Texas Tough: An Interview with Robert Perkinson
By Adam Culbreath, Open Society Blog
Your new book, Texas Tough: The Rise of a
Prison Empire, paints a pretty dismal and disturbing picture
of the history of incarceration in the state.
There's not much happiness in the history of imprisonment -- an inmate
who had done forty-three years once wrote to me, "prison is always bad,
sometimes worse" -- but there is even less in Texas.
In the South, the ethic of rehabilitation never really took hold.
Prisons were built not to educate or cure but to impose vengeance and
extract labor. So even though good intentions have gone awry in
Northern prisons, bad intentions have gone to even worse places in the
Most distressing is that Texas prisons have not overcome their
history. The record is full of atrocities and miscarriages of justice:
emancipated slaves convicted of petty offenses and sold off to the
highest bidder; unpaid convict laborers worked to death in coal mines
and sugar plantations; community lynchings and assembly-line executions;
countless sexual exploitation scandals. Some of the most egregious
abuses have faded with the passage of time, thanks to successive reform
movements, but by many measures Texas is dispensing harsher justice
today than it ever was. Twenty-first century inmates are less likely to
get beaten up by guards or worked to exhaustion, but they're more
likely to spend their natural lives in prison, often in supermax
storage facilities that wall them off from all human contact. In the
prison business, chronology doesn't necessarily beget progress.
In the American popular imagination, Texas is a place of
myth. Even people outside the state, who may never have set foot on
Texas soil, have well-formed and detailed notions -- however inaccurate -- of
what the state is, or at least what it represents. What role has the
mythology of Texas played in the evolution of its penal system?
Texas is a Southern state masquerading as a Western state. Its myth
stems from the violence of the frontier, and to a certain extent, the
legacy of conquest has shaped the culture of law enforcement,
particularly in the case of the revered (or feared) Texas Rangers. But
the state's prisons have grown out of alternate historical seedbeds
that many Texans would just as soon forget: slavery and white supremacy.
Until the 1980s, all of the state's penal facilities were located in
East Texas, the former slavery belt. Even now, gangs of unpaid convict
laborers -- disproportionally made up of African Americans -- trudge out to
the fields under the command of mounted overseers called "bosses."
Cotton and cane plantations like Ramsey, Wynne, and Eastham have
operated continuously since the 1820s, but have never pulled in a crop
with free labor. To a remarkable extent, Texas prisons have preserved
the lifeways of slavery in carceral amber.
Through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Texas's
implacable style of punishment predicated on hard labor, corporal
punishment, and racial debasement made the state a backwater in the
eyes of progressive penologists. But as the country's conservative
counterrevolution gained strength in the post-civil rights period,
Texas's singular severity garnered outspoken admirers; the state's
prison system became not a blot on civilization but a model to emulate.
The punitive ethos that I'm calling "Texas tough" gets cast as
no-nonsense justice passed down from hardscrabble pioneers, but in
reality it represents the resurgence of Southern conservatism in
American politics, the final revenge of the Confederacy on the Union.
Why is the American South so punitive?
It's an under-appreciated fact that America's exceptional prison
boom ignited and reached greatest explosive force in the South. The
region accounts for roughly a third of the U.S. population but houses
almost half of state prisoners; Southern states are responsible for 83
percent of all executions in the United States since 1976.
There are a variety of factors implicated in Southern punitiveness:
violent crime rates are higher, in both rural and urban areas; social
welfare spending, which can help prevent crime, is more anemic;
educational attainment lags; partisan politics remains rigidly
polarized by race. All of this stems, I argue, from the history of
slavery -- the engine of economic growth and social formation in the South
for more than a century before the Civil War -- and Jim Crow, which
governed the region for a century thereafter. Slavery and segregation
fostered a political culture based on localism, anti-governmentalism,
interpersonal retaliation, and suspicion of all things progressive,
from science to rehabilitative penology. That political inheritance
continues to have resonance, two generations after the victories of the
civil rights movement; we see echoes of Dixiecratic demagoguery in the
Tea Party movement, for instance. As Alexis de Tocqueville once
remarked, "Although the law may abolish slavery, God alone can
obliterate the traces of its existence."
In Texas, the pronounced strain of racial violence that runs through
the state's history -- not just against African Americans but Indians and
Native Americans -- adds punitive punch. Rather recently, by historical
standards, the state played host to vicious and protracted warfare
against the Comanche and other indigenous peoples; massacres and ethnic
cleansing of Mexicans continued into the twentieth century. This
volatile and divisive history gives the state's political culture, and
its criminal justice institutions, a razored edge.
Your book posits that race should be a more explicit and
central part of the contemporary discussion around crime and
incarceration. How does a heightened awareness of race change the
dynamics -- and potential outcomes -- of the conversation?
Everyone recognizes that race is an important variable in criminal
justice. The statistics are too stark to ignore. Black men in America
are more likely to go to prison than earn a bachelor's degree or serve
in the armed forces. A recent study found that 1 in 4
African American children have a father in prison. Curiously,
though, relatively few social scientists have made race a central
category of analysis; it's treated as an externality, not an engine.
Because it's difficult for us to think clearly about our own moment
in time (we're overwhelmed by complexity and can't always discern
meaningful patterns), I decided to step back and examine the role of
race and racism in criminal justice over the longue durée,
from the first epoch of American unfreedom, slavery, to our own, mass
I found that race has always been a driving force in public policy
debates, usually a malign one, from the birth of the republic forward.
In particular, I argue that the watershed developments surrounding the
Civil War can help us understand the punitive turn since the 1960s. In
the nineteenth century, white conservatives lost on slavery, but by
means both legal and nefarious were able to forge a new, similarly
stratified social order based on de jure discrimination, command labor
relations, and convict leasing. In the twentieth century, white
conservatives lost on integration but retreated to criminal justice,
substituting, in effect, segregated drinking fountains for merciless
sentencing statutes. Chased out of the free world, Jim Crow moved behind
Is Texas a bellwether? If so, what trends are -- or should
be -- ripe for export?
In the postwar period, California stood for the future, but Texas is
the paradigmatic state of conservative counterrevolution. In criminal
justice, the Lone Star State has led the way in prison privatization,
mandatory sentencing, supermax confinement, and, of course, lethal
injections. The result is a $3 billion behemoth, the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice, that governs the lives of 705,000 prisoners,
parolees, and probationers -- equivalent to the population of Austin.
Very little of this merits export. On the other hand, some Texas
lawmakers are starting to sober up from their prison binge. Over the
initial objections of Governor Rick Perry, the legislature passed
significant probation reforms in 2007 that are already starting to
temper the pace of prison growth. Downsizing is what we need,
but this is a step in the right direction.
Texas Tough is a work of history. But it also, I
imagine, makes a case for why the past matters for the present and the
Looking at crime and punishment in a wide historical frame reveals
just how exceptional this moment is. For most of the twentieth century
(for as long as we have accurate records), the United States
incarcerated about 1 out of every 100,000 people, but the rate has
quintupled since the 1970s. Now the United States locks up about 1 of
every 100 adults, for a total of 2.4 million. No other
democracy has ever done anything like this.
One of the points I want to make clear in the book is that the rise
of the U.S. prison state constitutes a momentous pivot in American
history, comparable in scale (though with inverted effects) to the
Progressive Era or the New Deal. To me, this means that a powerful,
wide-ranging social movement will be necessary to change course.
Criminal justice should be the civil rights arena of the twenty-first
As a student in the 1980s and 1990s, you led student
delegations to El Salvador, Cuba, and Angola; established a free
HIV-testing program at the University of Colorado; organized for
graduate student unionization at Yale; and co-founded a criminal
justice reform coalition in Connecticut. How has your student activism
informed your work as a historian?
Enormously. In the book I examine a series of grassroots movements
that tried, generally without success, to dislodge Texas's penal system
from its slaving foundation: opponents of convict leasing in the late
nineteenth century, feminist humanitarians in the 1920s who proposed
replacing the state's prison plantations with a centralized criminal
treatment facility, and prisoners' rights radicals who challenged their
keepers in federal court. Had I not been involved in so much community
organizing myself, I think I would have had greater difficulty
understanding my research subjects, their tactical choices, and the
formidable challenges they faced.
You're now a professor at the University of Hawaii. Do your
students seem worried that this country incarcerates so many people
for such long periods of time?
Not as much as I'd like, but I'm working on it.
Speaking of Hawaii -- another place heavily mythologized in
the American imagination -- what has your work on Texas Tough taught you
about crime, punishment and incarceration in your home state?
Hawai'i is in one sense the anti-Texas. It's a liberal, pro-union,
multicultural state with discretionary sentencing and a tiny (by U.S.
standards) prison population. But there's an underside, and, as in
Texas, it's hard to appreciate without taking a historical view.
In Hawai'i, criminal justice policies have grown out of colonial
rather than slaveholding roots. Native Hawaiians were divested of their
lands, their government was illegally overthrown, and their islands
forcibly annexed by the United States. Today, more than a century
later, indigenous Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders cluster around
the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy, not unlike Native Americans
on the continent. They also go to prison in hugely disproportionate
numbers (though Hawaiians make up only about 20 percent of the state's
population, they fill roughly 40 percent of its prison beds). To save
money, Hawai'i has also, in effect, resurrected the old British
Transportation system: Rather than housing prisoners at home,
corrections authorities ship them off to for-profit, low-wage
facilities in Kentucky and Arizona. The effect, in a sense, is to
depopulate the islands of its troublesome indigenous inhabitants and to
shatter their family ties.
Overall, I would say that Texas's experience has taught me to think
about Hawai'i's criminal justice system in historical context. More
practically, I also try to use Texas's example to warn lawmakers off
tough-on-crime political grandstanding. The Texas way might fend off
attack ads but it leads inexorably to bloated big government, heavy
collateral damage, and scant benefits in terms of public safety. My hope
is that the recession will encourage politicians to get smart on crime
rather than tough on crime.
Soros Justice Fellow Robert Perkinson is a professor at the
University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Adam
Culbreath is a program officer for the Soros