Land of the Less-Free

Robert Perkinson, author of “Texas Tough,” on America’s failed policy of mass incarceration.

Land of the Less-Free

If you want to study the movie business you go to Hollywood. If you want to assess the U.S. prison system, you focus on Texas. In “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” (Metropolitan), University of Hawaii-Manoa professor Robert Perkinson does just that, telling the story of America’s decades-long punitive revolution through the experience of Texas, the most locked-down state in the most incarcerated country in the world. (At any given time, the U.S. has one of every 100 adults under lock and key.) Perkinson does more than simply explain why America has eschewed a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice in favor of a retributive and profit-driven regime. Most provocatively, he argues that mass incarceration, with its vast racial disparities, should be viewed as a backlash against desegregation and other civil rights breakthroughs.

Last week, I spoke with Perkinson by phone about the role of politics in the development of the U.S.’s singularly vengeful approach to lawbreaking, and what it might take to get citizens to re-think America’s criminal punishment system.

Why has the U.S. built the biggest prison system in the history of democratic governance? And why have the measures of racial disparity in criminal justice worsened during the post-civil rights era?
A lot of scholars are trying to figure out why. What I argue is that it has more to do with politics than crime, and particularly the kind of poisonous politics of race that have always infected American politics.

Specifically, there are two things that happened. First, the southern conservatives who were fighting against integration turned to criminal justice [after they were defeated] to police this new order. Across the south, the same jurisdictions that fought against civil rights most avidly became the nation’s most avid jailers.

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