Why did middle-class liberals, historically the leaders of compassionate social reform, allow, with nary a peep, the construction of our colossal Prison Complex? Two books, one new and one a few years old, explain why liberals not only went along with this right-wing, racist project — they encouraged it.
Mass imprisonment, however, is not just racist. It's oppression of the unruly poor of all colors. Unfortunately, these otherwise very insightful books skim over this major point.
Both give some credit to the usual explanations for the incarceration boom of the last 35 years: sensational news-media crime coverage seized on by opportunistic politicians to extend prison sentences; the failed, cynical War on Drugs; and the lobbying of the corporate, union, and bureaucratic prison-industrial complex.
Texas Tough, by Robert Perkinson, published this year, contributes another important explanation: how the white leadership of the very racially divided, politically conservative South developed an unashamedly racist, brutal prison policy that it exported to the rest of the country. Texas, which developed the biggest prison system, led the way. Between 1968 and 2005, for example, its prison budget went from $20 million to $2.6 billion!
Perkinson, a University of Hawaii American studies professor, goes into the whole sorry history of Texan (and southern) treatment of prisoners, including the 19th-century lease of convicts to corporations and the establishment early in the next century of state-run plantations and chain gangs. He is not the first to note that southern criminal "justice" was used to control blacks after slavery was abolished. And when the Civil Rights revolution abolished blatant apartheid, Jim Crow "moved behind bars." The 20th century brought more formality and bureaucracy to Texas (and other) prisons, but these and technological developments meant dehumanizing surveillance and control.
"Texas tough" moves north
Beginning in the '60s, the elevation of the crime-and-punishment issue nationally provided the opportunity for the "Texas tough" approach to move north. In the backlash to the Democratic-Party-supported Civil Rights movement, Republicans took over the South, and they expanded their strength out of the South in reaction to inner-city riots. The eventual result for penal policy was a conservative über-triumph. The United States today incarcerates at five times the world average at a rate four times greater than 30 years ago; we have 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners — over 2.3 million human beings behind bars, the majority African American and Hispanic.
And, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, Democratic leaders caved. They were afraid of seeming weak on crime (as, it should be added, with the Vietnam War they were afraid of seeming weak on communism). They were especially spineless when Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs.
In Texas, Governor Ann Richards, "a champion of feminism and civil rights," built more prison housing "than anyone before her," Perkinson writes. Liberal governor Mario Cuomo "ended up fabricating more prison beds than all of New York's previous governors combined." With his tough-on-crime stance, Bill Clinton "more than any other twentieth-century president . . . built a prison nation." Ironically, Texas toughness was instituted in places — like Maine — that weren't terribly racially divided or politically conservative.