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Doing Time in the Depression

Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons

Ethan Blue

Publication Year: 2012

As banks crashed, belts tightened, and cupboards emptied across the country, American prisons grew fat. Doing Time in the Depression tells the story of the 1930s as seen from the cell blocks and cotton fields of Texas and California prisons, state institutions that held growing numbers of working people from around the country and the world—overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately non-white, and displaced by economic crisis.

Ethan Blue paints a vivid portrait of everyday life inside Texas and California’s penal systems. Each element of prison life—from numbing boredom to hard labor, from meager pleasure in popular culture to crushing pain from illness or violence—demonstrated a contest between keepers and the kept. From the moment they arrived to the day they would leave, inmates struggled over the meanings of race and manhood, power and poverty, and of the state itself. In this richly layered account, Blue compellingly argues that punishment in California and Texas played a critical role in producing a distinctive set of class, race, and gender identities in the 1930s, some of which reinforced the social hierarchies and ideologies of New Deal America, and others of which undercut and troubled the established social order. He reveals the underside of the modern state in two very different prison systems, and the making of grim institutions whose power would only grow across the century.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-ix

From Austin to Sacramento and Charlottesville to Perth, I’ve accumulated many debts over the course of writing this book. Advisors, colleagues, friends, students, and family all gave generously of their time and advice, and even if I haven’t been shrewd enough to accept it all, I am grateful. I am more grateful...

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pp. 1-19

Crime is a matter of history and geography. It is not what you do, “but how, when, and where you do it. No definition of crime can be made without first making that statement.” In 1933—in the thick of the Great Depression—the author of these remarks, Edwin Owen, listed the many reasons for “the condition...

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1. Of Bodies and Borders: The Demography of Incarceration

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pp. 20-52

After a bath, strip search, and shoddy haircut and shave, Tasker was disoriented and had lost his sense of place. “Somewhere in the bowels of the building behind me I had become confused in my bearings, and never again could I think of east other than as south. The whole institution had...

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2. Work in the Walled City: Labor and Discipline in California’s Prisons

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pp. 53-76

After new arrivals found their cells and met their cellmates, they negotiated bunk space and where to put any belongings they might have. They did not have long to do it, though. Soon enough they would be expected to make their way to their job assignment. Work mattered. From the San Quentin...

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3. From Can See to Can’t: Agricultural Labor and Industrial Reform on Texas Penal Plantations

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pp. 77-99

In the California Prison System, labor assignment mimicked the race-blind coercive meritocracy through which American society and liberal capitalism were supposed to function. And while California officials hoped that income from prisoners’ labor might help offset the costs of running the institution...

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4. Shifting Markets of Power: Building Tenders, Con Bosses, Queens, and Guards

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pp. 100-134

Bull was a long-time building tender, appointed by guards to keep order in the “tanks”— dormitories where inmates slept on Texas prison farms. Dumpling was a new young inmate, and even though he should have been sent to a unit for first-termers, he was assigned to the Retrieve Farm. When the transport...

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5. Thirty Minutes behind the Walls: Prison Radio and the Popular Culture of Punishment

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pp. 135-162

At 10:30 p.m., on March 23, 1938, four chimes sounded on Fort Worth Station WBAP, and listeners heard words that in other circumstances would have struck them with terror: “We now take you to the grounds of the Texas State Prison.” But instead of the sound of a gavel strike or the word “guilty” from a jury...

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6. Sport and Celebration in the Popular Culture of Punishment

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pp. 163-188

Though understood as “play,” prison sports were serious business. For inmates, athletics and the celebrations that went with them were a means of pleasure and recreation, and personal and collective fulfillment. Sports allowed prisoners to move their bodies in ways that were profoundly different from the exhausting...

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7. A Dark Cloud Would Go Over: Death and Dying

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pp. 189-212

There were many ways to die. From the capitally condemned to the tubercular to the overworked to those stabbed in fights, prisoners developed an intimacy with death. At San Quentin, they called it “going out the back door” or getting a “backdoor parole.” The condemned to hang would “do the air dance,” those...

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8. Going Home

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pp. 213-240

Doing time was hard, and getting out was hard, too. If prisoners hoped for an early release, they had a lot of work to do—bags to weave or cotton to pick, certainly, but also powerful friends to make, petitions to write, bureaucracies to navigate, and favors to ask. Through the 1930s, parole boards would gain increasing...

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pp. 241-252

San Quentin prison, like the rest of the Golden State and the rest of the nation, went on high alert on December 7, 1941. Unlike previous emergencies, when desperate prisoners tied sheets together to escape from a window or burrowed under the thick walls, this threat came from outside rather than within. Authorities...


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pp. 253-312


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pp. 313-325

About the Author

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pp. 326

E-ISBN-13: 9780814723166
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814709405
Print-ISBN-10: 0814709400

Publication Year: 2012