Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire


Texas reigns supreme in the punishment business. With 173,000 inmates and more than twice as many paid employees as Google, Texas’s prison system is the largest in the United States, outstripping even California, which has an overall population 50 percent larger. 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. (loc. 112)

Texas Tough is not written for activists, not is it written from a radical perspective. The author comes across in some ways like a liberal, and his view is “balanced”, blaming (and excusing) guards and prisoners alike for the parts he sees them playing in america’s prison nation.

That said, this is one of the better books i have read about prisons in the united states. For the task Perkinson has set himself — explaining the historical dynamics that gave birth to the age of mass incarceration — his approach is fine, in fact his “balance” allows him to move beyond an indictment of the brutal individuals who run the prisons, to revealing some of the historical dynamics at play.

A generation ago, when talking about prisons with leftists, a standard reference would be Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, which proposed that prisons had come about as part of a move to less violent and cruel, but also more all-encompassing and systematic, forms of punishment and social control. So in the age before prisons and modern law enforcement, most people might have broken laws and never been caught, but in order to “teach a lesson” the ruling class would have specific lawbreakers and rebels publicly tortured and killed in exceptionally brutal ways. Prisons reduce this brutality, but are part of a move in which more and more people will be subjected to more insidious forms of social control. With the advent of rehabilitation, Foucault saw the dynamic entering a new stage, whereby the prison was melting into other areas of society, as people were increasingly disciplined, tamed and shaped into obedient cogs in the capitalist machine, inside and outside its walls.

it becomes more glaringly obvious with every new headline about prison conditions and numbers, that Foucault was wrong. The trend which he thought he had spotted, of prisons becoming more “humane” (at the same time as they and society as a whole became more totalitarian), does not fit with the  Abu Gharibs and Pelican Bays of the contemporary world. More than one person has pointed out that the French philosopher had overlooked the dynamics of racist imprisonment, that his view of the prison was distorted by his looking at a prison system in which most prisoners may have been proletarian, but were also from the oppressor nations. (That Foucault overlooked this while writing in post-Holocaust Europe, makes me raise my eyebrows.)

As Michelle Alexander has explained in her book The New Jim Crow, the u.s. prison system totally departed from the allegedly getting-nicer-all-the-time trajectory in response to gains made by the Black Liberation Movement in the 1950s and 60s. As Jim Crow — the american system of racialized social control — was “abolished”, a new prison nation was being born. Not coincidence, but cause and effect. Although she does not use the term, Alexander shows how mass incarceration came about as a tool of counter-insurgency, not aimed primarily at combatants, but at the communities that combatants and rebels were most likely to emerge from. Targeting the Black/New Afrikan nation in this way, the move to mass incarceration always had a genocidal dimension to it.

Where Perkinson’s Texas Tough is useful, is in filling in part of the backstory, and in showing how the racialized imprisonment model that now reigns across the united states was not developed out of thin air to deal with Black insurgency, but rather had been developing for a hundred years already in the american South, and most especially in the state of Texas. This is one of the major arguments in Texas Tough, that while a Foucault’s story, the narrative of prisons having developed out of “good intentions” and misguided Quakers, may have been applicable to the northern united states, “What this geographic parochialism ignores is that another punishment tradition was taking shape simultaneously in the American South. This alternative regime, which made only passing claims to humanitarian or scientific progress, was larger and more cost efficient. Based on forced labor, repression, and racism, it was in the process of becoming more politically and socially entrenched.” (loc. 2269)

Texas Tough is instructive on two levels, first as an examination of the history of the Southern prison model, how it developed out of the slave plantation, and how it ended up being adopted by the united states as a whole as part of the transition to mass racist incarceration. Like i said above, “filling in a gap”, as Michelle Alexander had already mapped out the mechanisms by which mass incarceration became the default form of racist social control in america. This is predictably brutal to read, as Texas prisons have been sites of torture and violence from their inception. Particularly harsh were the decades of “convict leasing”, in which prisoners were rented out to corporations, who used them and used them up in their industries. Looking specifically at U.S. Steel (which was a major lessee of Texas prisoners), Perkinson notes that,

Recorded mortality rates in excess of 20 percent, in some instances, put U.S. Steel on par with German and Japanese companies that profited from slave labor in World War II. But while these corporations have been held to account, U.S. Steel has escaped unscathed. Although the Wall Street Journal recently probed the company’s shameful history, no reparations movement has emerged among former convicts or their descendants. (loc. 2128)

Perkinson also examines the internal dynamics in the history of imprisonment in Texas, showing the tension that has always existed between the prison’s function as an institution of racist brutality and various reform- and rehabilitation-oriented trends that existed on and off prior to the age of mass incarceration. There is a lot of good stuff here about liberals and progressives presiding over the expansion of the prison system, of attempts at reform only making the system larger and setting the stage for further brutality.

Looking at Texas prisons today, Perkinson shows how they represent a synthesis between the brutalities of the past and the present, with the murderous slavery of the convict lease system and massive violence replaced now by a different form of violence and massive use of longterm solitary confinement. Perkinson shows how this current state of affairs is itself a perverse outcome of one of the most successful prisoner lawsuits, Ruiz vs. Estelle, waged by David Ruiz, a man who spent most of his life as a prisoner in the Texas system. As such, Texas, like the broader u.s. prison system is actually a synthesis between two traditions. (Neither of which Perkinson feels are good – while he does not seem to be writing from a rev point of view, he does seem to be an abolitionist.)

This book is worth reading, as an exploration of how forms of oppression from centuries past have lived on, in modern form, within contemporary institutions. Not by some magical process of reincarnation, but as a consequence of dynamics of struggles left unfinished.

K. KersplebedebK. KersplebedebK. Kersplebedeb

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