The Interview | Robert Perkinson

A nation’s journey from slavery to prisons

Minako Ishii Kent Robert Perkinson Minako Ishii Kent
Robert Perkinson (Minako Ishii Kent)
By Anna Mundow
Globe Correspondent / March 21, 2010

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Robert Perkinson grew up in Wyoming but his family’s roots are in the South. As a Yale graduate student Perkinson focused on the entwined history of racism and criminal justice in the South, a course of study that inevitably led him to Texas. Perkinson’s new book, “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,’’ is a penetrating and impassioned history of American punishment from slavery to the present, the result of a decade of research and of hundreds of interviews that he conducted throughout the prison system.

Perkinson spoke from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he is a professor of American studies.

Q. What led you to this subject?

A. I was always interested in civil rights, primarily because of the summers I spent with my grandparents in Mississippi. They were pro-civil-rights whites who were practically run out of Jackson in the 1950s. Later, in college, I realized that all the progress they had told me about was being significantly reversed in the criminal justice system, and to me, that has become the civil rights arena in the 21st century. As a historian, I think there’s a lot of light that our deeper history can shed on the incredible growth of the US prison industry.

Q. How large is that industry?

A. It’s on a scale unlike anything attempted by a democratic government in human history. There have been larger prison experiments — the Soviet gulag, for instance — but only in totalitarian states. The total prison population in the US is about 2.4 million; if you count those on probation and parole, it rises to almost 8 million. We have chosen to lock up more people for longer than any other country in the world. And those incarcerated are not just disproportionately African-American and Latino but increasingly so. In that sense, the US criminal justice system has become not more, but less equal over the last 40 years.

Q. Is there simply more crime?

A. There is not more crime. Crime has been declining since the 1990s. What really drives up prison populations is politics; the sentencing decisions that politicians and judges make. For instance, the majority of offenders who go to prison for illegal drug use are black or Latino, whereas roughly 70 percent of users are white. This reflects how the US has come to deal with inequality and intractable social ills, not with Great Society solutions but with hard power solutions.

Q. Why do you focus on Texas?

A. Texas is ground zero of the prison boom. It locks up more people than any other state; it executes more people than any other state. We sometimes forget that the rise of the prison industry, although nationwide, is an overwhelmingly Southern and Sun Belt phenomenon.

Q. How do you explain that?

A. I think it’s rooted in the legacy of violence, historically speaking, in the settlement of the West, and, more importantly, in the cultural and political inheritance of slavery. In the South, the rehabilitative model pioneered in the North never took hold. Instead, punishment traditions were tied to hard labor, racial subjugation and retribution. After Emancipation, courts turned former slaves into felons who were sold to mining and railroad companies, to sugar and cotton planters and that system dominated the Southern criminal justice system into the 20th century. In the wake of the civil rights era, the same politicians that fought integration immediately began increasing sentences and that became the template nationwide. When you contemplate the trajectory of American history, race has been at the center of all criminal justice policy debates with outbursts of progress followed by reaction and repression.

Q. You also describe a prison guard culture.

A. That has started to change, but one of the things that made Texas unique and preserved the lifeways of slavery into the 20th century was that prisons were primarily plantations, many of them operating since the 1830s with unfree labor. The white guards would live on the prison plantation; they would have houseboys, even babysitters who were prisoners. This lasted into the 1980s and persists to some extent.

Q. In all your travels, were there particularly striking moments?

A. I remember the first time I saw a line of prisoners in Texas, most of them black, going out to the fields with an armed white guard on horseback. In a juvenile unit on the Gulf Coast, I met a skinny 16-year-old who had been sentenced to 99 years. I’m sure he committed murder or something, but the fact that we’re locking juveniles up for life suggests that we’ve given up on the idea of reforming them.

Q. There are passages here, describing executions for example, that I couldn’t read. What was it like to write them?

A. It was hard. I formed relationships with a lot of these prisoners and with many guards. One prisoner in particular with whom I corresponded, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was the subject of a recent New Yorker article, was executed before I had answered his last letter. He was convicted of torching his house with his family inside for the insurance money, but subsequent investigations by the Innocence Project and the Chicago Tribune upheld his claim to be innocent. I feel a responsibility to these people, to make their voices heard.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a contributor to the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at