Revolution Online, July 15, 2010

Revolution Interview

A special feature of Revolution to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports, and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our paper.

Robert Perkinson: Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire

Robert Perkinson is a professor of American Studies at University of Hawaii and the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2008), a sweeping history of the U.S. prison system from slavery time to the present, with a particular focus on Texas. Revolution talked with Perkinson after a recent New York City book release event at Revolution Books.


Part 1: The Long Shadow of Slavery

Revolution: Your book goes deeply into the history and the current reality of the vengeful model of prisons in Texas. Can you give our readers some context and overview of what you lay out in your work?

Robert Perkinson: Texas is the most locked-down state in the most incarcerated country in the world. There has never been a nominally democratic country that has incarcerated such a great portion of its citizenry. And Texas has really been at the epicenter of that counterrevolutionary change that has swept American society over the last 40 years. We now have 2.4 million people in prison; 170,000 of them are in Texas, more than any other state. The promise, however fleeting, of rehabilitation has largely collapsed in our prisons and jails; they really are warehouses for the poor and the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs—those on the margins of society. My book looks at the whole sweep of American history, and the whole sweep of the prison and its entwinement both with politics and economy. It argues that the traditional history of the prison that typically tells a story rooted in the Northeast, a story of "good intentions gone awry," is really less important than the Southern story—which is not a story of good intentions gone awry but of bad intentions gone worse. Whereas in the North penitentiaries were built ostensibly to rehabilitate, in the South they were built to punish, to exploit labor, and to further solidify the racial divide. It is that model of imprisonment that has really come to the fore in our time.

Revolution: You write in the book that "in the realm of punishment, all roads lead to Texas." Your work is an in-depth examination of why that is, starting from the slave state days of Texas, and even before, and this is well worth studying. But can you draw out in broad strokes what you mean by "all roads lead to Texas"?

Robert Perkinson: There are two reasons why I think Texas provides the most illuminating case study of mass imprisonment. One is that it is the biggest, baddest system in the country. There are more people being executed, more people behind bars generally, more people in supermax isolation, more people in for-profit facilities than in any other state. It is also very much an embodiment of the Southern model of incarceration, so that most of its prison infrastructure is built on former slave plantations, precisely in the counties that had the greatest portion of slaves before emancipation. So the prison infrastructure very much grew out of the ruins of slavery, kind of phoenix-like.

But there is another reason too. You can find equal harshness and as prominent, if not more prominent, ties to the history of slavery in Louisiana or Mississippi, but the difference with Texas is that it has really had national political influence in a way that more backwater states, like Mississippi and Louisiana, never have had. By the latter half of the 20th century, Texas had perfected the plantation model of punishment, such that it became a conservative counterpart to the liberal, supposedly beneficent California regime. And as the country swung to the right politically, after the collapse of the Great Society, and after the war, and after the urban rebellions of the '60s, that Texas model became a template for the nation. So whereas policy makers and penologists had previously looked to Texas as kind of an anachronistic, throwback to the old South, it started to become not a backwater, but a beacon. And other states started following and copying Texas' focus on labor, cost-cutting, and exacting military-style discipline. All prisons are authoritarian, but really Texas was more totalitarian. So I argue that it really led the way in this punitive counterrevolution in American politics and penology.

Revolution: Can you get more into what you're raising about a link to slavery? In a section subtitled "The Long Shadow of Slavery," you note that while there are clear differences between literal enslavement and prisons, that "Texas prisons carried forth many of slavery's core practices and cultural traditions."

Robert Perkinson: Well, there are two ways that the ghosts of slavery live on in Texas politics and prisons. Most concretely you see it in the rhythms of daily life and the disciplinary practices of the institutions themselves. The form of labor organization under slavery was the gang-task system: there would be a white driver, sometimes even a slave driver, and then there would be a gang of workers that would go out to the fields to fill a certain quota over the course of the day. That style of labor fell apart and was replaced by sharecropping and tenancy in the South after the emancipation, and it survived only in Southern prisons—that's the only place that you still see that form of labor organization. (To a certain extent you still see gang-task labor management in some proletarianized, really harsh corporate farms in California, and some other places with disenfranchised immigrant field workers, but it has its purest forms in these prisons). So you still see long lines of, mostly African American, convicts being led out of the cotton fields by an armed white man on horseback, every morning before dawn; and they work essentially from dawn to dusk. The labor is less exhausting than it was before federal courts began intervening in the 1970s, but that is still very much a facet of the whole ethos of the prison. These prisons are all built on slavery blueprints.

We see traces of slavery in the rhythms of daily life and in prison culture as well: the time that meals are served (in accord with field conditions), the deferential and demeaning nomenclature, the insular rural white guard culture—passed down from father to son, and over the generations, from slave driver to corrections officer. So in a sense these prisons are cultural preserves, almost living museums in a perverse sense.

But the other way is in politics. First, it's important to dispel a common misperception: To a surprising extent there is very little correlation between how we deal with criminal punishment and prisons, and crime on the streets. There is very little correlation between rising crime rates and rising imprisonment rates. Sometimes they correlate, other times they don't at all. What really governs how we manage our prisons is politics, and in particular, racial politics (and to a somewhat lesser degree, class politics). What I found is that Texas' racialized prison politics took shape during slavery and has never escaped its shadow.

Finally, there's another way that history stretching back to slavery helps us understand the U.S. prison state. In the book, I argue that mass imprisonment represents an echo of what happened after Reconstruction. After emancipation, during the period of Reconstruction, there was this moment of flourishing Black freedom in American life—building churches, building schools, getting elected to office, integrating public facilities. And that was smashed by both a federal withdrawal of troops and protection and the formation of a terrorist militia, led by the Ku Klux Klan, that established Jim Crow segregation and lynching and convict leasing that endured for another century.

So there was this expansion and then a constriction of freedom, and what I argue is that we see the same thing happened after the Civil Rights movement. There is this flourishing of liberty with the Black Civil Rights freedom movement, so we see the whole infrastructure of Jim Crow segregation collapse, which was an astonishing accomplishment. But out of the rubble of that collapse, a new white conservatism emerged that turned not to segregation, but to the politics of law and order to govern this new integrated social order that conservatives had feared and fought against. And so you see the same jurisdictions that fought against integration most avidly have become our most avid jailers. In the same period that segregation statutes were swept from the books in Texas, for instance, you see drug penalties being ramped up, more resources being given to law enforcement, new prisons being constructed. It became the way the new conservative movement coped with integration, by this massive, police response. And we see obvious manifestations of that in the drug war, in the crack cocaine disparities, and the way politicians, like in the Willy Horton ads, were so effective against Mike Dukakis. But it's that politics of fear led by the right with the collusion of the Democrats, that has created a prison nation.

Revolution: In relation to the point about the prison boom as a response to the upsurges of the '60s, you cite a 1968 quote from H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon's top aide: "[the president said] that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to."

Robert Perkinson: I argue that the law-and-order response to desegregation really began with conservative Southern Democrats—the Strom Thurmonds of the world. They warned—if you go back and look at their quotes in the 1950s—that integration was going to unleash a terrifying crime wave, and they demanded a tough police response. So the reactionary Southern Democrats are the ones that really began this.

But then, pretty quickly the smartest strategists in the Republican Party realized that the Democratic Party was vulnerable. The Dems had this rock-solid hold on the South with an unwieldy coalition that included everyone from Black sharecroppers to white supremacists plantation owners. These folks were all voting in the same party (to the extent that Blacks were allowed to vote), and the GOP realized that as the Democrats were embracing the cause of civil rights, they could lose the support of angry anxious white voters, especially if Republicans made appeals in the idiom of law and order. Barry Goldwater was really the pioneer in that regard, copying the strategy first laid out by George Wallace.

Richard Nixon, then, was the first person that rode this "Southern Strategy" to power. He is the first person that really broke apart the Democratic coalition in the South, and began turning white southerners to the Republican Party, and that is now where they almost all reside. So that is in some ways what Nixon was talking about—he realized that a critical part of his electoral appeal was to harvest angry, often racist, conscious or unconscious, white voters; but in the post-Civil Rights era, you could no longer do that with crass racist demagoguery, you had to come up with a new way of appealing to that electorate.

Revolution: Aside from electoral strategies, there was a felt need at the top of the power structure to reverse what came out of the '60s.

Robert Perkinson: Yes, so it was real too. Crime rates were going up in the 1960s—even more than they were going up, the report of them were going up, because the government was keeping closer track. So it seemed that crime was going up even faster than it actually was. Like you say, the civil rights movement had achieved its immediate legal goals and...

Revolution: …was growing into the Black liberation movement.

Robert Perkinson: Right, so there was a sort of radical wing of the Civil Rights movement, and people also started to talk about economic and social justice, not just civil rights. All of which was very threatening to those with economic and social power. So there was also this desire to ramp up law enforcement in response to the Black Panthers in particular, as a kind of domestic counterinsurgency. And this is really the era of global revolution too, so in their minds the Black Panthers, and the Viet Cong, and the Mau Mau, and all these radical organizations around the world, were swept into this—what they imagined to be this kind of communist boogie-man that they needed to repress by any means necessary.

Revolution: And this has had devastating consequences, especially in the oppressed communities and in particular Black and Latino youth.

Robert Perkinson: Well, the other thing that happens at the same time during this period is that as the right comes to power, the right slowly begins chipping away at the already anemic social welfare state, and that has had a particularly injurious effect on those at the bottom, and particularly Black Americans. We saw all of these tax policy changes during the Reagan administration that favored the wealthy and ultimately favored whites over Blacks, so at the same time that African Americans are being targeted by the drug war, intentionally or not, and being incarcerated in higher numbers, they are also being harmed as a general group by the whole gamut of economic policies. So we've gone from a helping hand style government to a closed fist—from carrots to sticks, from the Great Society to the Mean Society. There is a whole transformation, and that has had huge effects, even though by many measures the U.S. is so much less racist and much more tolerant now, than it was in say 1950. I mean, attitudes about interracial marriage and dating, and some of our superstars in sports and even our president have backgrounds that would have been unfathomable a century ago. Yet in some ways, especially by economic measures and most starkly of all by criminal justice measures, racism is alive and well. Racial division in some ways is as bad, almost, as it had ever been in the 20th century, certainly as bad as it has been anytime since the 1920s. There is a new study just out that the disparity in family wealth between Blacks and whites has quadrupled in the last 20 years. The racial disparities in criminal justice have almost doubled over the last 40 years. In some ways America is dispensing less equal rights now than before the civil rights movement, which is a pretty astonishing development.

Part 2: Warehousing of Prisoners and Dreams of Freedom

Revolution: What is the current situation with prison labor?

Robert Perkinson: If you go read prisoner memoirs from Northern prisons all through the 19th and 20th centuries, idleness is one of their central complaints. It's rarely a complaint that Texan or other Southern prisoners made, because they were worked to the bone, in very much the same style and with the same work quotas as had slaves. First, after the Civil War, they were worked for about half a century for private profit—almost all prisoners in the system, white and Black, were worked by private contractors, often to death, with African American prisoners being worked much harder and having higher work quotas than whites and sent to harsher work sites. And then when the states took over the system, around the turn of the century, that focus on labor exploitation as a way to cut costs and make the prison system almost—"self-sustaining" is the catch word that politicians used—continued all the way through the 20th century. And it only began to fall with the tremendous expansion of the system and federal court intervention in the late 20th century.

Now in the 21st century, they have had to build so many prisons—it went from like 20 prisons to 112 that they have in Texas now—a lot of them are just kind of concrete warehouses set up anywhere where the land is cheap. So the tradition of labor exploitation has finally begun to collapse into a warehousing regime, just within the last few years.

Revolution: While there is academic rigor in your research, you're also clearly passionate about this subject matter. How did you get into this area of study?

Robert Perkinson: I started working as an activist in college, working on all sorts of different causes in the '80s against the U.S. wars in Central America, against apartheid, against nuclear weapons. But I started noticing that every few weeks a new prison was opening, and the prison budget in some states was surpassing the higher education budget. More and more people were getting arrested for low-level drug possession, and more were going to prison for it. I started getting interested in that as a symptom of what was going wrong with the U.S. generally. So I started working as an activist—I did a conference on the drug war, and worked on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case for a while. And then in grad school I decided to take this on as a serious area of study.

I thought I would work on private prisons at first, but then finally when I started really reading, I decided what we really needed is to have a broad historical understanding of where this monster came from, in order hopefully to slay it. And so my hope is that, by illuminating the racial and fear-laden politics of prison politics, organizational strategies to try to change it will become more clear. My sense is that it is going to take not just tinkering around the edges, and technocratic fixes, or new studies showing we can save monies by this or that—rather, in the same way that this is a big change in American history, it is a big obstacle and it is going to take a lot to change it. In some ways I feel like it took a Civil War to end slavery, it took the Civil Rights movement to end Jim Crow segregation, and it will probably require another Civil Rights movement in order to transform the U.S. prison system.

Revolution: What is your view of the concept of the "prison-industrial complex," which is widely put forward?

Robert Perkinson: Yes, I used that term a lot as an activist. And it has been something that is kind of a very short phrase that encapsulates a critique of the criminal justice system. But the more that I started research and formulation of my own critique, I realized that it might encapsulate a critique in a slightly deceiving way. The suggestion with that term and its allusion to the military industrial complex—which itself was a term to try to explain the oversized influence of defense contractors on U.S. foreign policy and military spending—the presumption is that the profit motive and corporate greed, and for-profit prisons companies in particular, and to a lesser extent contractors and banks issuing prison bonds and so on, that they are really a driving force in the rise of mass imprisonment in the United States. I think all of that is a contributing force, but I don't find it credible that it is a driving force, because most of the economic forces in play are present in other countries of similar economies to the U.S., and there has been no comparable prison build-up elsewhere. We also see tremendous growth rates of imprisonment even in states where there is no private imprisonment, California notably.

So what I think we really have is more of a prison racist complex. And the suggestion in that term is that what we need to change is the poisonous racial politics in the United States. That is what needs to change for imprisonment politics to change. Whereas in the prison industrial complex, there is this supposition that if you could take the profit motive out of incarceration that somehow this system would teeter and collapse, and I don't think that is quite right.

Revolution: Increasingly in the prisons, as in society generally, fundamentalist Christianity is put forward as a so-called "alternative" to the dog-eat-dog mentality that's fostered by the prison system itself. What have you learned through your studies about this phenomenon in the prisons?

Robert Perkinson: Christianity has played a conflicted role in the history of prisons. On the one hand a lot of the prison reform movements, especially in the North but also in the South, have been led by Christian organizations preaching the ethic of mercy and forgiveness and helping those who are less fortunate. On the other hand, the Southern model of conservative Christianity that developed hand-in-hand with slave-owning emphasized deferring worldly pleasure for the afterlife, as well as submitting to god in the spiritual world and to your master or boss or husband in your daily life. It is that strain of Christianity based on submission and deferred rewards for those on the bottom, that is ultimately comforting to those in power and that has really started to gain a lot of official sanction in a number of prison systems. In fact there are all these evangelical right-leaning prisons that are being set up across the country, amazingly with tax dollars—in effect, they are forced Christian indoctrination camps for unfree people, where you will be rewarded if you adopt this strict fundamentalist theology. I visited one of these in Texas, and it is actually quite a nice prison compared to some other prisons, because there are more resources and there are free people coming in, women as well as men, and there are singing groups. But the theology that is imposed is very rigid, very Talibanesque (the Christian version). It is not quite big enough to have had a huge impact, so it is still early to know what the legacy of that will be.

Revolution: Your book is among books and other publications that have been banned from Texas prisons. Why did they ban it?

Robert Perkinson: It is quite sad because a lot of the book is based on extensive interviews that I did with prisoners who very generously shared their time with me. I worked with my publisher to set aside copies for these prisoners, and now they can't read it. The stated reason for the ban is quite twisted. There is a section towards the beginning of the book where I talk about the high rates of previous sexual victimization among female inmates. I tell this story of one prisoner who was raped as a child, and in a sentence in her words, she describes what happened to her. So the box that they checked in their censorship form is that the book depicts indecency with a child, so they lumped it into the same category as child pornography, even though this was a critique of abuse of children.

Revolution: You dedicate your book to "My friends in prison and their dreams of freedom." How have your interactions with prisoners affected you?

Robert Perkinson: It has probably changed my ideas so much that I can't even identify it all. I was very lucky; to their credit Texas prison authorities gave me quite generous access—so I was able to talk to hundreds of people, sometimes in snippets of conversations and other times really in depth. Some of the prisoners I interviewed for extended periods have really become intellectuals, and I shared with them some of my writing or at least my ideas, and they would present their critique. I would say "this is how I think the system works," and they would write back and say "no, I think it works this way." So there was a lot of back and forth in the same way that I have with other university professors and criminal justice professionals. So a lot of the prisoners became not just research subjects, but intellectual collaborators in the project.

I have gotten a chance to meet some in the free world after their release, and I hope to see many more.

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