Friday, March 26, 2010

Texas Toast

Back when Texas used the electric chair, the executed were often referred to as "Texas Toast" in a sort of gallows humor fashion. For some reason (talking about the death penalty in class today) that phrase when through my mind when I saw the title and review of this new book on mass incarceration in the U.S., "Texas Tough."

In “Texas Tough,” Robert Perkinson, a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, delivers an important reckoning with this societal responsibility. Though his loud, machismo-laden title might better serve for a reality show about life behind bars, Perkinson offers a searching history of American incarceration, tracing the failures of our prisons to the approach that Texas and other Southern states have long taken ­toward their criminals and denouncing the fact that, with about 1.6 million people in our penitentiaries and an additional 800,000 in our jails, the United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.
Not to quibble, but we actually have more people in real numbers, not just proportional, locked up than any other country, including China.
As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars.

And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.”
The review goes on to note such historical ignominies such as Reconstruction-era convict leasing, government-run plantations, and 20th century chain gangs, before getting to today.
It is the Southern tradition that has proved, in Perkinson’s telling, to have the lasting nationwide legacy, both in the current warehousing of inmates and in the racism now powerfully embedded in American penology. Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement — except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.
Critical theorists have been arguing this point for decades now: mass incarceration in this country began in earnest following the Civil Rights movements of the 1960's. First by re-conceptualizing of crime as political capital in the 1960's and militarizing law enforcement, the move to mass incarcerate blacks would collide with the Great Recession of the early 1980's and launch us on a 20 year drunken binge of mass incarceration. Intentional or coincidental, African-Americans were the primary target of this binge, with the hangover kicking in, and tab coming due, only just recently.

I'm not familiar with Perkinson, but I like that a historical sweep has been written about this mess. In penology and criminology we often get bogged down in the day to day madness and fail to consider the present in context.

It's important to recognize that the prison policies of today, born of a "southern strategy," now dominate the entire country (see Prison Proliferation below). And to tie this in with a post from yesterday, it's a a sobering reminder that those who try and reform the way we are currently doing business in corrections (and it is Big Business) are going to face stiff, possibly violent, resistance.

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