An absorbing history of U.S. prisons
By Mary Foster
As University of Hawai'i-Mānoa professor Robert Perkinson points out in "Texas Tough," his very readable history of U.S. prisons, locking up people is big business. America sends more people to prison per capita than any other country in the world, locking up about one out of every 100 people.
Perkinson, a professor of American studies, presents a compelling history of the prison system and its growth in the United States. He also shows that when it comes to prisons, no state does it better — or worse, depending on your outlook — than Texas.
Surprisingly, prisons in which criminals are confined for long periods and are sometimes offered the opportunity to reform, are a relatively new invention. Although locking up people for crimes may be as old as civilization, Perkinson writes that prisons as we know them — "an institution that houses convicted lawbreakers for protracted, precisely measured periods of time — is a product only of the modern age," having begun toward the end of the 18th century.
When the modern prison system began, Perkinson notes, it was promoted as citadels of enlightenment where inmates were expected to be redeemed and to ultimately rid society of crime.
"Originally called penitentiaries because they promised to induce holy penitence among their wards, these novel disciplinary institutions took shape in the United States soon after the birth of the republic," he writes.
That promise never panned out, with penitentiaries quickly becoming "complete despotism."
Texas, a state with a troubled history between the races that dates back to before the Civil War, was at the front of the nation's push for prisons. The Lone Star State was at the front of the convict leasing program after the Civil War and now leads the country in executions, isolated prisons and prison privatization.
As much of the country's political leaning swings to the right, the Texas pattern of profit-driven justice is being copied in other states.
"Texas Tough" is a gripping history lesson and a fascinating read.