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March 28, 2010 -- New York Times (NY)

Book Review: The Land of Lock and Key

By Daniel Bergner

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Prisons are sacred places. There our society claims control over the lives of men and women; there we assume the roles of gods. And whether the prison sprawls over thousands of acres like the penitentiary farms of the Deep South, or compresses its convicts on tight tiers, the air within holds a particular density, a palpable weight created not only by the crimes the inmates have committed but also by the ownership we have taken of the convicts, whether we acknowledge it or not.

In "Texas Tough," Robert Perkinson, a professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, delivers an important reckoning with this societal responsibility. Though his loud, machismo-laden title might better serve for a reality show about life behind bars, Perkinson offers a searching history of American incarceration, tracing the failures of our prisons to the approach that Texas and other Southern states have long taken toward their criminals and denouncing the fact that, with about 1.6 million people in our penitentiaries and an additional 800,000 in our jails, the United States locks up its citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.

Race and slavery lie at the heart of Perkinson's vision of American penology, and a profound dismay infuses the rhetoric of his opening pages. "Freedom is the United States' founding creed," he declaims in the book's first sentence, and immediately he adds pronouncements from Thomas Paine, Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama making the same point. The oncoming irony is unmissable; there isn't much that is subtle about Perkinson's writing, and perhaps there shouldn't be. Not only do we incarcerate at some six times the rate that Britain does, to take one example, or around seven times the rate of Canada, but, Perkinson relates, African-Americans are seven times as likely to be locked up as whites, and "African-American men today go to prison at twice the rate they go to college."

As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America's movement from, in his words, "the age of slavery to the age of incarceration," with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars. And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology -- an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation -- that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson's eyes, has provided a "template for a more fearful and vengeful society," for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, "to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens."

The template was mostly formed, according to "Texas Tough," by slavery and its aftermath. Defeated in the Civil War, Texas and its Southern confederates were desperate to retain as much dominion as possible over their former slaves, and they found a way through law enforcement. Blacks seized for low-level crimes faced severe punishment with little chance of defending themselves in court. Perkinson tells of a black man sentenced to two years for stealing a pair of shoes and another sent away for five for snatching a bushel of corn. In the three years following the war, Texas' inmate population nearly quadrupled -- and darkened considerably in skin color, with former slaves soon outnumbering whites. Over the next few decades, these new black prisoners were rented out to an array of private businesses under a system known as convict leasing, which replicated slavery for its brutality and may well have exceeded it in disregard for human life.

Black prisoners in Texas cut sugar cane and picked cotton on the plantations of the state's agricultural barons. They built the railroads that took the cotton to market. White convicts were leased out as well, but often for less arduous labor. Whipped and driven to work despite malaria and dysentery, or shot trying to escape, blacks fell dead nearly twice as frequently as whites. And the death tolls were high. At one work camp, where the men chopped timber for railway ties, almost a quarter of the convicts perished in a period of four months.

Similar toil and treatment prevailed in much of the South, and even when convict leasing came to an end in the early 20th century -- in Texas, the end arrived partly through a campaign waged by an outraged prison pastor and a crusading San Antonio journalist -- the system was replaced by government-run plantations and chain gangs. Fatalities declined, but subjugation remained the ethos. And this Southern penological tradition, the book argues, stands in important contrast to the Northern one, which was shaped by idealists whose early-19th-century penitentiaries were designed to restore "the vicious part of mankind to virtue and happiness," in the language of Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvania doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence who helped create the Northern model. This method, which stressed solitary confinement and silence, may have been a harsh failure at redeeming convicts, but at least it had reformation in mind.

It is the Southern tradition that has proved, in Perkinson's telling, to have the lasting nationwide legacy, both in the current warehousing of inmates and in the racism now powerfully embedded in American penology. Much as emancipation brought on a penal backlash against Southern blacks, so did the civil rights movement -- except that this later reaction was national. Equal protection, desegregation and President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty were quickly followed by tougher drug laws and crackdowns on crime that, with conscious intention or not, made blacks a target. Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

This is an alarming indictment, built on passionate and exhaustive research. Unfortunately, Perkinson presents his case in a sometimes numbing fashion. He details Texas' prison history decade by decade, failing to fully dramatize the characters who could bring life to his urgent writing. Problematically, too, his case seems, in certain ways, overly broad, and in other ways evasive. The abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo may not be as easily attributed to the legacy of slavery and Southern penology as Perkinson abruptly and sweepingly asserts in his final pages. And along with his condemnations of Texas and America, Perkinson would have done a service by thoroughly examining, rather than nearly ignoring, recent evidence that both the state and the country are holding incarceration rates in check partly by embracing, however gingerly, the spirit of rehabilitation. A new report from the Pew Center on the States, about the country's correctional systems, highlights Texas' nascent commitment to drug treatment behind bars. Perkinson might have offered a glimpse of such programs and a sense of whether they will last.

By documenting relentlessly, almost without counterpoint, the inhuman ity that has defined Texan and Ameri can incarceration, "Texas Tough" leaves us wondering, despairingly, whether there is any way our society can rise to the godlike responsibility that suffuses prison air, whether there is any way we can rehabilitate our prisons so that we can reliably reform the convicts we lock inside.

Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, By Robert Perkinson (Illustrated. 484 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $35)

Daniel Bergner is the author of "God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison" and "The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing," which has just been published in paperback.

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