The Rise of America’s Prison Empire

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Aerial view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Library Company of Philadelphia

Aerial view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Library Company of Philadelphia

Robert Perkinson teaches U.S. political history and is chair of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book, Texas Tough: Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan), won the PEN John Kenneth Galbraith Award for non-fiction published in 2010 and 2011.

Could you briefly describe Texas Tough?

Texas Tough is a social biography of the country’s largest prison system and a study of the entwinement of racism and criminal justice from slavery to the present. The book came together as I grappled with two vexing questions: Why has the United States assembled the largest penal system in the world, unlike anything seen before in the history of democratic governance, and why have racial disparities in criminal justice worsened over the past two generations, despite the watershed victories of the civil rights movement? In my research, I took a regional and a longue durée approach. I homed in on Texas, which became the paradigmatic prison state in the postwar period, but traced the story over the full arc of American and Texas history. Drawing from institutional and archival records, contextualized by a larger survey of politics and policy, the book develops two principal arguments: First, that the history of criminal justice is a more southern story than the literature suggests, and second, that the politics of race and reaction have played a more prominent role in the expansion of incarceration than rising crime rates or other factors conventionally proposed by scholars. Racism built a prison nation, the book concludes, and a broad-based movement for democratic renewal will be required to dismantle it.

What was the most difficult part of turning your dissertation into a published book? Do you have advice for this?

In my dissertation, I explored only a segment of the larger story I wanted to tell. Focusing on convict leasing—the for-profit penal labor system that developed in the backlash against emancipation—I learned a great deal in graduate school about the origins of the prison, the history of the South, and the enduring social and legal imprints of slavery. But to complete the larger project, I had to conduct substantial new research, resituate my interventions in a wider frame, and rewrite basically from scratch; hardly a sentence survived from one to the other.

Because I hoped my book would reach advocates and policymakers, I also chose to work with a literary agent, Susan Rabiner, and ultimately to publish with a trade press, Metropolitan Books. This required a set of changes. To tell a story of national significance, I added substantial sections on New York and California. In developing my arguments, I shifted from the terrain of scholarly debate, which is relatively bounded and well-informed, to public and often polemical debates about race, politics, and the role of punishment in society. In style, I did my best to develop individual characters and capture the drama of events, even though the book is ultimately about institutions and social formations.

Many of us fear that writing for a popular audience means dumbing down. To the contrary, I found writing for intelligent readers outside the field required me to explain myself more clearly and concisely. The process sharpened my thinking.

The result of all this, I hope, is a stronger, more substantial book. That said, I’m not sure I would counsel postdocs or new assistant professors to follow a similar path. A more prudent course of action would have been to modestly revise my dissertation as a scholarly monograph and to write Texas Tough as a second book. Two for one!

Intake at the Walls, 1950. Courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Intake at the Walls, 1950. Courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

What initially drew you to this topic?

Dismay. When I started graduate school, America’s punishment counterrevolution was on fire. In the 1990s alone, the country’s inmate population doubled. Prison budgets were overtaking higher education expenditures in many states. Racial disparities were worsening by almost every measure. The rise of mass imprisonment—unprecedented among democracies and even authoritarian states—seemed to me a violation of the social contract, a significant reversal of the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement.

With my eyes fixed on the present crisis, I initially thought I would examine only postwar history. As I began reading, however, I became interested in the deeper roots of American penality. I was drawn to the South, which was comparatively less studied and where imprisonment rates were highest. I also became interested in parallels between the backlash against Reconstruction, which spawned Jim Crow, and the backlash against civil rights, which birthed, in Michelle Alexander’s words, the New Jim Crow.

In working on my dissertation proposal, I conducted research in Georgia and Louisiana, but Texas exerted a magnetic pull. The state looms large in the public imagination and had become a leader in every measure of harshness: executions, solitary confinement, juvenile detention, and for-profit incarceration. By focusing intensively on a singular but influential state, I aimed to formulate a coherent narrative while also casting light on the evolution of U.S. criminal punishment writ large.

Can you tell us about your research process?

At base, I was studying government institutions over a long time scale, so I had a legion of extensive sources from which to draw. Almost every day in the archives yielded treasures: work song transcriptions, prison rodeo brochures, whipping ledgers, annual statistical reports, legislative investigations. Interviews with current and former prisoners only added to the riches. My challenge was to select the right sources with which to construct a useful and unifying story, and to contain length. I had gathered enough material to write a trilogy.

There were other challenges, of course. I got locked out of some prisons as my research progressed, notably the historic Walls Unit in Huntsville. Later, prison censors banned my book, so I couldn’t easily share my work with inmates who had contributed so much to the project.

Despite the plethora of sources, there were also gaps. Before the 1960s, writings by African American, Latino, and women prisoners were scarce. This required piecing together fragments found in prisoner petitions, Spanish-language newspapers, investigative transcripts, and reports prepared by early civil rights organizations.

Generally, though, I had few problems with my source base. There are thousands of documents left in the archives that can be used to assemble many new books—students take note!

TDC director Geroge Beto posing with the "bat,“ Texas's principal instrument of convict discipline from antebellum times through World War II. Photo 1965. Courtesy of TDCJ.

TDC director Geroge Beto posing with the “bat,“ Texas’s principal instrument of convict discipline from antebellum times through World War II. Photo 1965. Courtesy of TDCJ.

What was the most interesting thing you found while doing research?

I was regularly amazed, frequently disturbed, occasionally delighted. In some cases, whole categories of sources proved unusually rich. Each governor accumulated boxes of clemency appeals, for example. I expected banal promises of good behavior, and I found them. But many prisoners narrated their full life stories and provided textured descriptions of their experiences in prison. These strategic autobiographies stretched back to the nineteenth century and allowed me to juxtapose accounts of the same events written by prisoners and prison officials. Along with grievance petitions and investigation testimony, they preserved inmate voices from institutions designed to silence them.

I also had great fortune outside of the archives. After I went on a Houston radio show aimed at a prisoner audience, I received dozens of lengthy, eloquent letters from inmates who had long careers in Texas prisons, many stretching back to the 1950s. These correspondents became critical to the second half of my book.

In letters and in person, I was pleasantly surprised by my subjects’ openness. Current and former inmates, some of whom have become friends, thoughtfully discussed the most difficult subjects: child abuse, their pathways into prison, sex behind bars, violence and neglect, anger, shame, and sorrow. They filled vital gaps, gave my project detail and texture, and displayed the full dimensions of humanity even in dehumanizing circumstances.

What do you see as the future of scholarship on the carceral state?

Mass imprisonment is a defining feature of post–civil rights America, and I think it has staying power as a field of inquiry. In history, a great deal of basic research has yet to be done. Jails and mental institutions remain understudied, as do carceral institutions outside the biggest states. Prisoners’ voices, especially those from the margins, remain unheard.

I also think basic questions are still up for grabs, from the best way to conceive of the birth of the prison to sorting through the overdetermination of the prison boom. I also hope rival disciplines continue to enrich the field, sociology and its offshoots, of course, but also economics, political science, and cultural criticism. In the social sciences, we know surprisingly little with certainty, despite a century of research. There’s no broad agreement on the cause of the drop in crime rates since the 1990s, for instance.

“Southern chain gang.” 1900-1906. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D401-16155.

“Southern chain gang.” 1900-1906. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D401-16155.

What are your thoughts on the strengths or weaknesses of the discipline’s reliance on monographs, and on the future of tenure and publishing?

As necessary complements to journal publishing, book-length investigations of topics both sweeping and defined are vital to our understanding of history. I think monographs are too important to sideline, the tumult in publishing notwithstanding. That said, if cuts to academic presses and library budges continue, it will become increasingly untenable to require book publishing for tenure. As authors, we can tackle pressing questions and write for audiences larger than each other, but it’s fantasy to think that every worthy monograph can pay its way in sales. Publishing subventions is one solution; quality online publishing is another. But these, too, will require fighting for resources. Historians, especially at adequately funded institutions, need to understand this. In order to continue writing history, we have to struggle to make history.

What advice do you have for grad students/junior scholars turning their dissertations into manuscripts or looking to publish their first books?

I hope that students (with help from their advisers) design their dissertations for publication from the prospectus stage forward. If students start out writing a book or a defined set of articles, they will have an easier time after graduation. In the rush to finish and with slack mentorship, too many students don’t think about publishing until late in the process. This is understandable but often requires students to, in effect, complete the same project twice.

I also advise students to think of their dissertation as just one intervention they will make over the course of their careers. This can free students to narrow their research and sharpen their arguments, leaving great finds aside for future projects.

What surprised you while writing this book?

How much fun it was. The process was long and arduous—sometimes frustrating and daunting—but I found it rewarding throughout. My research let me ramble through unfamiliar worlds, both in the present and the past. I met compelling people, some in person, some through documents. Writing could be a slog but crafting just the right phrase provided thrills here and there. Final publication felt like a genuine accomplishment. I hoped I would make a difference, however small.

We often talk about writing as hard. It is; it’s work, the skepticism of outsiders be damned. But in research universities many of us also have a vocation that allows exceptional autonomy, flexibility, and creativity. Those of us with privileged ladder posts should be attentive to the joys of professional scholarship, and we should try to foster conditions for our students, lecturers, and adjuncts, so they can experience these joys, too. We will all benefit. Good scholarship requires good support.

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