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.

Perkinson’s argument is hardly revelatory. Several other writers, including Marie Gottschalk, Christian Parenti, Jonathan Simon, and (in the interest of full disclosure) myself, have written books exploring the interplay of conservative political movements, many of them originating in the South, with criminal-justice trends. This interplay is crucial for understanding how and why America entered an era of mass incarceration in the early 1970s. Paradoxically, during the very years in which political and cultural freedoms were dramatically expanded, we as a society chose to incarcerate more and more offenders, for longer and longer stretches of time, in worse and worse conditions. Perhaps it’s the yin and the yang of modernity: greater freedom and opportunity for the majority, coupled with increasingly coercive responses and deprivations of liberty for the impoverished, recalcitrant minority.

That said, this framework, so useful for understanding nearly four decades of public policy, has recently become somewhat dated. In the post-Bush era, faced with staggering deficits and a restive populace, many states are starting to roll back their most extreme tough-on-crime policies and sentences. Incarceration rates are flattening, and in some states actually falling, and the federal government is, in fits and starts, recasting the war on drugs as a public-health issue. Even Texas, the poster child for all that is tough in American criminal justice, is taking some baby steps toward improving its prison conditions and limiting the numbers entering the system in the first place.

Still, Perkinson tells a generally compelling (if overlong and occasionally unfocused) story, which blends history, cultural commentary, folklore, and ethnography. Just as important, he tells it in a way that takes readers on an eminently horrifying journey into America’s own heart of darkness. We read about inmates suffocated to death in punishment cells known as “holes,” and of others fatally beaten on a whim by guards or by other, favored prisoners. Post-Civil War fortunes, the author notes, were regularly amassed on the backs of prison labor. And the businessmen who made these fortunes frequently became the supreme power brokers when it came to shaping the very criminal-justice system that had so lavishly rewarded them.

Some of the horrors documented in Texas Tough have at least nominal economic rationales. Others seem entirely senseless, visions straight out of Dante’s nine circles of hell. At one point the author examines testimony from the Ruiz trial, a famous, lengthy court case that eventually resulted in the entire Texas prison system being declared unconstitutional. Of one particular prison, he writes: “Neglect at the infirmary also led to depredations by inmates. A young man named Euris Francis, for example, almost died when he lost both arms in a threshing machine, which he had been ordered to use without proper safety equipment. At the hospital, he underwent emergency surgery and had his amputations bandaged. He was then left alone on the ward, where another patient took advantage of his helplessness and raped him. ‘The man without the arms was crying,’ testified a witness.”

You can’t make up stuff like this.

As a genre, prison writing (as well as prison music, photography, and film) has a long pedigree in America. From the earliest days of the republic, citizens, political leaders, and overseas commentators have been fascinated by stories of crime and punishment. Changing attitudes toward religion, toward ideas of redemption, even toward sexual mores, can be charted by exploring shifting criminal justice trends, or by listening to the songs written and sung by prisoners over the centuries.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment (Beacon Press, 2006). His most recent book is a profile of President Obama titled Inside Obama’s Brain (Penguin Portfolio, December 2009).