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

The Single-State Focus and Punishment- Related Tourism

Opportunities to study the cultural life of punishment from a state- specific perspective are limited due to the nature and distribution of cultural stories told about punishment. Cultural products such as movies, TV series, reality TV and books rarely situate their narratives within a single state, and when they do the story is often less about the specificities of that state’s use of punishment, and more focused on the individual characters who make up the narrative. There is, however, another way in which individual states may tell stories about their own punishment practices; prison museums, prison rodeos and prison tours.

It is worthy of note that much of the research on punishment-related tourist sites is not criminological per se; it is instead conducted by tourism scholars with different aims and objectives to the criminologically-focused cultural life scholars. While some accounts do offer a discussion about the stories told within these sites and the narratives employed within those stories, many direct their attention instead to the motivations and demographics of the tourist group, dimensions of ‘spectatorship’ and ‘experience’, or the perceived authenticity of the stories told by the prison museum, rodeo or tour. However, this collection of studies does offer some insights into how we might evaluate the cultural life of punishment in a single state.

Individual US states are telling their own punishment stories within their tourist sites, and one example of this would be the Angola Prison Rodeo. This somewhat unusual rodeo, first held in 1965, was designed to entertain inmates, prison staff and local residents. However, the rodeo soon became popular with people from out of town, attracting thousands of visitors each year. In addition to the usual rodeo games, the event offers visitors the opportunity to buy prisoner-made arts and crafts, as well as to listen to inmate bands, and to join in various games and stalls run entirely by the inmates. The rodeo takes place in an arena with the capacity to seat 8,000 spectators—built by the inmates—and is typically full when the rodeo is in session (once in October and once in April). Tickets to the rodeo cost $10, and proceeds supplement the Louisiana State Penitentiary Inmate Welfare Fund (Matheson 2010).

Analysing the rodeo as a ‘tourist performance and ritual’, Schrift (2004) suggests that the rodeo ‘capitalizes on the public’s fascination with criminality’ by way of a spectacle; it offers a voyeuristic opportunity entertaining deepest and darkest fantasies about the animalistic inmate ‘other’. Similarly, Adams (2001, p. 99) understands the motivation of the crowd to be framed by the desire to see ‘the spectacle of the criminalized body under duress’. Both Schrift and Adams view the rodeo visitors as ‘performing’ freedom (as consumers but also non-prisoners) which consequently reinforces their own status as ‘outsiders’. While much of this might come as no surprise (we have, after all, already encountered the dangerous or animal or monster identities and discussed the processes of othering) Schrift (2004) does argue that the narratives employed within the rodeo differ from other representational formats in a number of ways.

Most of the prisoners that participate in the rodeo have little or no experience with livestock and rodeo games; they do not receive any training prior to taking part. Moreover, the inmates are given only minimal protective clothing (Adams 2001), and Schrift (2004) suggests it is the risk to the ‘convict cowboy’ which makes him such a popular tourist attraction. The audience’s desire to see a convict body under duress might be understood as an expression of a somewhat vindictive or vengeful sentiment, yet the tone of the rodeo’s vengeful narrative is different to that found in other cultural products. Rather than relay emotional, angry or victim-centric sentiments, the rodeo narrative seeks to mock and ridicule the inmate. For example, rodeo advertising literature states that ‘More often than not, these convict cowboys are from the city, as foreign to the rodeo as a country boy in a three-piece suit’ (cited in Schrift 2004, p. 339).

Moreover, this mockery, Schrift argues, finds more subtle expression in the juxtaposition of two identities; the notion of a convict cowboy becomes something of an oxymoron. Reviewing the literature associated with the iconography of the cowboy, Schrift (2004) p. 337) suggests that as a cultural symbol the cowboy has achieved the status of a folk hero, gathering an array of symbolic associations including notions of ‘individualism, anti-intellectualism, courage, stoicism, masculinity, recklessness, humility, fellowship, and freedom’. These associations are in sharp contrast to those afforded the inmate; he is ‘captive, stripped of his freedom and individuality, and more often than not, a symbol of social filth’ (Schrift 2004, p. 337). Schrift has thus identified an alternative way in which a narrative of vengeance might present itself—through mocking and ridicule. When employed at tourist sites such as the prison rodeo, vengeance narratives need not be based on emotional, irrational anger and they need not come from victims’ accounts of pain and suffering. We as an audience can be encouraged to take pleasure in the pains of imprisonment without ever meeting the victim or the victim’s family.

However, while Adams and Schrift speak briefly about the history of Louisiana State Penitentiary and the Angola Rodeo itself, they do not mention the Louisianan histories of race, violence, vigilantism, religion or honour within their analyses; their focus is instead on the tourist experience of the prison rodeo. Unlike the work of Zimring (2003) and Garland (2010) (who locate their cultural life analysis within the histo- ries/culture of the South) Adams (2001) and Schrift (2004) do not seek to explain how the stories told about punishment in Louisiana might relate to a specifically Louisianan history or culture, and they do not explore the ways in which those stories and the narratives they employ might impact on (or be the product of) Louisianan attitudes toward punishment.

For example, both Adams and Schrift condemn the rodeo as an exploitation of a desperate prison population, yet it remains one of the most popular events in the Louisiana calendar. We are left unsure as to whether the popularity of the prison rodeo (and indeed the framing of prisoner pain as entertainment) might actually be indicative of a more punitive ethos found within Louisiana, something which seems likely considering that the only states to have hosted prison rodeos are Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma, all of which are located within the more punitive Southern tier. This, however, remains an assertion without argument due to the tourism focus of the research.

Visitors to the Angola Prison Rodeo also have the opportunity to tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary Museum, located inside the prison walls; a site that Wilson (2008) would argue—by way of its exhibits—holds ‘cultural memories’ about Louisiana and its punishment practices. Adams (2001) spends little time describing or analysing the exhibits within the museum, again focusing on the tourist experience, which she characterises as a ‘perpetual tension’ in the act of spectatorship. What she terms ‘the panoptic gaze’ is ever present while the visitor inhabits prison spaces.

While Adams might not analyse the punishment stories told by the museum she does illustrate an interesting dynamic of the tourist experience. Unlike watching films or reading a news story, those that visit the museum/rodeo come quite literally face-to-face with subjects who have been identified as ‘violent transgressors of social norms’. This experience, she argues, is somewhat unique to prison tourism and forces the audience to negotiate their own identity and ‘images of the self’ alongside that of the outsiders and images of an ‘other’. This blurring of boundaries (between the law-abiding and the criminal) exposes the crowd to their own inability to distinguish easily between the two. Yet while this prison rodeo, prison museum and the consumption prospects associated with them, all offer opportunities for the audience to critically reflect on the similarities between themselves and inmates (and in turn question the legitimacy of harsh punishment) that is not to suggest they will. Instead, such opportunities are thwarted by the heady excitement of the ‘Wildest Show in the South’ and the enjoyment of watching the condemned body fall, fail and flounder in the rodeo ring (Adams 2001).

Similar to Adams (2001) and Schrift (2004), Bruggeman (2012) suggests that the recent growth in the American prison population creates new opportunities for tourist sites, such as prison museums, to connect with wide audiences and to engage them in social commentary about the problems associated with mass incarceration. However, Bruggeman supports Brown’s (2009, pp. 114-66) conclusion that while punishment museums or prison tours often present a ‘vague unease’ with the act of punishing and its relationship with ‘trauma, pain and violence’, they ultimately ‘look away’ from the present and create a ‘social distance’ between audience and any personal responsibility or accountability in the project of punishment. Brown suggests that this distancing is most acute on prison tours because the visitor can see and experience the realities of punishment, and thus leave believing that they somehow know what it is like to be incarcerated. Yet the transitory nature of a prison tour means that visitors will never know the pains of imprisonment and thus the distancing effect, Brown (2009, p. 11) argues, serves to ‘shield us from the democratic burden of punishment’.

In short, these scholars argue that there is a difference between seeing punishment in a documentary or reading about punishment in the pages of a newspaper, and gaining knowledge of and experiencing the spectacle of punishment through a museum or tour. While each will offer a (re)presentation of reality, it is the tourist/visitor who will understand themselves as engaging in a genuine form of ‘penal spectatorship’ (Brown 2009). Having experienced something which is often advertised by the host institution as exemplary or authentic, the act of penal spectator- ship is surrounded by (and grounded within) a perceived authority, and the act of seeing but not knowing simultaneously distances the spectator from the reality of imprisonment (Brown 2009).

Brown is also more explicit than Adams (2001), Bruggeman (2012) or Schrift (2004) about the ways in which cultural (re)presentations of the reality of punishment continually influence and (re)construct the attitudes that surround it. In a discussion about prison iconography, she argues that

sites of entertainment ... present us with a powerful place in which the practice of imprisonment has been re-enacted ... and [as such] this is an important site for the construction of a cultural memory that is largely iconic. (Brown 2009, p. 56)

By proposing that sites of leisure and entertainment associated with the prison offer a ‘cultural memory’ of punishment, Brown is firstly suggesting that those sites preserve, store and recall collective knowledge about the act of punishing (past and present), and secondly that the sites have the potential to culturally forget. These sites can marginalise certain individuals and certain stories which are not deemed to be appropriate or entertaining; cultural memory—as with personal memory—is always selective (Assmann and Czaplicka 1995) . In such contexts ‘collective knowledge’ and ‘tourist myths’ about incarceration meet and compete to become sources by which to understand the reality of punishment (Brown 2009, p. 98).

Strange and Kempa (2003) have also argued that tourist sites associated with punishment have to (re)present the site’s significance with reference to pre-existing tourist myths. Illustrating their argument with an analysis of the stories told on public tours of the former Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary (located just offshore in San Francisco Bay, California) their research addresses both the portrayal of punishment offered by the tours, and that constructed within other cultural stories (primarily films) told about the infamous prison. Describing the site staff as ‘memory managers’ Strange and Kempa (2003, p. 386) argue that once Alcatraz ‘shed its penal function’ in order to adopt a new ‘touristic identity’, the significance of the site had to be interpreted within ‘dynamic cultures of memorialisation’ which already existed. In narrative terms, Alcatraz as a site was forced to accommodate the ‘hegemonic tales’ told about the Alcatraz elsewhere (Ewick and Silbey 1995).

To manage the site and conduct the tours was thus also to manage part of the ‘cultural memory’ which surrounds Alcatraz. Strange and Kempa (2003) conclude that the site is ‘overshadowed by commercialised representations’, and consequently the stories told by the site fail to represent the history of the island in all its complexity, pandering instead to the voyeuristic public demand and desire to see Hollywood’s version of the notorious prison. Visitors to Alcatraz will learn very little about the reality of punishment in the American present or the American present.

While Texas does not have any large defunct prisons open to the public, it does have the Texas Prison Museum, located in Huntsville which is also home to the infamous Walls Unit (see Chap. 3). According to the museum website, it was visited by nearly twenty thousand people during the first ten months of reopening (the museum moved to larger premises in 2002) and has sold over $100,000 of merchandise from the gift shop. Reviewing the exhibits within the museum, Lichtenstein (2004) suggests that while the site does invite tourists into a world which is so often kept closed away, it nonetheless does little to challenge the presumption that Texan prisons are dangerous places full of dangerous people. Using a narrative of fear, the prison museum displays guard and inmate material culture, portraying the Texan prison as a ‘ceaseless war between the keepers and the kept’ (Lichtenstein 2004, p. 198).

However, Lichtenstein did find that the Texas Prison Museum offers narratives featuring the more controversial elements of Texan punishment history. Six wall panels in the museum present a story about the reform of Texan prisons (which spanned 1948 to 1972, see Chap. 4) ending with a description of present-day prisons. He argues that the museum does draw attention to the ‘abuse and mismanagement’ of the profitable Convict

Lease Period (1871-1912) and even sheds light on the continued brutalities in the period that followed. However, Lichtenstein also suggests that the museum does so by way of a somewhat ‘backhanded acknowledgment’ (2004, p. 191): the Supreme Court decision Ruiz v. Estelle (1980)—which increased the rights of prisoners—is depicted as thwarting progress in Texas. He suggests further that while one might expect the changes made to Texan prisons as a result of the Ruiz verdict would be portrayed as notable achievements in Texan penal history, visitors learn instead that the decision left Texan prisons in a state of uncertainty: the ‘power vacuum’ created by the changes was filled by ‘murderous gangs’ and resulted in the ‘mass early release of prisoners’ (2004, p. 199).

It could thus be argued that Lichtenstein’s (2004) analysis supports Garland’s (2010) notion that a narrative of backlash is at work within cultural stories told about punishment in Texas. The decision made by the Supreme Court in Ruiz v. Estelle (1980) is narrated as a liberal assault on the traditional methods employed by the Texas Correctional Institutions Division (TCID) to maintain order in its prisons. Moreover, while inmate voices remain almost entirely marginalised, the museum displays musical instruments, artwork and wooden furniture, all crafted by prisoners, and examples of inmate newspapers. All of these displays are read as ‘mute testimony to the persistence of the creative impulse’ which can be found behind the walls of Texan prisons (Lichtenstein 2004, p. 199). Yet these stories in which inmates appear creative—even humanised—should not be understood as constituting an overarching narrative within the museum. Speaking about the movement to abolish the death penalty, Lichtenstein (2004) suggests that while the movement ‘gets its due’, the only cabinet relating to abolitionism is one which tells the story of a man convicted of multiple murder and suspected of raping a 57-year-old woman; the audience are invited to support his execution based on the heinous nature of his crimes.

These accounts of prison rodeos, prison tours and punishment museums appear disparate when reviewed from a criminological perspective, and this is likely due to the touristic focus of the literature. Many of the scholars cited did not ‘read’ the punishment stories or analyse the narratives at work within them—instead their focus was the tourist experience itself and the demographics of the visitor population.

However, there are common threads to be found within this diverse body of scholarship.

Firstly, the tourism studies all contend that punishment museums have the capability to tell complex stories, yet ultimately fail to encourage a discussion about the more controversial features of American punishment practices. Secondly, the museums purport to offer visitors an ‘authentic experience’, adding an alternative dynamic to the portrayals and differentiating them from those offered within other representational formats. Thirdly, the studies introduce the notion of a ‘cultural memory of punishment’, arguing that the stories told about punishment (past and present) can take the form of a narrative which—while based in historical realties—is nonetheless constructed as much by omission as it is by inclusion. Within the walls of a prison museum, or through the words of a prison tour guide, the audience will be invited to share in the construction of a specific punishment reality, one which results from a complex negotiation between the host institution and tourist expectations.

Moreover, it appears from Lichtenstein (2004) that the Texas Prison Museum offers complex narratives in which inmates can be both artistic and dangerous; the prison is a space of war but also creativity, and execution is controversial but justifiable. Yet Lichtenstein’s observations are all too brief, his article (excluding images) is around two pages long. Similarly, Smith (2008) mentions the Texas Prison Museum but allocates only one paragraph to describing the electric chair exhibit in order to illustrate his argument that the atmosphere and tone used to portray execution differs depending upon both the method of execution and the representational format. Even in Massingill and Sohn’s (2007) publication—Prison City: Life with the Death Penalty in Huntsville—the Prison Museum receives the same treatment; a description (albeit somewhat more extensive) but little in the way of analysis. Prison City does, however, offer reflections on other Texan punishment stories which can help us build a picture of Texas and its relationship with punishment.

Prison City is less an analysis of the cultural life of punishment in Texas and more of an ethnographic investigation of the rhythms of life and local culture in Huntsville. One of the authors, Ruth Massingill, is a ‘professional communicator’ and faculty member at Sam Houston University in Huntsville, and the other, Ardyth Broadrick Sohn, a professor of journalism from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. The first section of the book examines how local Huntsville residents perceive their town and how the attitudes of others affect that perception: ‘In other parts of the country, and especially in Europe, claiming this town as your home is like saying you grew up in Three Mile Island or Chernobyl’ (Huntsville resident, quoted in Massingill and Sohn 2007, p. 20). This early part also uncovers the ‘private realities’ of living in a town ‘dominated by punishment’. Here we find thick descriptions of everyday life in Huntsville. For example, we learn that residents know not to wear all white as this is the attire of inmates, and if spotted within the town by an off-duty prison guard a call will inevitably be made ordering a ‘lock-down’ and prisoner count (Massingill and Sohn 2007, p. 29).

The second section of Prison City (pp. 63-139), ‘Caught in the Middle: The Role of PR in Shaping Social Perspectives of the Criminal Justice System’, concerns the role of Personal Relations (PR) in moulding social and cultural perspectives of the Texan criminal justice system. Amongst other things, this section discusses interviews conducted with Public Information Officers or PIOs. Employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), PIOs manage information released to the public (usually via the press) about all manner of criminal justice issues. It is clear from the interviews that PIOs believe there are two images of Texas; one constructed from the media position of an outsider looking in, and the other from the inside looking out. While the authors are less concerned with the stories used to construct these images (there is no formal media content analysis) they do consider how the stories told by local journalists differ from those told by reporters who are from other US states and other countries.

Massingill and Sohn (2007, p. 95) contend that ‘foreign journalists see an unemotional attachment they find inexplicable’, with European journalists in particular being the most critical of Texan punishment practices. In contrast, the stories told about the TDCJ from within Texas tend to portray the image of a penal system that is harsh but reasonable: ‘it is a bit Wild West tough and it’s fair’ (Texan radio reporter, quoted in Massingill and Sohn 2007, pp. 95-6). In short, while out-of-state reporters arrive with an attitude that Texan prisons are ‘out of control’, Michelle Lyons

(PIO) suggests that local Texan journalists ‘understand Texans are not bloodthirsty, let’s-hang-em-up-in-the-town-square kind of people’. Local reporters are easier to converse with because they ‘understand Texan laws and the mentality of the people’ (PIO quoted in Massingill and Sohn 2007, p. 82). It would appear then, that the stories Texas is telling about its own relationship with punishment may indeed differ quite significantly from those stories being told by cultural outsiders. While many scholars are telling their stories of a tough Texas, we have yet to see anyone examine the cultural life of Texan punishment from the inside. Texas is telling its stories—we just need to listen.

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