- Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire
One nineteenth-century warden bragged “Down here in Texas we do not know how to manage without the strap” (128), referring to the thick leather strap known as the bat, which became the instrument of choice from the 1880s for a catalog of indiscretions. Texas Tough is a fitting title for this chronicle of the Texas prison system and its influence on national criminal justice policy over the past 150 years. Robert Perkinson, who spent more than a decade of archival and ethnographic research, follows two main themes: “that the history of punishment in the United States is more of a southern story” (7) and that the evolution of the prison has been guided by the country’s “troubled history of racial conflict and social stratification” (8).
Perkinson draws from a wealth of sources to tell his story, and he tells it well. Using prisoner memoirs, interviews with prisoners, guards, and lawmakers, government records, and more than thirty archival collections he traces the history of corrections in Texas with the parallel story of its development in the rest of the country. Although Texas was the last southern state to introduce the penitentiary before the Civil War, almost all of the state’s penalties in that era were more lenient than they were in the twentieth century. The author notes that the so-called “Walls” unit in Huntsville was “the first public work of any importance” in the state (75). What’s more it also became its “first racially integrated public institution” (81). It was during Reconstruction under Governor E. J. Davis that “for first and only time in Texas history, black and white imprisonment rates reached parity” (97). But by 1890, Texas was already imprisoning more African Americans than any other state in the Union.
The convict leasing system thrived in Texas and throughout the South between 1866 and 1910. Despite the end of leasing by 1911 a higher proportion of prisoners worked in the fields than at any point in Texas history. Perkinson recounts cases of convicts cutting their Achilles tendons, breaking bones, severing hands and feet just to avoid working in the fields. The author suggests that most southern states employed the familiar plantation model, an American institution that kept “the ghosts of slavery alive and well into the twentieth century” (152).
The famous and the infamous make their appearances throughout the book. Texan wardens, prison directors, and noted prisoners all get their due as do a number of governors and national figures. Also making cameos are blues musician Huddy “Leadbelly” Ledbetter and folklorist John Lomax, who “appreciated the layered complexity of African American prison songs” (211). Elizabeth Speer would “mastermind the most powerful citizen movement for penal reform in Texas history” (182) while Texas Sugar King Edward H. Cunningham turns convict leasing into “the most corrupt and murderous penal regime in American history” (85). No figure plays a more important role in this story than David Ruiz, the central figure in the epic civil rights lawsuit Ruiz v. Estelle, in which a federal judge declared the state’s prisons cruel and unusual in 1980. His lawsuit would result in the elimination of the building tender system, the upgrading of Texas prisons, and the doubling in size of the guard force. [End Page 106]
Texas Tough is wide-ranging, well-organized and well written. This should be among the standard works on Texas criminal justice history for years to come. It is accessible to both popular readers and academics alike. Anyone trying to gain an understanding of the Texan love affair with the prison system will find many of the answers in this provocative and thoroughly researched book.
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