rehabilitative approach and the South's emphasis on retribution and profit, and shows how an unforgiving, racially divisive model ultimately triumphed. Most provocatively, he argues that just as Jim Crow, lynching, and convict leasing took hold in response to emancipation and Reconstruction, so today's mass imprisonment must be understood as a reaction to civil rights protests and desegregation." A story of convict rebellions, spirited reform movements, and fearsome crackdowns, Texas Tough makes clear why the world's oldest republic has built the most expansive prison system in the history of democratic governance and why racial disparities in criminal justice have worsened over the past forty years, despite the breakthroughs of civil rights.
The New York Times
“A searching history of American incarceration, and an important reckoning . . . an alarming indictment, built on passionate and exhaustive research.” The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling... A gripping history lesson and a fascinating read.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Perkinson makes a convincing case that mass incarceration is the most pressing civil rights issue today… Essential reading if the nation ever hopes to move in a different, less-punitive and more-rehabilitative direction.” The Boston Globe
“Takes readers on an eminently horrifying journey into America's own heart of darkness.” Columbia Journalism Review
“A rich narrative… Perkinson directs the clear light of reason onto the Lone Star State.” The Morning News
“An intensively researched, disturbing history of American penology… A convincing and discouraging argument that the Texas model of a profit-making, retributive prison system has become the national template.” Kirkus Reviews
“Sheds light on the evolution of penal systems across the country… A fascinating and often deeply troubling book.” Booklist
“Texas Tough is a raw, compelling assessment of racial disparity and southern culture as they have determined the massive over-incarceration of African Americans. If you want to understand how politics, not crime control, governs today's prison population, read this book. Anyone concerned with justice and fairness should place this on their must-read list.” Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and author of When Law Fails
“This book is a Texas Death Match between David (Robert Perkinson) and Goliath (the American prison system). Goliath is armed, violent, massive, and hard to bring down, but David has a sling and a book full of smooth stones taken from the brook of history.” Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History
“Texas Tough is a powerful study of the Texas prison system, its profit-driven administration, its history and its critical impact on the U.S. national prison system. Based on superb research that traces the racial assumptions of today's criminal system to the ideas of race developed during American slavery, Texas Tough is a gracefully written work of wide-ranging, impressive historical knowledge.” James Oliver Horton, author of Landmarks of African American History
“A brilliant and riveting account of the nation's most important prison system. Perkinson describes its growth with extraordinary care given to the daily lives of the inmates, the institutional structures, and the philosophy of punishment (including the death penalty) that seem immune to innovation and reform. Texas provides a perfect lens to study America's exploding prison problems today, and Perkinson in an ideal guide. As both an original history of punishment and a critique of current issues of race, violence, and incarceration, Texas Tough is in a class by itself.” David Oshinsky, author of "Worse Than Slavery": Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
“The United States maintains the largest penal system in the world. With his powerful story of the prisons of Texas, Robert Perkinson shows how we came to this desperate condition. It is a story we all need to understand and there is no better place to comprehend the origins and evolution of this national tragedy.” Edward Ayers, author of The Promise of the New South
“Texas Tough is a gripping work of history, but its most important lesson is about the country we live in today. We cannot fulfill America's promise of liberty and justice until we address the crisis of mass incarceration. Every social justice advocate and policy maker in the nation needs to read this book.” Ann Beeson, Executive Director, Open Society Institute
“Texas Tough is the most important history of crime and punishment in America since David Rothman's The Discovery of the Asylum. It will transform our understanding of not only crime and punishment but also the nature of historical change in the United States, which is not driven, as we believe, by progress or even the idea of progress, but by regress. Robert Perkinson shows us that the past continuously structures and constrains every effort to re-imagine and reform the present. This is no small achievement.” Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea
“Texas Tough shows that the politics of race has always governed the politics of punishment and explains why our criminal justice system is the frontline of America's human rights struggle in the twenty-first century. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to build a stronger America and put these decades of over-incarceration (and under-education) of Americans behind us.” Benjamin Todd Jealous, President, NAACP
Texas Tough is the most important history of crime and punishment in America since David Rothman's The Discovery of the Asylum. It will transform our understanding of not only crime and punishment but also the nature of historical change in the United States, which is not driven, as we believe, by progress or even the idea of progress, but by regress. Robert Perkinson shows us that the past continuously structures and constrains every effort to re-imagine and reform the present. This is no small achievement.
A brilliant and riveting account of the nation's most important prison system. Perkinson describes its growth with extraordinary care given to the daily lives of the inmates, the institutional structures, and the philosophy of punishment (including the death penalty) that seem immune to innovation and reform. Texas provides a perfect lens to study America's exploding prison problems today, and Perkinson in an ideal guide. As both an original history of punishment and a critique of current issues of race, violence, and incarceration, Texas Tough is in a class by itself.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
The Rise of America's Prison Empire
By Robert Perkinson
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Robert Perkinson
All rights reserved.
There's tough. And then there's Texas tough.
— LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR DAVID DEWHURST
If we are to fully understand the causes and consequences of America's prison buildup, a good place to start is Huntsville, Texas. Although dozens of prison-dominated communities now dot the American landscape from Florence, Arizona, to Wallens Ridge, Virginia, Huntsville stands above the rest: it is the most locked-down town in the most imprisoned state in the most incarcerated country in the world. Although America's sprawling penal system — a collection of some five thousand jails and prisons — is highly decentralized, Huntsville, perhaps even more than Washington, D.C., could stake a claim to serve as its capital city. For 160 years, it has coordinated criminal punishment for the Lone Star State and, in the last half century, it has stood at the forefront of a carceral revolution that has remade American society and governance.
A sleepy town surrounded by pine forests and tumbledown farms, seventy miles north of Houston, Huntsville was selected in 1848 to build the state's first residential institution, a penitentiary. Ever since, the community's fortunes have depended on crime and punishment; as Texas's prison system grew, so did Huntsville. "We sort of live within the shadows of the Walls," comments Jim Willett, a longtime resident and former warden. "Three times a day we hear the 'all clear' count whistle. When you think about it, it marks the passing of our days."
Today more than ever, imprisonment is Huntsville's lifeblood. Nearly half of the town's residents (16,227 out of 35,567) live behind bars. Some 7,500 adults earn their paychecks keeping them there. Each morning, thousands of guards in ill-fitting gray uniforms pile into pickups and head to one of the area's nine prisons, while starched administrators drive to one of the offices that make up the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) headquarters. From their cubicles they oversee the largest state prison system in the United States, one that incarcerates more people than Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. "We've grown so massive, we need a building like the Pentagon," remarks a harried TDCJ bureaucrat.
At first glance, Huntsville looks like any other small southern city. National chains dominate the two main highway exits. In prosperous neighborhoods, spacious homes line up behind tidy lawns along wide, oak-draped streets. In the poorest sections, weather-worn shotgun houses share overgrown lots with rusting trailers. Although Huntsville has a college, Sam Houston State University, churches outnumber bars and hunting shops outnumber cinemas. A well-kept central plaza features a new limestone courthouse, but downtown merchants have fallen on hard times since Wal-Mart began siphoning retail dollars to the outskirts. Rogers Shoes and Ernst Jewelers cling to life behind historic storefronts, but out of habit more than profit. Like most American towns, Huntsville is increasingly governed by the economics of scale and the geography of parking.
What sets Huntsville apart is the prison business. Just a stone's throw from the plaza rises the town's most impressive and imposing building, a redbrick fortress known as "the Walls," Texas's flagship penitentiary. Surrounded by twenty-five-foot fortifications, the Walls complex contains a small town in its own right: office space, kitchen facilities, an auto shop, massive classrooms, a chapel, an infirmary, and, most famously, the busiest death house in the nation. Some of the structures are twenty-first-century vintage, others nineteenth. "Working at the Walls you have a special sense of history," says Willett, a heavyset man with droopy eyes who served as warden for four years. Some longtime residents claim the prison has been locking up and executing offenders for so long that restless ghosts prowl its dusty tiers.
The Walls is Huntsville's icon, but rival landmarks abound. Just beyond the prison's eastern gun towers, a crumbling stadium recalls the "world's toughest rodeo," a gladiatorial convict spectacular that served as one of Texas's main tourist attractions between 1931 and 1986. A short walk down the road sits an army surplus store, formerly named Bustin' Loose Mens Wear, the first stop for roughly sixty prisoners released daily. Adjacent to the Greyhound station, where ex-cons exchange vouchers for one-way tickets to Dallas or Houston, the shop buys used prison-issue boots for two dollars and proudly announces, "TDCJ discharge checks cashed for free." Many prisoners spend their entire hundred-dollar allotment before they leave town.
For less fortunate inmates who discharge in boxes rather than boots, the final destination is often a somber expanse of lawn spread out behind the prison's back gate: Captain Joe Byrd cemetery. With spare concrete crosses forming gridlines across the grass — like Arlington without honor — the graveyard has marked the end of the line for forsaken convicts for as long as anyone can remember. In the older sections, weather-beaten headstones are sinking into the soil, many of them identified only by a prison number, some marked with an X for execution. Along the edge, a row of fresh pits covered by metal plates await another round of indigents. Resting against one headstone, a faded display of blue plastic flowers spells out "DAD."
Drive in any direction from the Walls and you will soon run into other TDCJ institutions: a massive transfer facility that brings new inmates into the system, a gleaming supermax that points toward Texas's high-tech future, or an expansive prison plantation that gestures toward its past.
Residents of Huntsville are conscious, even proud, of their carceral history. In 1989, a local foundation opened the Texas Prison Museum, a squat redbrick building made to resemble a prison, wedged between two real prisons on the north side of town. Jim Willett, whose gentle manner and nasal voice are hard to reconcile with his long career as a prison boss, serves as the museum's director. Four days a week, he works the front desk, hawking bobble-head convict dolls and sharing escape and riot stories with old-timers who drop by in the afternoons. Although the museum's exhibit room features humdrum poster-board displays, visitors take their time. They inspect faded striped uniforms, rusted cane knives, and a thick leather strap known as "the Bat." Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame, the state's most notorious escapee, and Fred Carrasco, its most infamous hostage taker, have special prominence, as does the prison system's epic civil rights lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, in which Texas prisons were declared "cruel and unusual" by a federal judge in 1980. What holds visitors' gaze the longest, however, is a sturdy, stiff-backed, generously proportioned oak armchair with leather restraints and a metal headband. This is Ol' Sparky, the electric chair that Texas officials used to cut short 361 lives between 1924 and 1964.
Most visitors don't realize that Willett himself supervised eighty-nine executions — albeit standing over a gurney rather than a chair — more than any other living American. If they stop to ask, he'll say that executions were the most unpleasant part of his job. "I guess I haven't fully made up my mind about the death penalty," he said shortly after we first met, an honest but jarring remark from a man who used to carry it out, sometimes two or three times a week. Having read through grisly case briefings prepared by the Texas attorney general, Willett is convinced that most of the men and women he watched die earned their fate. But as a Christian he isn't sure it was his due to seal it.
Huntsville packs its prison memories, both flattering and unsettling, into this modest, sun-baked museum, but history spills beyond it. To outsiders, the town can feel like a living theme park, a grittier version of Colonial Williamsburg. The stately homes of top TDCJ administrators are tended by convict "yard boys" with outdoor trusty status. When I stopped to ask for directions on one of my first visits, a portly African American trusty quickly reminded me that deferential etiquette still rules. Dropping his rake, he hoofed it over to my rental, hat in hand, and asked, "Yes sir, what can I do for you, boss?" Up the road at the gate to the Wynne Farm, Texas's oldest prison plantation, I watched as a squad of convict cotton pickers, almost all of them black, marched out to the fields, their duck-cloth coveralls gleaming in the early morning light. Trailing them on horseback was a white overseer, a .30-. 30 jostling in his scabbard.
Southern justice brings southern history close to the surface in Huntsville, lending credence to William Faulkner's oft-cited observation that in the South "the past is never dead, it's not even past." Yet Huntsville isn't trapped looking backward. Thanks overwhelmingly to the state's breakneck prison buildup, it's racing into the future. Since 1980, the local prison workforce has more than quadrupled, and although prison jobs are low paying, new strip malls, highway interchanges, and prefab apartment complexes all attest to economic growth. As Forbes magazine observes, Huntsville is a "town where crime pays."
To a remarkable extent, this unassuming backwoods community has become a crossroads. Thousands of law enforcement and corrections officers cycle through each year for training, while inmates, by the tens of thousands, arrive for intake or discharge. From TDCJ's headquarters across the street from the Walls, administrators manage a $3 billion annual corrections budget. They supervise a free-world workforce of almost 50,000 and manage 114 separate prison facilities. Most significantly, they govern the lives of 705,000 prisoners, parolees, and probationers, equivalent to the population of Texas's booming capital, Austin.
With the command of a punishment colossus that stretches from the Gulf Coast to the Llano Estacado, from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle, Huntsville, Texas, is unique but also emblematic. It represents the ultimate product of the country's punitive political turn, the distillation of a punishment paroxysm that has redefined American exceptionalism for a new century. Standing, as it does, at the center of a prison empire, Huntsville is not just a prison town but a new sort of American everytown.
"WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?"
Most Texans believe that their state's vast network of prisons was constructed to corral dangerous men, to keep "baby killers and murderers" off the streets. A bloody kernel of truth underlies this sentiment: Texas is dangerous terrain. Although the state's crime rate has fallen sharply since the late 1980s, it remains about 24 percent higher than the national average. When it comes to murder — regarded by criminologists as the most accurate index of lawbreaking since almost all homicides come to the attention of police — Texas fares somewhat better, exceeding the national average by just 5 percent. But in Texas's largest cities killing proceeds with dismaying regularity. In Dallas, which in 2003 had a higher overall crime rate than any other major U.S. city, the murder rate hovers 167 percent above the national average. Despite the fact that Dallas annually ships off nearly nine thousand young felons to prison, its roughest neighborhoods remain so dangerous that building contractors have written them off as no-go zones.
Violence is hardly new to Texas. The state's most exalted heroes are martyrs or killers, usually both. Although the state missed out on the worst carnage of the Civil War, it has been playing catch-up ever since. Over the decades, Texas has witnessed terror attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, unrelenting campaigns against Indians, raids and counter-raids along the Mexican border, as well as individual violence aplenty. During Reconstruction, one of the state's first serial killers, John Wesley Hardin, reportedly murdered more than twenty men — most of them "impudent negroes" and "Yankee soldiers" — before being locked up at the Walls.
Over the course of the twentieth century, tempers mellowed but only just. While many Americans remember the 1960s for the Summer of Love, Texans have to look back to John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas and Charles Whitman's shooting spree from the University of Texas clock tower, a stunt that inaugurated the all-American tradition of the mass school shooting. "Homicide in Texas has a long history," begins a chronology of notable murders published in the Texas Monthly's special crime issue. "From the slaying of La Salle  to the killing of Madalyn Murray O'Hair , we present a crash course in murder and mayhem."
Even now, Texas atrocities make the news with dismaying regularity. Since 1990, the state has played host to a mass killing at Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, an eyeball-excising serial killer in Dallas, the Branch Davidian conflagration in Waco, a shooting rampage at the Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and a multiple-baby drowning in Houston. There was the case of John King, an ex-con and white-supremacist gang member, who together with two pals abducted an African American man, chained him to the back of a truck, and dragged him to death along country roads, as well as that of Karla Faye Tucker, who murdered a young couple with a pickax and then became an international cause célèbre after her jailhouse conversion to Christianity.
Most of the prisoners I have come to know are serving long sentences for relatively pedestrian offenses — drug dealing, assault, and robbery — but a few of their rap sheets make even a jaded researcher wince. One fellow, a self-described "white country boy" who used to work as a hospital clerk, reportedly gunned down his father, stepmother, and stepbrother and then scattered hair and cigarette butts he had collected from black patients so as to pin the crime on "drug-crazed niggers." One faithful correspondent told me he had killed a 7-Eleven clerk back in 1971. It wasn't until I rifled through old newspaper clippings that I learned he had also shot two schoolchildren and an eighty-six-year-old woman. Every state has its heinous criminals, of course, but Texas and other southern states — for a variety of historical, social, and cultural reasons — have more. Due largely to the legacy of slavery and its violent "code of honor," argues Roger Lane, who has written extensively on the history of murder, "the South has led all sectors in violent behavior." For "generations after the Civil War," the states of the former Confederacy, sometimes joined by the frontier West, have served as "well-springs of American homicide."
When lawmakers extend sentences or cut services for prisoners, they tend to think of criminals like these, "monsters" like Kenneth McDuff, who abducted and murdered women across Central Texas. Such "predators" have a pronounced effect on public policy, but they do not accurately stand for the whole. They stalk our imaginations, but they don't fill many of our prison beds. Of the roughly 170,000 persons confined in Texas prisons, some 90,000 of them are classified as nonviolent. This means that a majority have been sentenced for crimes that neither threatened nor caused bodily harm. Counterintuitively, it is this group, mainly due to the war on drugs, that has contributed most to the growth of imprisonment in Texas and the United States generally. Between 1985 and 1995, the incarceration rate for violent offenders increased by 86 percent, but the nonviolent rate soared by 478 percent.
Ironically, imprisonment rates have grown most aggressively among the groups we traditionally think of as most redeemable: low-level substance abusers, women, and juveniles. In Texas, 81 percent of all new inmates are sent to prison for nonviolent property or drug offenses. Almost half "catch the chain," as inmates call the trip to TDCJ, not after being convicted of a new crime but for parole and probation violations — infractions that might include failing a marijuana test or changing jobs without notifying a parole officer. "I saw probably more than ten thousand inmates a year who didn't belong in prison," says Richard Watkins, one of Texas's first African American wardens and former chief of a large intake unit in Huntsville. "Most of the inmates we got had been convicted of drug crimes or property crimes to support a habit. What they needed was treatment."
Texas still locks up plenty of violent offenders, of course, some 85,000 of them. But even this cohort is, in aggregate, less scary than most people think. This is partly because a wide variety of crimes qualify as violent. The classification includes homicide and pedophilia, to be sure, but also fighting, resisting arrest, or even illegal possession of pepper spray. In 2000, a Chicano teenager in Amarillo was convicted of assault and sentenced to five years in prison for throwing a nasty elbow during a high-school basketball game.
Excerpted from Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson. Copyright © 2010 Robert Perkinson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Robert Perkinson is a professor of American studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. He lives in Honolulu, Hawai'i.
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We have all heard the numbers. The United States has 2.3 million people under lock and key. We have a greater portion of our people incarcerated than any other nation on earth. But how did this come to be, is this new, or have we always had this problem. Who is responsible, and were they right or wrong in what they did. These are the questions that Professor Perkinson looks into in this fine book. This is an in depth look at the development of the problem. He traces the formation of the modern system throughout the US but he takes as his example the state of Texas. Every aspect of the development and refinement of the "correctional system" has been seen in microcosm within this state, which is the current record holder for percent of population behind bars. In Texas, as is true throughout the country, an over representative percentage of the prison population are minority group members. Professor Perkinson traces this back to its roots in the slave system. He finds much of the current problems related to the hysteria of the war on drugs and the shameful failure of the war on poverty. The author states clearly that he has no detailed solutions to present within the volume. He does however, offer a few suggestions that might well be worth follow-up. All in all this is a well written, highly readable guide to what may be the greatest current social problem within the US. I recommend it most highly.
Dr. Perkinson masterfully brings together the facts of history and the human drama of what prison life is ACTUALLY doing to the people of our country irregardless of what side of the bars you are on. He has given us an opportunity to talk honestly about our country's policies and hopefully has opened the door to intellectual discussions on what can be done to improve how we interact with the people who find themselves intwined with this massive beast.