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


In conclusion, this chapter has sought to consider the cultural life of punishment in the Southern states of America in order to examine how—if at all—the fear, vengeance and closure narratives discussed in Chap. 5 present themselves in the specifically Southern context. In doing so, we have found that these emotive scripts of punishment do appear to resonate more strongly in the Southern states. According to Zimring (2003) such narratives serve to locate punitive policies (e.g. life without parole and execution) as expressions of moral indignation rather than the performance of a powerful state. Moreover, Zimring argues that the vigilante tradition associated with the Southern states offers the ideal cultural context for harsh punishment to be seen as an expression of community outrage. In short, the symbolic transformation of execution—from a symbol of state power to a symbol of community outrage—allows Southerners to support capital punishment while remaining distrustful of the state. As such, the triad of emotive sentencing rationales (fear, vengeance and closure) play a crucial role in making harsh punishment appear personalised and thus compatible with the Southern vigilante value system.

In addition, by turning our attention to the stories that surround Southern punishment we have found also that the death penalty in particular has become a symbol of state’s rights. Along with national debates about social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, levels of taxation or gun ownership, support for capital punishment has become somewhat synonymous with support for state’s rights. As Garland (2010) illustrates, Southern attitudes towards harsh punishment are now characterised by—and negotiated within—a politics of backlash. Southern traditional values and ways of life are pitted against what is perceived to be an elitist, liberal and distinctly Northern ideology. Support for harsh punishments becomes symbolic of the South’s position in the culture wars.

We also considered studies that have examined tourist sites associated with punishment in order to gain some understanding of how the cultural life of punishment manifests itself within a single state. While we were unable to identify the established fear, vengeance and closure triad within these discussions, we did uncover something rather fascinating. According to tourism scholars, a different type of vengeance narrative emerges within these storied spaces and experiences. Within these tourist sites, the prisoner was—at times—mocked and ridiculed; the audience were encouraged to find amusement in the pains of imprisonment. Moreover, it would appear that while the punishment museums in particular offer a perfect opportunity to engage with some of the concerns associated with mass incarceration and execution, the museums studied appeared to avoid those more controversial elements of the American penal past and present.

With regard to specifically Texan stories about punishment we sadly found very little. While Texas does have a variety of punishment-related tourist sites (see Chap. 3) these have yet to undergo any robust analysis. That said, we did discover something worthy of note about the relationship Texas (and indeed Texans) share with the harshest of penal sanctions. Here I am referring to a comment made by Michelle Lyons, a PIO for the TCID. Lyons spoke about the ‘mentality of the people’ when asked about Texan punishment preferences (Massingill and Sohn 2007) explaining that Texas is not fully understood by cultural outsiders such as out-of-state journalists. By suggesting that a specifically Texan attitude towards punishment exists, Lyons is highlighting something of a problem. Throughout this book we have heard lots of stories about Texas, some told by punishment scholars, others by the media, and others still by Texan governors. However, when taken together these stories are what Ewick and Silbey (1995, p. 197) have termed a ‘hegemonic tale’; they reproduce a somewhat taken-for-granted narrative about

Texas. In short, we have learned that the punishment stories told within Texas, by Texans, might not construct the Lone Star State as peculiarly punitive, but when we look to the literature we struggle to find anybody discussing those insider stories in any great depth.

Our next task then, is to consider in detail the stories that Texas is telling—from the inside—about its own relationship with (and commitment to) harsh punishment. It is here that the cultural life of Texan punishment will reveal itself. Yet we still have one last task before we embark on such a journey. Within this chapter and one that preceded it, we have covered much ground—from the narratives of fear, vengeance and closure that have been identified in American stories told about punishment, to Zimring’s (2003) conclusion that punishment is decidedly more ‘personal’ in the Southern states, to Garland’s (2010) discussion of ‘backlash’ politics, and finally the tourism scholars who suggest that punishment-related tourist sites have a tendency to mock the pains of imprisonment. At present the conclusions drawn from our examination of the cultural life of punishment in America, then in the South and lastly in a single state are vast and somewhat difficult to summarise. We could push on and look at the stories Texas is telling about punishment in its museums, yet we might struggle to know exactly what it is we are looking for.

In other words, while we will want to consider the extent to which the conclusions drawn by other cultural life scholars are relevant to the insider stories Texas is telling in its tourist sites—do the stories employ a narrative of fear for example—in order to achieve this we need to be clear what a narrative of fear would ‘look’ like if we were to identify it in the Lone Star museum context. As such we must develop some sort of framework with which to approach the Lone Star museums; we need to know what we should look for within the stories Texas is telling about its own relationship with punishment. The following chapter is thus a brief pit stop as it were; a chance to summarise all we have learned in Part II of this book. The aim of the next chapter then, is to construct a ‘framework of narratives’ that will act as an analytical tool once we enter the Lone Star museums of punishment; it is a chapter about narrative possibilities within cultural life research.

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