Texas Tough, by Robert Perkinson

Texas Tough

Texas Tough is a history of prisons in America. The emphasis is on the South, because the author’s notion is that the South’s style of incarceration has become predominate throughout the country. Within the South, he further emphasizes Texas, again on the grounds that the Texas way of doing things epitomizes what prisons have become throughout the South and throughout the nation.

One of the themes running through the book is that Texas/Southern justice historically has been to a significant extent a continuation of slavery through other means. The Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, after all, has a key exception—“except as punishment for a crime.”

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that incarceration constitutes slavery, though the degree of overlap has varied from time to time and place to place. Sometimes other than the obvious unfreedom, it’s not all that much like slavery. Other times it’s largely indistinguishable from slavery, indeed probably worse than the life of the majority of pre-Civil War slaves.

In Texas for instance, for much of the state’s history after the abolition of slavery, convicts were hired out to labor for private employers. Convicts were disproportionately black, hugely so. Obviously in the Jim Crow South this wasn’t because they committed crimes to that degree of disproportion and deserved to be imprisoned in those numbers. Innocent blacks were more likely than innocent whites to be convicted, guilty whites were more likely than guilty blacks to get off, and convicted blacks typically received harsher punishments than convicted whites.

Not just harsher, but specifically the types of harsh treatment associated with pre-Civil War slavery. That is, blacks were brutally whipped; whites were not. Blacks worked the fields picking cotton and such; whites either didn’t labor at all, or were assigned to more “dignified” jobs not reminiscent of what slaves in the past had done.

So think about the prison life of a black person in the South, or at least in Texas, which is mostly what the author discusses. He might or might not have done anything “wrong” to deserve punishment, but due to the need for his labor he finds himself caught up in the latest racism-tainted wave of arrests and convictions. He must live in a place chosen for him, not a place of his choosing. He cannot leave there, unless it’s to go somewhere else to labor under heavy guard. Those who keep him unfree control all aspects of his life that they choose to, such as what he eats, what clothes he wears, etc. He is forcibly kept apart from whatever family he might have. There are strict protocols for such things as the extreme obsequiousness with which he must address his captors and respond to their commands. If he is insubordinate in any way, and even sometimes if he isn’t, he is whipped. He is spoken to and of with insults and racial epithets. He spends the bulk of his time doing back breaking agricultural labor, overseen by armed men who consider him inferior and are quite willing, if not eager, to kill or maim him if he should try to escape or otherwise defy authority. When he is physically no longer able to work, he can expect to be branded a liar and a shirker, and to receive subpar medical care at best.

In the case of a woman, add that it is common for her captors to rape her, to pressure her into sex, or to use the extreme power differential to entice her into sex by giving her benefits that marginally improve her horrific lot.

Is it really just some kind of exaggerated political rhetoric to equate such a life with slavery? To me it sounds pretty darn close to, though probably a bit worse than, how I picture the life of a slave in the pre-Civil War South.

There is still that difference, though, that slaves were slaves because of the color of their skin, and convicts are convicts because they have been convicted of criminal behavior. But how much does that matter? Does that render such treatment justified?

Granted, the typical slave was more “innocent” than the typical prisoner. But it would be wildly naïve to think that everyone convicted of a crime is a terrible, dangerous person who must be separated from society and deserves severe punishment akin to slavery, while no one outside of prison falls into that category. As noted, there are substantial racial (not to mention class) inequities in who ends up getting convicted. And then once convicted, blacks have historically consistently gotten the more slavery-like punishments than have whites.

The system still has a de facto basis in the color of one’s skin. It’s not as blatantly and totally based on that factor as was slavery—it’s not like 100% or close to it of black people are born convicts; the majority never see the inside of a prison—and certainly that matters. In that sense it is overstating it to say prison is a continuation of slavery. Prison is much more avoidable for black people than was slavery.

So on the one hand there’s considerable truth to the notion that Texas-style imprisonment is a continuation of slavery, a racist-motivated way of depriving people of their freedom, exploiting their labor, and treating them in ways that would violate the Constitution if done to anyone other than convicts (and probably violates the Constitution anyway, if “cruel and unusual punishment” has any substantive meaning). But on the other hand slavery and incarceration cannot be fully equated, since the majority of incarcerated people are guilty of something worse than being born with a certain color skin, and most people of the race that’s most victimized by racism don’t get incarcerated.

There are differences between slavery and incarceration, but the differences aren’t sufficient justification for our prison system. Injustice doesn’t have to be precisely the same as slavery to be injustice.

Another theme running through the book is that historically the pendulum has swung back and forth numerous times in Texas (and other U.S. prison systems) between greater severity and reform.

Not that the reforms ever made the prison experience anything other than awful. But they might have meant an end to being hired out to outside employers, or an end to flogging, or less violence from guards or the “building tenders” (inmate trusty middlemen who were granted a certain amount of power over their fellow inmates). Then within a few years, things would drift in the other direction, and either those forms of brutality would return or others would take their place.

Perkinson never claims that the reforms were all that successful, that when the liberals won, inmates were more likely to be rehabilitated and returned to society as productive citizens. Mostly any time conditions were loosened, inmates took advantage of the newfound opportunities to escape, assault guards, assault each other, smuggle drugs into prison, what have you.

Indeed, in the conclusion, Perkinson expresses skepticism that any such incremental, temporary, half-hearted reforms can do much toward improving the prisoners’ moral characters, treating the prisoners humanely, or making a safer, lower crime, society. There’s something so fundamentally damaging to individuals and society about a prison system anything like what we’ve seen in American history that only a paradigm shift to some vastly different model could make a substantial difference.

He doesn’t describe what such a model might be, though he does recommend shifting attention from responding to crime to preventing crime. He seems almost hopeless that we’ll ever be able to figure out what to do with criminals, or have the political will to do it if we did figure it out, so his recommendation is to return to and build on the Great Society’s anti-poverty efforts, to fight for jobs, education, opportunity and justice—in short a society where fewer people have occasion to turn to crime.

So if we don’t quite know what to do with criminals besides confine them some place that will make them worse, at least it would help if we could generate fewer criminals and thus have to stick fewer people in prison in the first place.

But of course this country has gone dramatically in the other direction. As the pendulum of prison conditions has swung back and forth between total brutality and near-total brutality, the sheer number of people incarcerated has shot up in recent decades.

I really think most Americans are unaware of what a huge change there has been in that regard in the criminal justice system. “We coddle criminals” is just one of those things like “Our taxes are outrageously high” that is taken on faith as an unchanging absolute truth in much of society regardless of the evidence. We could double the average prison sentence or halve the average prison sentence tomorrow, and I suspect the majority of Americans would believe “We coddle criminals” to the very same degree they believe it today.

The author points out there is plenty of racism behind the stunning increase in the prison population:

As Jim Crow acted out its death throes, imprisonment rallied. Between Redemption and the triumph of civil rights—that is to say, for ten decades of de jure segregation—Texas’s imprisonment rate remained remarkably stable, never exceeding 200 per 100,000 residents. Between 1968 and 2005, however, the rate septupled. Over the same period—even as civil rights organizations and convict plaintiffs scored innumerable victories—Texas’s prison population grew by 1,300 percent; its prison budget ballooned from $20 million dollars to $2.6 billion dollars.

During that period the incarceration rates for all segments of the population—including whites—exploded. But it increased far more for blacks than whites. (Actually it increased even more for Latinos, so in some parts of the country at least it’s not just blacks getting the short end of the racism stick when it comes to the criminal justice system.)

I volunteered for a number of years at a prison in Washington State, and even wrote a book about it, but when I read a book like this, only to a small degree do I feel I have any greater insight than the typical lay reader. I just feel overwhelmed, depressed, and pessimistic about it all.

I think volunteering like that can be worthwhile in that you might occasionally have a positive impact on an individual life, but in terms of altering the system in some way that improves the lot of prisoners without causing them to mostly just take advantage of that to wreak more havoc, I don’t know that I’m any more optimistic about what to do than the author is. I think it really would take some massive shift in attitude resulting in a massive shift in how we deal with crime to make much of a difference on a grand scale. The rest—as evidenced by this book—feels all too often like the proverbial “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Texas Tough is a downer of a book, but it’s important and well done. It makes a strong case that the prison system is not some sincere, well-intentioned if unsuccessful effort to deal with crime and criminals constructively, but a corrupt system shot through with things like racism, private sector greed (from plantation owners using convicts over a century ago as pseudo-slaves to the privatized prisons of today), and political opportunism.


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