The Rise of America’s Prison Empire: The Relationship Between Texas Prisons & Slavery

The Austin Chronicle has an excellent article that deals with the prison system and its relationship to slavery.. Apparently the prison system in Texas is the basis for all US prisons…. Some of this is not surprising, buit its always disturbing when its in your face..Here’s an excerpt from his book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire:

“Just as New York dominates finance and California the film industry, Texas reigns supreme in the punishment business. … By almost any measure, Texas stands out. The state’s per capita imprisonment rate (691 per 100,000 residents) is second only to Louisi­ana’s and three times higher than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s. Although Texas ranks fiftieth among states in the amount of money it spends on indigent criminal defense, it ranks first in prison growth, first in for-profit imprisonment, first in supermax lockdown, first in total number of adults under criminal justice supervision, and a resounding first in executions. When it comes to imprisonment, writes Joseph Hallinan, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Texas is ‘where it’s happening.'”

Grim History

Author traces Texas prison system from its roots in plantation slavery

Earlier this year, historian Robert Perkinson published Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Henry Holt and Company, 496 pp., $35), in which he traces the history of American prisons through the prism of the “retributive mode” of the Texas system. Perkinson, an associate professor of American studies at the Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii at Manoa, has been studying Texas prisons since the late 1990s, when he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “convict leasing,” the privatized, for-profit system that replaced plantation slavery after the Civil War and survived into the 20th century. The book’s title is a quote from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – “There’s tough. And then there’s Texas tough.” – advocating broader application of the death penalty. Perkinson’s thesis is that harsh Texas prisons, perfecting punishment trends established throughout the South, have become a model for much of the country. Texas Tough is a broad historical survey, a detailed history of Texas prisons, and in the end a scholarly polemic about the state of American prisons in general.

Perkinson has spent his summers over the last decade visiting and researching the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and he says that on the whole, the TDCJ was very helpful in helping him do the research and providing current statistical information. The book is also informed by numerous interviews and correspondence with prison officials, inmates, and others with knowledge of the lengthy and complex history of prisons in Texas.

Perkinson has also met with state representatives and officials working on prison reform and is hopeful that Texas and the U.S. are, as he writes, “about to embark on another era of humanitarian criminal justice experimentation.” We spoke recently about his book and his tentative sense that this could be a moment of opportunity for reform. “The good news,” he told me, “is that [the book] could be kind of an obituary for a moment that could be passing. It’s too early to tell.”

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Austin Chronicle: How did you come to the conclusion that the Texas system became the model for U.S. imprisonment?

Robert Perkinson: If you look at almost any book on prison history, they start in the Northeast with these reform-oriented institutions, around the period of the Revolution, that were meant to rehabilitate criminals. They never worked out so well, but the standard story that’s told is this “narrative of halting progress”: They try one thing to rehabilitate criminals, and that might not work, it degenerates into scandal, and then they try another. But there’s always been this counter-tradition of criminal punishment that just hasn’t received as much attention from historians but is just as prominent in the records. And that’s a hard-fisted retributionist model, tied up with racial stratification, and that’s always been more powerful in the South.

So I found that with a little more sober eyes, if you look at the whole history of American punishment, there are really two traditions: the reformatory tradition that traces to the Northeast, and the retributionist, racially discriminatory model that traces back to slavery. In Texas and other Southern states, those connections are more stark than in other places. Until very recently, until the Eighties, Texas’ entire prison infrastructure was centered in the same counties that were the predominant slave counties before emancipation, and the properties were all former slave plantations that were then converted to private prison plantations, until 1912, and then were taken over as state plantations. So the personnel, the daily rhythms of life, the work expectations, the disciplinary traditions were all kind of passed down from slavery to convict leasing, then to the state. To a certain extent, that fell apart with the federal litigation in the 1980s but in some ways still is with us.

Texas Prison Board from 1930s

AC: The popular mythology of Texas doesn’t acknowledge the plantation history. It’s all about big, wide-open spaces and cattle ranches, and to the extent it recognizes the bloody historical record at all, it’s all about fighting off the American Indians and the Mexicans.

RP: Texas is funny, because it’s both a Southern state and a Western state, and it’s become an urban state. … The history of criminal justice and law enforcement is tied to that Western frontier experience. If you look back at the early history of the Texas Rangers, they were not engaged in what we think of as law enforcement but really involved in what the best recent history calls ethnic cleansing against Mexicans and Indians. That’s the origins of law enforcement, and slave patrollers were the other origins of law enforcement. In Texas, all white men were required to serve on slave patrols in the antebellum period, so that was a state-imposed way of imposing order. But the prison system really has its origins in the Southern history of Texas.

continue reading this article here…

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