Chain Gang

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson (Picador; $20.00; 496 pages)

“Hardly light reading…  a slog through a muddy field.”

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Parkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being very friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has ever visited Pelican Bay (as I have); this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?   (Asked but not answered.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some highly obtuse language) is the application of The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems more than a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.  (Just a thought: Why didn’t Perkinson compare west coast prisons to east coast ones?)

If one has never read a book about the U. S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes blatantly overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up on this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Henry Holt and Company.   Take Away:  Perkinson spends a lot of time (and reams of paper) making an argument that not a lot of people are going to disagree with.   The fault is that after pinpointing problems he fails to even suggest possible solutions.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Chain Gang

  1. Sounds like an interesting book and I will certainly put it on my reading list. I think one of the solutions to the prison issue is the get rid of private prisons (yes, we have many of those).

    For profit private prisons are interested in ROI, which means keeping the prisons full at any cost.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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