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.