Scholars talk Texas prisons

Everything’s bigger in Texas — including the prison system, said historian Robert Perkinson GRD ’01 at a talk in Labyrinth Bookstore on Thursday.

Perkinson and associate professor of American Studies Alicia Schmidt Camacho discussed Perkinson’s new book, “Texas Tough: The Rise of a Prison Empire,” breaking down what they identified as issues with the United States penal system, with a special focus on Texas. Perkinson and Schmidt Camacho said Texas courts treat prisoners inhumanely, and that both American prisoners in general and illegal immigrants are equally denied rights by the government.

Texas has the greatest number of inmates who have been sexually assaulted in prison, Perkinson said, adding that the Blue Bonnet state has the most active death chamber in the nation.

“Texas is a big, bad system,” Perkinson said.

He said a man who was incarcerated in Texas was proven innocent twice through DNA testing once he landed in prison, but the Texas judicial system refused to release him. Perkinson concluded that Texas has disregarded federal regulations in its treatments of prisoners.

He went on to say that prison systems nationwide are flawed and that the racial underpinnings of the federal criminal justice system cannot be ignored. America has grown to be the world’s biggest incarcerator, and Perkinson’s book contends that the ballooning incarceration rates across the nation are in part a result of white supremacy and an antebellum system that feeds off racial divisions.

Perkinson said his book also brings up the notion that disparities in criminal justice have worsened despite the civil rights movement. Camacho argued that the government limits the rights of criminals in they same way it treats illegal immigrants, making the felons “degraded” citizens.

Perkinson also said that the U.S. economy feels the repercussions of this increase in incarcerations, because the federal government has recently spent $212 billion in total per year on criminal justice, $70 billion of which is for incarcerations. And on paper, the state and federal governments overlook the extent to which their judicial systems dehumanize prisoners, Camacho said.

Joy Rankin GRD ’14, an audience member and graduate student in history, said the talk gave a helpful overview of the history of the criminal justice system.

“I think this book will stir up some responses in Texas,” said listener Joy Rankin.

While there are a total number of 94 university campuses in Texas, the number of state prisons is 114.

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