Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tough talk on Texas prison system

Monday afternoon I attended a packed lecture at the UT Law School by Robert Perkinson, author of the book Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire. UT has put three blog posts online by Michele Deitch, Jorge Renaud, and Mary Crouter reacting to the book. (I've got a copy but I'm afraid it keeps getting pushed down my "to-read" list.)

Perkinson said he focused on Texas (he actually teaches in Hawaii, lucky guy) because the historiography of prisons is biased toward the Northeast and to a lesser extent toward California. Criminal justice policy innovations, he said, don't just flow from north to south but increasingly in the other direction. He believes Texas was the first to forge a hybrid approach to prisons, merging techniques from the north with a plantation-approach dating to Reconstruction.

Perkinson's book (or at least his talks about it - this is the second time I've heard him speak) focuses significantly on issues of race. He believes that we're currently in the second "boom" of incarcerating black felons, and that the first came after the end of Reconstruction when southern racists used criminal laws to impose and enforce Jim Crow. The southern model during that first boom involved "convict leasing," which meant hiring out convicts for their labor to private employers, though none of the money went to the prisoners. Convict leasing was Texas' #1 source of revenue, he said, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At one point, Perkinson provocatively announced that "Prison labor helped build the New South just as slavery built the old." The prisoner death toll from convict leasing nationwide was about 30,000 - roughly six times the number of black folks lynched during the same period, he said.

It's rather ironic that convict leasing used to be Texas' biggest revenue source because today mass incarceration has turned into a $3+ billion per year money pit for the state. Perkinson noted that the Texas Legislature had increased penalties and created new crimes during every legislative session since the 1960s, ignoring the fact that "tough sentencing laws are appropriations," or "really entitlement programs," which is an interesting way to look at it. Indeed, prison building, he argued, has been the defining public works project of the last generation, the same way that hydroelectric dams were the defining public works program of the early 20th century and the highway system was during the period after WWII - an excellent and accurate observation.

Perkinson's analysis of the racial politics of criminal justice, to me, anyway, rang more true when he discussed the period from the Civil War through the 1960s. However, some of his rhetoric regarding the post-civil rights era prison boom seemed a tad too overstated and simplistic. In particular, he looks at black folks' disproportionate incarceration rate and attributes its cause to the same explicitly racist motives that animated Texas prison builders after Reconstruction. He thinks that "overincarceration of blacks has less to do with crime than politics."

To me, though, the issue is more complicated than that and the role of racial discrimination less cut and dried.  Regarding drug crimes, I agree there's a strong case to be made that, even though all races use drugs at about the same rate, enforcement is over-concentrated in black neighborhoods and discrimination of various sorts sends too many black folks to prison. OTOH, regarding violent crime, most violence is perpetrated by criminals on people of the same race, and there are disproportionately more black victims of violent crime, by far, than their percentage of the general population. So it's not just that incarceration rates are disparate, but also that black folks are more frequently engaging in violent crime, proportionally speaking, and more frequently victimized by it. Further, for reasons having as much to do with class and culture as race, poor blacks are more likely to suffer from a larger number of risk factors that can disproportionately draw them to criminality.

Given that, I can't in good faith attribute racial disparities in prison entirely to discriminatory policies by the state, and some of Perkinson's commentary on that score seemed too sweeping for my tastes. I don't disagree that there are discriminatory aspects to the system - many of them on the front end via decisions by police and prosecutors - but the analysis cannot (or at least should not) end there. Even if it were possible to eliminate racial discrimination entirely from the system, most of the day-to-day criticisms on this blog, for example, would remain unaffected.

I may not agree with everything Perkinson has to say but I'm still looking forward to reading his exhaustively researched book - perhaps over the holidays when I get a little down time.

UPDATE: Michele Deitch forwards me this link to an audio file of Perkinson's UT talk.


Anonymous said...

How can someone that lives in Hawaii have first hand knowledge of what goes on inside Texas prisons? This book is just another money grab for this "writer"..

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The guy spent a decade writing the book and did tons of archival work here. Criticize what he wrote or said, if you like, but this is a substantive and well-researched work.

Putting "writer" in quotes and complaining the author might profit from his book says much more about your lack of seriousness than his.

Anonymous said...

Scott, if you haven't already, read "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander.

Anonymous 10:45, are you suggesting that one must live in Texas to know what goes on inside Texas prisons? We have a whole new crop of "Know Nothings" who disparage all information unless it arises inside their own head.

Charles in Tulia

Prison Doc said...

As a right wing redneck I think his current observations are just crazy. I came of age in the 50's and 60's in East Texas and I know racism; clearly racism is still present in this country but today, I think the "racial" aspect is far secondary to the socioeconomic. Take felony DUI for example--I've seen individuals serve 10 years and others get probation--the difference? The probation guys had $15,000 lawyers and those serving time had whomever they could get. I agree with Grits' comments on the proportionality of white vs nonwhite offenders. In part it is a numbers game.

Likewise, it is hard for me to swallow his comparison of prison building to Hoover Dam and other great public works projects--that idea just won't balance on the scale.

Therefore I consider him to be just another "liberal elite" who doesn't really understand us in "flyover country".

Alan said...

I agree with you about the period since the 1960's.

Although poverty breeds crime the location of the poor differs by race.

Most impoverished whites live in rural areas where there are fewer targets for criminals.

The inner cities have a much richer assortment of targets and allow the criminal to remain anonymous.

As you pointed out minorities are more frequently victims of violent crime committed by other minorities and the judges, especially minority judges, are more likely to incarcerate such a violent offender.

In rough inner city neighborhoods a tough appearance is useful but not in a courtroom or at an job interview.

Politically speaking the media's focus on inner city crime gives the politicians a chance to use the more abundant resources at their disposal to target the criminals located there.

This is a great way for them to be reelected.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of flyover country... The East Coast elitists refer to the heartland as the "wasteland." Elitists in Boulder, Madison, Chicago and Austin work overtime trying to outdo their bi-coastal mentors in Boston, NY and San Francisco.

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...
How can someone that lives in Hawaii have first hand knowledge of what goes on inside Texas prisons? This book is just another money grab for this "writer"..

11/24/2010 10:45:00 AM
Spoken like a true Texas-Idiot!

Alan said...

In my opinion such books as this and Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" only fuel the racial discord in prison.

And don't forget the bible of many black gangs the late George Jackson's "Blood In My Eye'.

Just read the words of the ex-con Jorge Renaud that you referred to in this post.

"..violence didn’t stop. It changed, became more insidious and, although this may sound stupid, more cowardly. Relieved of the certainty that random violence might result in deadly retaliation, incoming gang bangers — overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — brought their street codes into prison: the drive-by mentality took hold, and it was visited against Anglos. These cons didn’t limit their violence to enemies — they adopted the attitude that any "white boy" was fair game, and that he could and should be broken by continual, unexpected gang beatings administered regardless of whether he fought back, or whether he showed "heart." The unwilling joined white supremacy gangs for protection, while those men weary of constant beatings became sex slaves and cash cows."

This racism charge in these books becomes the rallying cry of such attacks nation wide.

Anonymous said...

Alan, so just keep it quiet, and pretend that the new Jim Crow doesn't exist?

Charles in Tulia

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Prison Doc wrote: "it is hard for me to swallow his comparison of prison building to Hoover Dam and other great public works projects--that idea just won't balance on the scale."

I'll have to disagree with you there. IMO there are no other public works projects (outside war zones, perhaps) that match the scale of prison building in the last two decades. It's not as glorious or useful an achievement as dams or roads, but it's certainly comparable in scope and cost.

Alan said...

Well Charles "Blood In My Eye" is banded in many prisons and possibly this others will soon be as well.

The men who sit in prison are for the most part from the same social class and therefore the white inmates have reaped no benefits from this prison system.

The violence just gives the authorities an excuse to place more inmates into long term administrative security units (SHU's,or choice your acronym).

They are being used by the system to justify the system.

Prison is a but a cruel gauntlet with rouge guards on one side and predatory prisoners on the other. These two adversarial groups consciously or unconsciously collude together in order to administer societies punishment.

Alan said...

Your absolutely right GFB it is a jobs program for rural America. Every time they want to close one because it is draining the tax payers dry the unions combat siting the economic impact of the jobs lost.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits, sorry I missed you there. I was sitting a couple of rows in front of you as it turned out.

I actually thought the public works analogy was one of the more innovative (and spot-on) observations he made.

That said, I also agree that his analysis of post-1960s trends leaves out some key indicators of inequality outside the criminal justice system, which may be why the comparisons to slavery and Jim Crow feel a little bit like a reach.

Having read the book, I can second Grits' observation about "tons of archival work" and interviews.

I presume the people complaining that only Texans can write about Texas prisons understand that they are practicing identity politics.

Bill B.

Anonymous said...

Just another race baiting liberal elitist trying to make money by criticizing our state. See also, Barry Scheck. As far as I'm concerned, if they don't like how we dispense justice in Texas, they can stay the hell out! Hey Hookem, how about those election returns on November 2d?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6:32, It's people like you that make me blush for Texas--where I live and am also from. Everyone with an education is a "liberal elitist" in your eyes, and if anyone disagrees with the inhumane policies in this all too often backwards state (State Board of Education, for example), they can "get out", haw haw haw.

Election results were predictable midterm results in a downturning economy--thanks to Bush-n-friends--but most of the voters were voting based on economic fears rather than Tea Party terrorist "values". Having always lived in "flyover country" I am here to tell you that we don't all hate the President, fear a good education as "elitist", nor approve of our state's criminal justice policies.

I have read Texas Tough--great read, much of it very true. I have family members who work in TDCJ and come home every day appalled at the mistreatment of those incarcerated there.

And oh yes, Anonymous--that "awful" Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project--why, how DARE he attempt to spare the lives and/or free those incorrectly convicted of crimes? Yes indeed SHAME on him! Those darn elitists!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 11/25 8:16

Charles Kiker here

I'm an educated elitist, so what I say/write doesn/t count for anything with the anti-intellectual crowd which frequently inhabits these environs. Puts me in mind of the "Know Nothings" of the mid- 19th century. I need to go back and read up on those guys. Of course, anything I read was written by educated elitists, so you couln't put any stock in it.

By the way, "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas" by Alan Bean is now available. This is an "embedded" on the scenes, blow-by-blow (with some of the blows exchanged between friends) up close and personal account of the Tulia Drug sting, its context, and its follow-up. Available from Amazon or directly from Alan Bean

Of course Alan is a liberal intellectual elitist, so you can't believe anything you read there.

Helga Dill, Chair, TX CURE said...

For those who say Perkinson's book is "just another money grabber"and he can't know what goes on in TX prisons etc. please read the book and see who the people were that he collaborated with for 10 years. All experts on TX prisons, from Judge William Wayne Justice to Michele Deitch and all the others mentioned. Every Texan should be acquainted with their Criminal Justice system and prisons because it can touch YOU! The rest of the world sees it because they are concerned about the inhumanity of it , why aren't you Texans? Quit playing ostrich and get your head out of the sand . Ask me any time , I deal with the system every day and can tell you much.

Anonymous said...

6:32, I sincerely doubt you are truly a Texan. If you were you would have been raised to be honest,and have a little integrity. You would also have been raised to treat everyone justly and with respect. Texans are taught to believe that our rights are sacred and should be for everyone.
My family was massacred at the battle of Goliad. My family were Texas rangers in 1841 and fought the indians. My son is incarcerated now. He has one offense on his record. Unless you have seen it, lived it or been a part of the system then shut the hell up.
Oh, that is another thing, We Texans are pretty vocal and believe in saying what we think. When we see injustice we stick up for the underdog. Barry Scheck may be a yankee, but he is helping to fight a system that is doing nothing but wrong for fellow Texans!

Anonymous said...

One more thing 6;32. If my family were wealthy elitists my son would never have had to serve time. We are working middle class people. We all know it is the poor and middle class that carry this country, this state and certainly this prison system.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad they fly in and shake me right out of my antebellum lassitude. As we all know, Texas has started up another plantation economy based on cotton and tobacco. We need slaves to pick cotton and chop weeds between those tobacco plants. That's the only reason we keep them behind bars, you know. The New York Times tells us that Texas gets their prisoners right off the auction block in New Orleans, but I'm not sure about that. I do know about Texas politicians and judges and I know that Big Daddy will do whatever it takes and spend any amount of money to keep those tobacco plants free of weeds.

Anonymous said...

There is a picture in the book of Beto holding “The Bat”, a popular form of punishment. The Bat was used in tyc before MvT by most any staff, even the dorm man. It was standard issue before MvT. In the summer of 75, several years after the MvT case was filed, The Bat was primarily used on kids in lock up. I had it used on me once that summer. That pic of uncle George may have been every day typical back when it was taken but it seems Macabre in this day and time. The memories of those stupid tyc hillbillies whaling on boys with that thing is haunting but it’s still much better than those god damned tyc team playa punks sexually molesting the kids today.