Book Review: Texas Tough

| June 17, 2010 | 0 Comments


Texas Tough…A Tipping Point for Prison Reformers?


Move over slavery – the American prison system wants a piece of America’s original sin.

Smiling prison reformers who believe America’s mass incarceration pendulum is swinging back from punitive to rehabilitative need to immerse themselves into Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough.  A prison history lesson of such depth might keep them from digging up and resuscitating past failed rehabilitative programs from the graveyard of good intentions. Isn’t it time our society looks for some shiny new alternatives to solve one of its major social ills, rampant recidivism?

Perkinson thinks so. So do I.

Texas Tough is an astonishingly researched history of the Texas prison system. It is laced with colorful metaphors and personal stories that entertain, enlighten, and even enrage. It is passionate in spirit and, to a great degree, a mirror for every state’s prison history. Perkinson’s argument is that rehabilitation and punishment appear to be forever hand wrestling each other to be the pre-eminent mission of America’s penology. He contends that this battle is just a charade and that rehabilitation never had a chance. Punishment has always reigned, as it does now. If prison do-gooders have accomplished anything, it is to make our prisons more habitable.

“…the evolution of the prison has little to do with crime and a great deal to do with America’s troubled history of racial conflict and social stratification. The long arm of the law has been deployed to preserve privilege, dispense patronage, fortify social hierarchies, bolster political fortunes, symbolize government resolve, and discipline those on the social margins, especially Blacks. Dixie style punishment moved north and Jim Crow moved behind bars.”

This incarceration ideology has created a penal epidemic of too many dollars going into building and operating too many prisons with too few results. More people are incarcerated in the United States than any other country in the world. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent annually to run our prison systems. Crime has not declined dramatically. Recidivism is raging. Fewer dollars are available for other societal needs.

In addition to monetary problems, our incarceration philosophy of the past fifty years has created social problems. Neighborhoods with high incarceration rates are deteriorating. Families of those incarcerated are suffering. Children are ending up in trouble themselves, being sucked into the vortex of repeating the “sins” of their fathers.

Fortunately, criminal justice reform is starting to happen on multiple levels.  Policy makers and politicians charged with public safety and disbursement of tax dollars are looking for alternatives that stay tough on crime but work smarter with criminals. Local communities are becoming more involved in community-based diversion programs to reduce prison admissions. Re-entry programs are surfacing with aspirations to reduce recidivism. Departments of Corrections that have been, according to Perkinson, “concrete buildings with confused missions” are starting to re-examine the purpose of their existence.

Unfortunately, the public is not paying serious attention yet. Perkinson believes society will eventually take one of three penal paths: stay punitive, return to the “fond hope” of criminal rehabilitation, or perhaps shift America’s resources from punishing crime to preventing crime.

Prison reformers who presently trumpet criminal reclamation should take notice. Today’s society values truth and the giving of oneself for the common good. Social responsibility and meaning count. Reducing recidivism by reclaiming past rehabilitation efforts and adding slick operational efficiency rhetoric will not fool as many people this time around. We are moving into an era of hyper-accountability where a good heart still helps, but outcomes matter most.

All criminal justice reformers should take heed. Putting lipstick on a pig will not make it look like a swan. In a world once won by sizzle, the steak now dominates. All criminal justice reformers should be careful of what they promise, since there is no way to hide the secret agendas and petty prejudices that their well-meaning programs did in the past.

Perkinson’s Texas Tough should inspire new thinking about rehabilitation and criminal justice reform because it educates. The book is like the bright end of a flashlight, shedding light both on the past and the future. As Perkinson states in his last line, “Only by taking honest stock of the full history of the prison can we plot our escape from it.”

Texas Tough is a fascinating read for anyone. It is a must-read for rehabilitation devotees and criminal justice reformers who want to avoid the collective stupidity earned through ignoring the past. In the future, Texas Tough could be looked upon as the tipping point for new thinking that changed American penology and the criminal justice system that surrounds it. Let’s hope so.

(For twenty-eight years, Willie Davis has been an education-based marketing consultant. In addition, he has fourteen years of criminal justice experience teaching in an adult prison and running a juvenile detention facility. His company, PeopleLution ( ), specializes in marketing and organizational development. PeopleLution is currently developing a Florida-based re-entry company for ex-offenders. He may be reached at

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