Texas' love affair with incarceration

Michele Deitch is a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses on criminal justice policy. This post is part of a Know series on the Texas prison system.

Photo of Michele Deitch
Michele Deitch. Photo: Marsha Miller

The United States now has more than 2.3 million people locked up in its prisons and jails -- that's one out of every 99 adults. Our nation's prison system is by far the largest in the world, dwarfing even those of China and Russia, our nearest competitors for this dubious distinction. And our rate of incarceration is even more out of sync with the rest of the world:  we are locking up our citizens at a rate five to 10 times higher than most other industrialized Western nations.

It has been said that our country has a "love affair with incarceration." Nowhere is this statement more accurate than in Texas, home to the second largest prison system in the nation and a state that tripled the size of its prison population from 50,000 to more than 150,000 in one short decade. That prison growth in the 1990s represented the largest and most expensive construction project of any kind in Texas' history.

The Texas approach to crime and punishment is iconic. Small wonder then that the connection between the two formed the basis for a new book, titled appropriately enough, "Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire." What many do not realize, however -- and what this new book illustrates so vividly -- is the extent to which Texas' incarceration policies have been a driver for America's spot at the top of the charts when it comes to mass imprisonment.

Texas Tough book cover design
"Texas Tough" was written by Robert Perkinson. 

Author Robert Perkinson argues in "Texas Tough" that the South, and Texas in particular, has shaped the development of the modern penitentiary into institutions that are harsher, less rehabilitative and more racially divisive than their Northern counterparts of earlier times. He traces the roots of the Texas penal system to patterns set during times of slavery and segregation. The book is thick with examples of ways in which Texas prisons of the late 1800s and first part of the 1900s more closely resembled slave plantations than reformatories. And as Texas' unprecedented expansion of prison beds in the last part of the 20th century became the prototype for a national experiment in mass imprisonment, that history and attitude toward prisoners produced the dominant philosophy across the country.

It is impossible to talk about criminal justice in this country without also talking about race. We live in an era in which one in three young black men is under the control of the criminal justice system, in which blacks have a seven times greater chance of being incarcerated than whites, and in which blacks are disproportionately disenfranchised due to prior felony convictions. Perkinson's analysis should provide much food for thought about the roots of this disparate impact of our punishment policies. At the same time, his thought-provoking book forces us to face the possibility that our policies are doing more to resegregate society than to protect us from crime.

Perkinson will be at the university's School of Law Monday, Nov. 22, to discuss his book. The timing of this talk is impeccable as we head into a legislative session facing the most profound budget crisis in decades. Texas is facing tough choices with regard to the services and programs that must be severely cut or shuttered entirely, including health care and education. One inescapable reality of our massive prison system in Texas is that it is extraordinarily expensive, costing about $5 billion each biennium. The choice we made to be "Texas tough" in prior years may finally be coming back to haunt us.

Visit the main page of this prison system series to read two related articles.