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Home arrow Law arrow Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation

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Introduction

With more than 550,000 people under some form of criminal justice supervision, and having recently performed its 517th execution by lethal injection, the Lone Star State has a reputation for harsh judicial punishment. Similarly, while the Texan prison population has actually decreased (albeit marginally) over the past five years, the phrase ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ has nevertheless gained symbolic significance far beyond the antilittering campaign for which it was originally contrived. Still heralded as one of the most punitive places in the Western world, Texas supposedly ‘reigns supreme in the punishment industry’ (Perkinson 2010, p. 4).

As this book will demonstrate lots of people are telling stories about Texas and within these stories the state governors are ruthless, executions are speedy, conditions of confinement austere and guilt not always determined. Indeed, one need not delve far into the literature on punishment in general and death penalty literature in particular to find the image of Texas being (re)produced as a place of particularly punitive punishment.

In Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age ofAbolition, David Garland (2010) refers to Texas as a ‘high-volume execution state’ (p. 47); Texas is said to perform a ‘remarkably high’ number of executions

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 H. Thurston, Prisons and Punishment in Texas,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-53308-1_1

each year (p. 68) and the retention of capital punishment is described as ‘sustained and enthusiastic in Texas’ (p. 192). Similarly, in the introductory pages of Americas Death Penalty: Between Past and Present, McGowan (2011, p. 17) notes that there is a particular ‘enthusiasm’ for harsh punishment in the Lone Star State when compared to other US states. In addition, Andrew Hammel (2002, p. 107) constructs the image of Texas as a place of harsh punishment in The Machinery of Death: The Reality of America’s Death Penalty Regime, when he refers to the Texan death penalty as a ‘juggernaut’; a ‘massive inexorable force’ that will ‘crush whatever is placed in its path’. Armstrong and Mills (2003, p. 103) suggest that executions by lethal injection have become something of a ‘routine occurrence’ in Texas. Koch et al. (2012, p. 150) tell us that Texas is the ‘public face of execution’ and Bessler (2003, p. 223) contends that Texas is the only state which ‘regularly executes offenders’. In short, Texas is ‘America’s death penalty capital’, and due to an apparent zeal for harsh justice, the state has ‘emerged as particularly symbolic on all levels’ (Randle 2005, p. 103).

So these scholars are all telling similar stories about Texas and within these stories the Lone Star State is portrayed as a place of particularly harsh punishment. It is easy to see how and why Texas has come to symbolise a particular style of justice and to reflect a particular approach to penal punishment. Responsible for around one third of US executions since the moratorium (which was lifted by the Supreme Court in the 1970s) and imprisoning more people each year than any other state, Texas continues to uphold its reputation for toughness in the penal sphere. Yet interestingly, criminologists regularly describe but rarely discuss Texas in specific terms—there are often only passing references to the Lone Star State and its execution behaviour. We see a number of scholars who continue to represent—and one might argue actively construct—the image of Texas as a place of harsh punishment without much suggestion as to why Texas seems to have broken away from the rest of the US. Moreover, these scholarly stories told about Texas can actually be understood as what Ewick and Silbey (1995, p. 197) have termed a ‘hegemonic tale’; together they tell a story which reproduces a somewhat ‘taken-for-granted narrative’ about Texas and its relationship with punishment.

This book therefore seeks to provide a more nuanced examination of Texan penal practices by uncovering and analysing the stories Texas tells about its own relationship with punishment. We will be investigating the stories of—as opposed to about—the Texan collective. The aim of this book is thus two-fold: firstly it will argue for a state-specific approach to the study of US punishment, and secondly it will offer an illustrative example of how this can be realised by investigating the stories Texas tells about punishment. This second aim is achieved by way of a narrative analysis undertaken in Lone Star punishment museums and tourist sites, something I will explain further in Chap. 2.

In its entirety then, the book draws on diverse work, including criminological scholarship about cultural representations of punishment and Southern cultural values, as well as research in museum studies, dark tourism and cultural memory. Together this scholarship will be used to argue that museums are under-researched sites of criminological significance. This book is thus also intended as a contribution to a new methodological paradigm within the social sciences in which museums are seen as environments of narrativity. While other authors have undertaken punishment museum analyses, we have yet to see a sustained and robust analysis of punishment museums undertaken in the ‘execution capital’ of America.

References

Armstrong, K., and S. Mills. 2003. “Until I Can Be Sure”: How the threat of executing the innocent has transformed the death penalty debate. In Beyond repair? America’s death penalty, ed. S.P. Garvey. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Bessler, A. 2003. Kiss ofdeath:America’s loveaffair with thedeathpenalty. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Ewick, P, and S. Silbey. 1995. Subversive stories and hegemonic tales: Toward a sociology of narrative. Law and Society Review 29(2): 197—226.

Garland, D. 2010. Peculiar institution:America’s deathpenalty in an age ofaboli- tion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hammel, A. 2002. Jousting with the juggernaut. In Machinery of death: The reality of America’s death penalty regime, ed. M. Dow and D. Dow, 107—126. New York: Routledge.

Koch, L.W., L. Wark, and J.F. Galliher. 2012. The death of the American death penalty: States still leading the way. Boston: Northeastern University Press. McGowan, R. 2011. Getting the question right? Ways of thinking about the death penalty. In America’s death penalty: Between past and present, ed. D. Garland, R. McGowan, and M. Meranze, 1—29. New York: New York University Press.

Perkinson, R. 2010. Texas tough: The rise ofAmerica’s prison empire. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Randle, J. 2005. The cultural lives of capital punishment in the United States. In The cultural lives of capital punishment: Comparative perspectives, ed. A. Sarat and C. Boulanger, 92—111. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

 
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