Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Robert Perkinson's "Texas Tough"

Robert Perkinson is currently a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship in 2006.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, and reported the following:
Page 99 spotlights the most abusive—and profitable—regime of criminal punishment in American history: convict leasing. After the abolition of slavery, some four million people suddenly entered the legal system not as property but as people. Yet they weren’t treated equally. Rather, law enforcement and the judiciary, which remained under the control of dispossessed slave holders, swiftly turned many freedpeople into felons, convicting them overwhelmingly of trifling offensive like stealing a pair of shoes or refusing to sign a labor contract. These felons were then hired off, or leased, to the highest bidder—mostly railroads, mining companies, and planters.

Because the lessees of convicts widened their profit margins by wresting maximum toil from their judicially bonded laborers while spending as little as possible on their upkeep, the practice produced unspeakable suffering: hundreds of thousands of prisoners over the course of four decades—the lion’s share of them black—were housed in filthy barracks by night and driven to exhaustion by day, often without adequate food or proper clothing. Tens of thousands of them perished and were then exchanged for fresh convicts, as promised by their contracts. As one lessee glibly remarked, “Before the war, we owned the Negroes…But these convicts, we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another.”

Page 99 points out that the system wasn’t a “barbarous relic,” as historians have maintained. Rather, like slavery before it, convict leasing “played a vital role in assembling the infrastructure of what boosters would call ‘the New South.’” This was especially true in Texas, where leasing achieved unrivaled scale. In the 1880s, impressed convicts revitalized the sugar industry, which had collapsed after emancipation, and helped Texas become the nation’s leader in railroad construction. In addition, lease payments provided a major source of state revenue, “more than $300,000 a year by the 1880s.” The grandest beneficiary was Edward Cunningham, a former slaveholder and ruthless businessman who used this new form of unfree labor to build a gigantic and hugely profitable sugarcane enterprise outside of Houston that became Imperial Sugar Company, which in the late twentieth century made the Fortune 500 list. The system of convict leasing, then, not only reinforced white supremacy and victimized African Americans; perversely, it was an engine of economic growth.

Later in the book, it becomes clear that this regime of racial subjugation and labor exploitation didn’t fade away with the abolition of convict leasing. Rather, when Texas and other southern states resumed management of their penal systems during the Progressive Era, they often took over lessees’ plantations and maintained their personnel and praxis, thus transporting the lifeways of slavery deep into the twentieth century. In the North, a rehabilitative model of criminal justice dominated, but in the South, retribution, racism, and labor exploitation always held sway. A central argument of Texas Tough is that this harsher model of southern justice became a template for the nation during the conservative resurgence of the post civil rights era. The result is that America’s penal system, the largest in the world, is largely a southern penal system.
Read an excerpt from Texas Tough, and learn more about the book and author at the Texas Tough website.

--Marshal Zeringue