Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire | By Robert Perkinson | Metropolitan Books | 496 pages, $35
Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison | By Piper Kerman | Spiegel & Grau | 320 pages, $25
Over the past century and a half, prison reformers have generally looked to the South with a mixture of rage, resignation, and despair. Southern prisons were long seen as a national embarrassment: a naked and entirely retrograde abuse of power, all in the name of states’ rights. But that changed during the four decades following the election of Richard Nixon, as an increasingly conservative (and often southern) national leadership rewrote the playbook around criminal justice, as it did in so many other areas of our collective life.
With overt racism no longer acceptable, large numbers of voters transferred their allegiance to politicians who made none-too-veiled references to “law and order,” “moral decay,” and “urban collapse,” thereby harnessing white anxieties without ever explicitly talking about race. The respectable fears of Nixon’s Silent Majority profoundly altered the national conversation about crime and punishment, drug addiction, policing, and prison expenditures. In so doing, they reshaped the lives of millions of Americans.
Texas, as Robert Perkinson argues in his sprawling, ambitious Texas Tough, led the way. “All of Texas’s principal institutions—its political and legal systems, its economy and cultural mores—rested on a bedrock fracture: exalted liberty secured through systematic debasement,” he writes. “As in other southern polities that later coalesced into the Confederacy, Texas developed criminal justice traditions uniquely suited to the political economy of human bondage.”
Perkinson explores the ways in which Texan “justice” evolved its own patterns of behavior. There was the use of courts and prisons to “protect” a postwar white society from freed black slaves and their descendants; the rigid implementation of society’s racial caste system behind bars; and a reliance on prisoners’ hard labor. The state’s jails and prisons encouraged a set of brutal and humiliating punishment rituals: guards were allowed to whip inmates with a leather strap well into the modern era, and rape was widely tolerated as a mechanism of institutional control.
Texas tough (the title of which was borrowed from an October 2000 report by the Justice Policy Institute) details a post-1968 sea change in the country’s attitude toward crime and punishment. As America became more conservative during that period, national politicians and criminal-justice experts stopped looking to the South as a target for reform. Instead, the region began to be regarded as a no-nonsense paradigm that could serve as a model for the rest of the country.
“After following a southern strategy to the White House,” recounts Perkinson, “Republicans began making American criminal justice a lot more southern.” Racism and racial stereotyping were core parts of this transformation. But as with so much else that is unpleasant in modern politics, it came with dollops of plausible deniability. The war on drugs, for example, had a racially disproportionate impact. Yet proponents could always claim that the law was color blind, that people were being sentenced to do hard time for their crimes, not their social status.
For Perkinson, this trend reached its zenith during the tenure of George W. Bush. As Texas governor, Bush presided over more executions and built more prisons than any of his peers in other states. As president, he brought many of the worst traits associated with “Texas justice” to the Federal Bureau of Prisons—and, by extension, to the overseas prison camps institutionalized as a core component of the War on Terror. “Remarkably,” Perkinson writes, “Mr. Bush twice presided over the largest and fastest-growing prison system in the nation, first as governor, then as president.”
And what has been the result of this expansion of Texas-style justice? There are more than two million Americans living behind bars on any given day, many of them for drug offenses that would have been better dealt with via treatment or community service than incarceration. We are stuck with burgeoning state budget deficits as criminal-justice expenditures run amok, and a growing mental-health crisis inside prisons. Even the very landscape has been physically altered by the construction of hundreds of prisons in recent decades, most of them in poor, remote regions of the country.