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Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire Hardcover – March 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Although the American prison system is based (somewhat) on the principle of rehabilitation, it still retains, Perkinson says, powerful elements of one of its original influences: retribution. By way of explanation, he examines the country’s harshest, largest penal system, that of Texas, the state that reigns supreme in the punishment business. (In one city, Huntsville, almost half its population is in prison and another fifth works in jobs related to keeping them there.) Perkinson explores the history of the state and its penal system, showing how retribution, at least as much as rehabilitation, played a key role in the system’s evolution; and, by extension, he sheds light on the evolution of penal systems across the country. The American penal system, he argues, is very much a product of its southern influences (and, as a sure-to-be-controversial corollary to that, the racial imbalance of its prisoners is a kind of backlash against the civil rights movement). A fascinating and often deeply troubling book. --David Pitt


Winner of the 2011 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award
“A searching history of American incarceration, and an important reckoning with our societal responsibility… An alarming indictment, built on passionate and exhaustive research.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling... A gripping history lesson and a fascinating read.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Perkinson makes a convincing case that mass incarceration is the most pressing civil rights issue today… Essential reading if the nation ever hopes to move in a different, less-punitive and more-rehabilitative direction.”
The Boston Globe
“Takes readers on an eminently horrifying journey into America’s own heart of darkness.”
Columbia Journalism Review
“A well-researched and compellingly-written genealogy of the contemporary model of retributive justice… Brings out the horrors of mass imprisonment and the need for systemic change.”
The Indypendent
“A rich narrative… Perkinson directs the clear light of reason onto the Lone Star State.”
The Morning News
“An intensively researched, disturbing history of American penology… A convincing and discouraging argument that the Texas model of a profit-making, retributive prison system has become the national template.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Sheds light on the evolution of penal systems across the country… A fascinating and often deeply troubling book.”
Texas Tough is a raw, compelling assessment of racial disparity and southern culture as they have determined the massive over-incarceration of African Americans. If you want to understand how politics, not crime control, governs today’s prison population, read this book. Anyone concerned with justice and fairness should place this on their must-read list.”
—Charles J. Ogletree Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, and author of When Law Fails
“This book is a Texas Death Match between David (Robert Perkinson) and Goliath (the American prison system). Goliath is armed, violent, massive, and hard to bring down, but David has a sling and a book full of smooth stones taken from the brook of history.”
—Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History
Texas Tough is a powerful study of the Texas prison system, its profit-driven administration, its history and its critical impact on the U.S. national prison system. Based on superb research that traces the racial assumptions of today’s criminal system to the ideas of race developed during American slavery, Texas Tough is a gracefully written work of wide-ranging, impressive historical knowledge.”
—James Oliver Horton, author of Landmarks of African American History
“A brilliant and riveting account of the nation's most important prison system. Perkinson describes its growth with extraordinary care given to the daily lives of the inmates, the institutional structures, and the philosophy of punishment (including the death penalty) that seem immune to innovation and reform. Texas provides a perfect lens to study America's exploding prison problems today, and Perkinson in an ideal guide. As both an original history of punishment and a critique of current issues of race, violence, and incarceration, Texas Tough is in a class by itself.”
—David Oshinsky, author of “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice
“The United States maintains the largest penal system in the world. With his powerful story of the prisons of Texas, Robert Perkinson shows how we came to this desperate condition. It is a story we all need to understand and there is no better place to comprehend the origins and evolution of this national tragedy.”
—Edward Ayers, author of The Promise of the New South
Texas Tough is a gripping work of history, but its most important lesson is about the country we live in today. We cannot fulfill America’s promise of liberty and justice until we address the crisis of mass incarceration. Every social justice advocate and policy maker in the nation needs to read this book.”
—Ann Beeson, Executive Director, Open Society Institute
Texas Tough is the most important history of crime and punishment in America since David Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum. It will transform our understanding of not only crime and punishment but also the nature of historical change in the United States, which is not driven, as we believe, by progress or even the idea of progress, but by regress. Robert Perkinson shows us that the past continuously structures and constrains every effort to re-imagine and reform the present. This is no small achievement.”
—Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea
Texas Tough shows that the politics of race has always governed the politics of punishment and explains why our criminal justice system is the frontline of America’s human rights struggle in the twenty-first century. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to build a stronger America and put these decades of over-incarceration (and under-education) of Americans behind us.”
—Benjamin Todd Jealous, President, NAACP

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805080694
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805080698
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #808,884 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Perkinson is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. He grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and spent his summers in Mississippi. He became interested in the breathtaking growth of imprisonment while studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1990s and began the research for this book in graduate school at Yale University. His writings have appeared in The Nation, Boston Review, Progressive, and other forums. This is his first book.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Stimson on April 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I devoured this book! Other readers are cautioned, however, that it is not for the faint of heart. There can be no viewpoint more unabashedly liberal than that of Robert Perkinson - so consider yourself a conservative reader who wants to understand another viewpoint. Then, when you have finished digesting his treatise, then and only then, re-weigh your views of criminals and the criminal justice system.

I am a conservative Texan who has spent years visiting prisoners in Texas prisons; have studied Texas prison history and taught courses about it; and have grieved for the plight of many inmates who are victims of an overzealous punishment system. I had long struggled to understand why the system is so harsh and uncaring. Texas Tough filled that void.

Perkinson is a master of the adjective - producing lively and readable text. But he is also extremely thorough. Every fact and quote is well documented and gives a cohesive picture. Read with a magic marker - you will see much you want to use in your re-thinking process. Rather than attempting to dispute his disparaging facts or their selection, focus upon your own answers to two questions of "What have we done to our own humankind?" And, "What can I do to help change it?"
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Paul McFarland on March 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
We have all heard the numbers. The United States has 2.3 million people under lock and key. We have a greater portion of our people incarcerated than any other nation on earth. But how did this come to be, is this new, or have we always had this problem. Who is responsible, and were they right or wrong in what they did.

These are the questions that Professor Perkinson looks into in this fine book. This is an in depth look at the development of the problem. He traces the formation of the modern system throughout the US but he takes as his example the state of Texas. Every aspect of the development and refinement of the "correctional system" has been seen in microcosm within this state, which is the current record holder for percent of population behind bars.

In Texas, as is true throughout the country, an over representative percentage of the prison population are minority group members. Professor Perkinson traces this back to its roots in the slave system. He finds much of the current problems related to the hysteria of the war on drugs and the shameful failure of the war on poverty.

The author states clearly that he has no detailed solutions to present within the volume. He does however, offer a few suggestions that might well be worth follow-up. All in all this is a well written, highly readable guide to what may be the greatest current social problem within the US. I recommend it most highly.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By K. Nahl on May 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In TEXAS TOUGH Parkinson presents a well-researched history of the rise of Americas Prison Empire. This book was assigned in my graduate level class on American Punishment. This is a well-written journey though Texas and US history that brings together the past and present of how the juggernaut of corrections that we have in the US today was created. He grapples issues of race and how they are deeply intertwined historically with our criminal justice system. The stories of the conditions and experiences in these prisons were haunting. I highly enjoyed this book and recommend it for a class or just a good read.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Pete Harrington on March 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book will totally change your understanding of prison, race, and politics. It not only has incredible facts in it, but Perkinson writes like a mystery-crime novelist -- it's fascinating but it's also a great read. Id' recommend it for anyone -- classrooms full of people if they're studying anything related, or just anyone looking for a gripping and incredible book.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Sheherazade on April 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson is exceedingly well-written, thoughtful, and thorough. I've been a U.S. History teacher for fifteen years and was delighted by the amount of historical detail in the book. Perkinson not only shares the complex, dramatic history of Texas prisons but has also carefully researched the history of the criminal justice system more generally; he deftly spins a web that entwines the history of prison systems with that of slavery, race and politics in the United States. Texas Tough shares many of the inmates' stories and we see how our own lives might have taken a turn for the tough had we been less fortunate, been born at the wrong time and place, or been forgotten by kith and kin. We see that the humanity has not been cut out of most of the prisoners on death row, though it has been stripped from their environment. And we see that being tough on crime could mean that we focus on eradicating the inequality and poverty that is at the heart of so many of the crimes that have been committed by inmates. We know that we will be accused of bleeding heart liberalism if we say such things in public, but when reading Texas Tough, we know all of this to be absolutely true. The system is brutal and needs to be made better. Rather than inspiring surrender and frustration, Perkinson made me feel like we have the tools and wherewithal to make things better if we care enough to do so. If we know what has gone wrong, we can move closer to making things right. This is a book about justice, then. In telling us about Texas' tough justice, we begin to see the more nuanced patterns of rehabilitation that will lead to a more just system and nation.
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