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American Hell

The Great Recession has raised expectations that the United States will begin to empty its jails and prisons because it can no longer afford to be the world’s warden. Robert Perkinson’s sweeping and troubling account of the Lone Star State’s penal system from the days of slavery to the present is a sober reminder that gaping budget deficits will not necessarily reverse the prison boom. The “Texas tough” style of justice is not only deeply embedded in the state’s budget but also in its political, cultural, and social fabric.

Most accounts of the phenomenon of mass incarceration have focused on national developments to explain why the United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration and locks up more people than any other country. Recently attention has begun to shift to the state level. While all fifty states have seen their incarceration rates explode since the 1970s, these rates still vary considerably between states, from a high of nearly 1000 per 100,000 people in Louisiana and Texas to a low of about 300 per 100,000 in Maine.

Perkinson draws much needed attention to Texas, which operates the country’s largest state prison system, and holds more people today than the prison systems of Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. If you add in parolees and probationers, over 700,000 people are under the control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a population approximately equivalent to the size of Austin, the state’s booming capital. And Texas stands out not just for the sheer number of people under state control, but also for the persistently brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement.

In graphic and often disturbing detail, Perkinson chronicles the many ways punishment has been repeatedly used “to assert supremacy and debase prisoners” since the state began to build its first penitentiary in 1848. Drawing on an impressive trove of primary sources, including the “whipping ledgers” kept by state penal facilities, the incendiary letters of prisoners, and the exposes of crusading journalists, he describes how prisoners were forced to eat their own excrement, engage in humiliating and often sadistic public sex acts, and “fast trot” each morning to work in fields as far as five miles away. They were frequently whipped and raped, fed starvation diets, and worked to the bone.

Inmates who challenged the authorities in the earlier part of the twentieth century were sent to the “dark cells,” where they “were temporarily locked in a small, pitch-black box and sustained on bread and water.” At the time, “dark celling” was considered a progressive alternative to the widespread use of the strap. In the 1990s, Texas pioneered the extensive use of supermax prisons, where inmates are locked down nearly round-the-clock and denied any meaningful human contact for years, sometimes even decades.

Perkinson upends the conventional narrative of the rise of the American penal system with its emphasis on the northeast, notably New York and Pennsylvania. In the standard account, the foreboding penitentiaries of the nineteenth century, designed to restore errant citizens to virtue through penitent solitude, evolved by fits and starts into the correctional bureaucracies of the twentieth century, which, at least for a time, viewed rehabilitating prisoners as a central part of their mission. Perkinson suggests that the history of punishment in the United States is more a southern story than has been generally recognized. He contends that Texas developed an alternative “control model” of punishment that was unapologetically premised on officially sanctioned violence, strident exploitation of penal labor, a strong retributive urge, and stark racial stratification.

Suspicious of large state projects, the South was initially slow to embrace the penitentiary. Fearful that these large public buildings would become “vampire[s] upon the public treasury,” government officials in Texas and elsewhere sought to make their penal enterprises not just self-sustaining but also highly profitable. Over the years, state officials were obsessed with turning a profit out of penal labor. As one penal farm administrator boasted to Perkinson, “We work ‘em from can till can’t.”

Texas’s first penitentiary, a fortress erected in Huntsville that is still known as “The Walls,” was the state’s premier public institution, consuming nearly 17 percent of the state’s budget in its first year. In the 1850s, the state constructed a massive cotton mill run by penal labor inside “The Walls” that became the state’s largest factory. During the Civil War this mill was the main source of tents, uniforms, and supply bags in the trans-Mississippi West. Imperial Sugar Co., today the largest sugar refinery in the United States, was established with slave capital after the Civil War: convicts leased from the state built the refinery and supplied it with sugar grown at Sugar Land, a massive estate established outside of San Antonio after the war.

While Northern penal reformers rallied against convict-leasing in the late nineteenth century, they nonetheless could be highly sympathetic to other pillars of the Southern style of justice. They defended subjecting black convicts to the harshest punishments, the most backbreaking labor, and the worst living conditions. During a debate about whipping at a meeting of the National Prison Association in 1897 in Austin, one prominent penologist from the North rose to defend the South. “‘The negro prisoner…has not the sense of shame and degradation that the white man has,’ he declared, and is thus difficult to rehabilitate without corporal punishment.”

Perkinson identifies slavery as the progenitor of the state’s control model of punishment. For well over a century now, Texas has operated a vast archipelago of self-sustaining penal labor farms on the old plantation lands of East Texas. These farms are “probably the best example of slavery remaining in the country,” according to a national corrections expert. “Nowhere else in turn-of-the-millennium America could one witness gangs of African American men filling cotton sacks under the watchful eyes of armed whites on horseback,” remarks Perkinson after visiting one of these farms.

The evolution and the growth of Texas’s penal system “has had surprisingly little to do with crime, a great deal to do with America’s troubled history of racial conflict and social stratification,” he contends. As segregationist barriers such as slavery and Jim Crow fell, new ones such as for-profit convict leasing and later the Texas control model, its stress on maximum discipline and maximum profit, took their place. Prisons have proliferated in Texas and elsewhere despite their breathtaking human costs—and their minimal effect on crime control—because “they excel in other, generally unspoken ways, at dispensing patronage, fortifying social hierarchies, enacting public vengeance, and symbolizing government resolve.”

The failures of Texas’s penal system spurred reform movements every few decades, but these quickly sputtered out. In their wake, they often left behind different but arguably no less brutal systems of punishment and confinement. After a half-century of public agitation over the corruption and horrors associated with leasing convicts to for-profit firms, Texas outlawed this practice. State-controlled chain gangs and penal labor farms replaced convict-leasing. “Strange as it seems,” Perkinson observes, “the chain gang, in which thousands of prisoners, most of them black, were loaded onto cattle trucks and carted around the state to pound rocks and shovel dirt, was celebrated as a humanitarian advance.” 

The most successful penal reform movements over the last century and a half did not act in isolation but were buoyed by other social movements, including the antebellum abolitionists, the populist and agrarian movements of the late nineteenth century, various women’s groups over the years, and of course the contemporary civil rights movement. Prisoners themselves have played a pivotal role in penal reform that has been overlooked. In his revisionist account of the demise of convict-leasing, Perkinson contends that the escapes, strikes, mutinies, and riots of leased convicts, and their angry and mournful letters and memoirs documenting their abusive living conditions helped bring about the end of this practice.

When traditional avenues of protest were blocked, prisoners would increasingly turn to self-mutilation, cutting off a limb or packing a self-inflicted wound with lye or injecting themselves with kerosene, in order to get some relief from backbreaking field labor and to protest the horrid conditions of their confinement. Initially, these self-mutilations did not have a wider political impact. After twenty-one prisoners maimed themselves in 1935 at one penal farm in Texas (two did so by chopping off their lower legs), the top administrator told the guards, “As long as they want to…chop themselves…I say give them more axes.” But as the number of self-mutilations rose into the hundreds each year in Texas in the early 1940s and the practice spread to other states, it became impossible for state officials and enterprising journalists to ignore the abhorrent conditions that provoked the bloody protests.  

Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, prisoners began turning to the courts for relief. But as Perkinson shows, state and prison officials determined to maintain the core features of the control model eventually eviscerated many of the court-ordered reforms after wars of attrition played out in the legal arena. Perkinson devotes nearly two chapters to the case of David Resendez Ruíz, the lead plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit brought against the Texan prison system in the 1970s. Battered around in the courts for about two decades, Ruíz v. Estelle eventually brought about some significant changes in the state’s penal system. But indirectly it also “helped create an equally severe and infinitely larger prison system in its place.” As for Ruíz, he was kept in solitary confinement in a cramped, dank, dungeon-like cell for decades after the lawsuit was settled. This injustice continued until just months before he died in a prison hospital in 2005 after being denied medical parole. As Perkinson dryly notes, Ruíz “fought the law and the law [ultimately] won.”

If history is any guide, Texan prisons, already some of the toughest in the nation, could become even leaner and meaner in the future. State and prison officials in Texas and elsewhere are attempting to cut costs by privatizing more prisons and prison services, intensifying their efforts to exploit penal labor, and slashing spending for inmates’ food and other “luxuries” like vocational, substance abuse, and educational programs. Recently Texas enacted a slew of penal reforms aimed at shrinking its prison population, but its incarceration rate stubbornly remains the second highest in the country. If Perkinson’s analysis is correct, the Lone Star State will not begin shuttering its prisons without enormous political pressure. The control model pioneered by Texas and exported to other states has become a key tool to manage an increasingly diverse society ridden with many politically and economically marginalized groups. On this subject, Texas’s future looks almost as bleak as its past.

Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America.