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Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson, Metropolitan Books/Holt, 484 pp (October 2010), $20.00 paperback

Book Review by Lance Tapley

Why did middle-class liberals, historically in the forefront of compassionate social reform, allow, with nary a peep, the construction of our prison colossus? A new book, Texas Tough, by Robert Perkinson, helps explain why liberals not only went along with this right-wing, racist project – they embraced it.

To obtain a more complete answer, though, to this important political question, Perkinson’s book ought to be read together with another excellent volume, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America, by Marie Gottschalk, published in 2006 [available from PLN – see page 54].

Both books give some credit to the usual explanations for the incarceration boom of the last 35 years, including sensational news-media crime coverage seized on by opportunistic politicians to extend prison sentences; the failed, cynical War on Drugs; and the lobbying of the corporate, union and bureaucratic prison-industrial complex.

Texas Tough contributes another important explanation: how the white leadership of the extremely racially divided, politically conservative South developed an unashamedly racist, brutal prison policy that it exported to the rest of the country. Texas, which developed the biggest prison system, led the way. Between 1968 and 2005 its prison budget multiplied from $20 million to 
$2.6 billion!

Perkinson, a University of Hawaii American studies professor, goes into the whole sorry history of Texan (and southern) treatment of prisoners, including the 19th century lease of convicts to corporations and the establishment early in the next century of state-run plantations and chain gangs. He is not the first to note that southern criminal “justice” was used to control blacks after slavery was abolished. And when the civil rights revolution abolished blatant apartheid, Jim Crow “moved behind bars.” The 20th century brought more formality and bureaucracy to Texas (and other states’) prisons, but these and technological developments also brought dehumanizing surveillance and control.
“Texas Tough” Moves North

Beginning in the 1960s, the elevation by (often-southern) conservatives of the crime-and-punishment issue nationally provided the opportunity for the “Texas tough” approach to move north. In the backlash to the Democratic Party-supported civil rights movement, Republicans took over the South, and they expanded their strength out of the South in reaction to inner-city riots. The eventual result for penal policy was a conservative über-triumph. The United States today incarcerates at five times the world average, at a rate four times greater than 30 years ago; we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners – over 2.3 million human beings behind bars, the great majority African American and Hispanic.

And, beginning with President Lyndon Johnson, Democratic leaders caved. These civil rights supporters were afraid of seeming weak on crime (as, with the Vietnam War, they were afraid of seeming weak on communism). They were especially spineless when Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs.

Some outdid the Republicans. In Texas, Governor Ann Richards, “a champion of feminism and civil rights,” built more prison housing “than anyone before her,” Perkinson writes. Liberal governor Mario Cuomo “ended up fabricating more prison beds than all of New York’s previous governors combined.” With his tough-on-crime stance, Bill Clinton “more than any other twentieth-century president ... built a prison nation.” Texas toughness even was instituted in places – like my home state, Maine – that weren’t terribly racially divided or politically conservative.

Why did states like Maine follow Texas’ lead? It had to be more complicated than liberal troops falling in line behind the cowardice and opportunism of their leaders. This questioning led me to The Prison and the Gallows. It adds exhaustively researched nuance to the explanation of liberal behavior.

Gottschalk, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has a chapter entitled “Not the Usual Suspects.” Her most unusual suspects: feminists. Her contribution to explaining the prison explosion is to point out that the intertwined women’s and victims’ rights movements had great influence on crime-and-punishment policy. Activists against domestic violence, for example, accepted police and prison as the solutions. The right wing cheered on this view, and “the women’s movement became a vanguard of conservative law-and-order politics.”

Oppression of the Poor

These otherwise insightful books, however, skim over a major point necessary to understand the origin of the prison boom.

Let’s repeat a question: Why, indeed, did the boom happen in a place like Maine? And it did happen. Despite having among the lowest crime and incarceration rates of any state, Maine’s prison population has expanded enormously over the past 30 years (and its prisons meet contemporary standards of brutality). Yes, the state’s victims’ rights movement has been vengeful, but misguided feminism hasn’t been important enough in the state’s recent history to provide much of an explanation.

And racism doesn’t provide the explanation. In Maine the prisons are not dominated by people of color for the simple reason that Maine is the whitest state. In Maine and some other rural states, the cells are dominated by unemployed, uneducated, addicted, frequently mentally and physically unhealthy, extremely poor whites. Why did Maine choose to slam these people in prison for such lengthy periods – and largely for nonviolent crimes? A state like Maine adopted Texas toughness because it was a way to control – to “disappear,” one might even say – undesirable, disorderly, threatening poor people, whatever their color.

While blacks and Hispanics make up a great number of the very poor in many states, and thus they’re the ones who tend to “get” prison in those states – as The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, by Jeffrey Reiman, revealed during the beginning phase of mass incarceration 30 years ago – the composition of the prison population in places like Maine reveals the lowest common denominator: mass imprisonment is oppression of the unruly poor of all colors.

While there’s little correlation between crime and incarceration rates, a huge correlation exists between crime and punishment and poverty. Perkinson notes that four of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent, and 50 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate.

Ray Luc Levasseur, who spent 20 years behind bars for radical left-wing bombings of corporate and government offices, calls prisons “concentration camps for poor people, especially for people of color.” He gets the order just right.

Let’s peek a little more behind the curtain. Everyone will agree that prevention is a better solution to the problem of crime than prison. But that would mean dealing “with the whole issue of poverty, which we don’t like to talk about,” as Gladys Carrión, New York’s Commissioner of Children and Family Services, said at a John Jay College of Criminal Justice crime conference I attended last winter in Manhattan.

And we don’t like to talk about poverty because then we’d have to talk about the rich — as in, to be blunt, redistributing income. The controversy over Barack Obama’s proposal to increase slightly the tax rate on the very rich (letting the Bush tax cuts expire) shows how difficult this discussion is to have. The Obama proposal is an iffy proposition politically even when taxes on the rich have been lowered for 50 years, even when the rich have gobbled up almost all the country’s increase in wealth for 30 years, even after the billionaires on Wall Street brought much of the globe to its financial knees with the biggest financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression. Despite the present chatter about prison reform, the future may not be bright for prisoners because it doesn’t look bright for poor people.

Of course, we could immediately be less severe in sentencing people and, in prison, give inmates education instead of brutality [Ed. Note: Or instead of simply warehousing prisoners for years or decades]. But it may be that for big change to occur, liberals will have to demand better from our politicians on economic as well as corrections policy.

This doesn’t just mean welfare; it also means jobs for working-class people. But with the rise in importance of social issues to liberals (Gottschalk discusses a few of them connected to women’s rights), and the decline of unions within the Democratic coalition, middle-class liberals have been disconnected from the working class. And especially disconnected from the very poor, the underclass, which has been beaten down so much it looks extremely alien and unpleasant to many liberals. It’s hard for them even to see this class with so many of its members in prison.

Gottschalk writes about the prison monster that many Americans “choose not to notice.” So too with poverty.

What They Also Missed

No book can hit every base. But let’s just mention a couple of other important elements in the construction of our prison nation:

• America kennels at least 36,000 mostly nonviolent and mentally ill people in solitary-confinement prisons called supermaxes, even though isolation is medically certified to drive humans to often-suicidal insanity. Built over the past 25 years, this is a gulag of mass torture.

• Related to the supermax craze and very much an engine of poverty, the “deinstitutionalization” of mentally ill people without adequate community care has fed the prisons. In a New York Times op-ed in 2007, law professor Bernard Harcourt wrote, “Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt – bed by bed – an enormous prison.”

Lance Tapley is an investigative reporter based in Maine. A version of this review first appeared in the Portland Phoenix. He wrote the chapter on supermax prisons in “The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse,” edited by Marjorie Cohn and published by New York University Press (2011)

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