An intensively researched, disturbing history of American penology focusing on the state with the largest prison system—Texas.
In his debut, Perkinson (American Studies/Univ. of Hawaii) asserts that criminologists traditionally study early New England reformatories, foreboding public institutions meant to restore wayward citizens to virtue that evolved into modern correctional bureaucracies still pursuing, however imperfectly, the ideal of reform. The author maintains that America always supported an alternative, purely punitive penology that originated in the slave-holding South and which, with the triumph of conservatives after the 1970s, is now the norm. Texas, rural and tolerant of violence between whites, arrested few people before 1865, but this changed with emancipation, when suppressing blacks became an obsessive priority. Unwilling to spend tax money, former Confederate states hired out prisoners to the highest bidder, where they worked as slaves. This was profitable, so when publicity about corruption and brutality forced states to discontinue “leasing out,” they substituted state-run plantations, mines and factories where conditions were hardly better. Class-action lawsuits during the civil-rights furor in the 1960s and ’70s produced draconian court decisions ordering reform. Some improvement occurred but many rulings were simply ignored, and by the ’80s Americans were so responsive to law-and-order appeals, and U.S. prison populations were mushrooming so rapidly, that there was no money to spare. Ironically, writes Perkinson, skyrocketing costs—Texas spends $3 billion per year—have produced the first conservative voices suggesting that matters are out of hand.
A convincing and discouraging argument that the Texas model of a profit-making, retributive prison system has become the national template.