Home Law Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation
Examining Lone Star Museum Stories: The Narrative of Texan Toughness
Visitors who tour the Texas Prison Museum, the Joe Byrd Cemetery, the Eastland County Jail Museum and the Beaumont Law Enforcement Museum will all likely conclude—as Perkinson (2010 , p. 4) has—that Texas ‘reigns supreme in the punishment industry’. For example, a video is played to visitors as they enter the Texas Prison Museum and the narrator of the video (an elderly sounding man who has a strong Texan drawl) tells us that
The state of Texas undertook one of the largest prison construction programs in the history of the free world. Prison capacity increased from 54,000 beds in 1991, to more than 150,000 in 1999 ... Today, with more than a half a million people already under some form of adult criminal supervision ... the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates one of the largest prison systems in the nation.
Similarly, within the stories told on jail tours the guides continually reference the size of the TDCJ: ‘Yeah, we have a lot of people under some kind of supervision. Yes ma’am its big business here in Texas’ (Eastland). Another stated, ‘I guess we got a lot of people on death row compared to other states, but that’s because Texans believe it’s the right thing to do’, adding ‘you’ve heard the saying ain’t you? Don’t Mess With Texas’ (Beaumont). A member of staff at the Texas Prison Museum also evoked the image of Texas as a state under lockdown when he said, ‘sometimes it feels like Huntsville has more people in prison than outside it!’
However, while Texas is depicted as a place of punishment that is not to suggest that the story is somehow about failure, or an inability of the state to manage criminality. The audience are told about the size of the TCID as if it were a lesson to other states (or other countries) about how to deal with crime and criminals. There is an air of confidence—bravado even—within the stories. These are stories about Texan boldness within the penal sphere. The video played to visitors as they enter the Texas Prison Museum reflects this bold sentiment, telling us that Texas is ‘recognised by the American Correctional Association as [having] one of the best prison systems in the nation’. Yet the narrator is quick to remind the tourist that by ‘best prison system’ he does not mean that it is in any way merciful, or that conditions of confinement are more agreeable than elsewhere:
Hard work is still the cornerstone of the life of an inmate; prison is a difficult and tough place to live. The day begins well before dawn with a noisy wakeup call, followed by breakfast at 4.30. All able-bodied inmates are expected to be on the job or at school by 5.30. There’s no lying around watching TV. The inmate areas of the unit are not air-conditioned and inmates are not allowed to use any type of tobacco. The concrete floors and walls echo every sound. No inmate has any privacy outside their small cell.
This image of Texas as a place ofharsh punishment is also reflected in the logo chosen to represent the Texas Prison Museum; a ball and chain alongside prison bars. Whilst the ball and chain is no longer used by TCID, the image still serves to remind the audience (and continues to remind them should they purchase any of the numerous items from the gift shop sporting the logo) that Texas has a reputation for being a place of harsh punishment. In a similar way to what Loader (1999) has called ‘police promotionalism’, the Texas Prison Museum and jail cells engage their audiences in what might be termed ‘prison promotionalism’. The film in particular seeks to promote the TCID as a corporate identity.
Moreover, next to the video viewing area are six text-based wall panels that detail the history of the prison system in Texas from convict leasing through to the present. These too seem to suggest that the Texan approach to punishment is both the best and the most effective approach to punishment. (Lichtenstein (2004) drew our attention to these boards earlier in Chap. 6). As Lichtenstein confirms, these boards state that there was an ‘abuse and mismanagement of the profitable Convict Lease system’ enacted between 1871 and 1912 (board no. 3) and they even shed light on the continued brutalities in the period that followed. However, Lichtenstein (2004, p. 191) also asserts that the museum approaches these somewhat controversial elements of the Texan penal past by way of a ‘backhanded acknowledgment’. According to Lichtenstein the Supreme Court decision Ruiz v. Estelle (1980)—which extended inmates’ rights—is depicted as thwarting progress in Texas. His analysis can thus be understood as suggesting a narrative of backlash is at work within the Texas Prison Museum story; liberal political elites are portrayed as ideologically incompatible with Southern traditions. However, if we place the museum’s portrayal of the Ruiz v. Estelle decision in perspective—that is, situate it within the story told by the wall panels in their entirety—we actually find that the more pervasive narrative is one of Texan boldness as opposed to Texan backlash.
Firstly, to be clear, Lichtenstein (2004, p. 199) is right to suggest that the decision in Ruiz v. Estelle (1972) is portrayed as thwarting penal reform in Texas. We learn from the third wall panel that the decision threw the TCID into ‘a state of uncertainty’ which would plague the correctional system for the next two decades. However, these two decades are part of a much bigger story. A member of staff at the Prison Museum confirmed that a list of figures presented on the final panel—figures relating to the number of people incarcerated and on parole or probation in Texas today—are updated every few months. The years of uncertainly are merely two decades of a story that spans over one hundred and sixty-five years, from 1848 to 2015 and beyond.
Rather than a narrative of backlash, the wall panels—in their entirety— actually tell a celebratory story of a specifically Texan success; the story is more pro-Texas than it is anti-Supreme Court. The first of the six panels states that after the Civil War (which ended in 1865), Texan prisons were amongst the worst in the nation and the last panel reinforces the message of the video played to tourists as they enter the Museum by stating that Texas is now recognised as having one of the best prison systems in the US. Moreover, within the wall panels’ story, it is Texan officials who initiated, sustained and continue to maintain that progress. We learn that the Texas Prison System has had many directors throughout the years and between them they have made TCID what it is today. This is a story both about the modernisation of the Texan prison system (and thus will be discussed further in the next chapter) and about Texan boldness in the penal sphere. Rather than a narrative of backlash, this is again Texas promoting and endorsing its own approach to punishment.
The tour guides of jail cells also promote the Texan approach to punishment. When I asked one guide in Eastland how the conditions provided by Texan prisons compared with those provided in other states he said:
I think the conditions in Texas are pretty tough but that’s the point isn’t it?
I mean we stick to the rules, but it isn’t supposed to be a vacation is it? Yes,
I think we got the balance right.
Similarly, while on another tour in Beaumont a couple from Louisiana spoke about how they believed the Texan approach to punishment should be held up as an example to America:
Guide: ‘We [Texas] do have a big prison population—you know, compared to other states. I guess it’s to do with crime rates, but also about people’s attitude toward criminals. Incarceration rates are a two-fold thing.’
Louisianan man : ‘I think you guys got it right ...’ [interrupted by woman].
Louisianan woman: ‘Yeah—it’s like you know not to cross the line here right? Because you know what’s coming if you do. None of this prisoners’ rights stuff.’
Guide: ‘Yeah, I mean we do keep the prisoners safe, but trust me it’s not the kind of life anybody would want ... No-one grows up wanting to be in a cell half their life do they? You want to be a cowboy or an astronaut!’
Like the job of the TDCJ Public Information Officers discussed in Chap. 6, these museums and tours function as a kind of public relations exercise—Texas is telling celebratory stories about its own boldness in the penal sphere. We learn that Texas has got the ‘balance right’; punishment is safe but it is also tough and it is on this theme that the narrator of the introductory video ends:
While today’s prisons are safer and more humane than years ago it’s still a
hard way of life. The state of Texas does not operate a country club prison.
The sentiment is clear; the final sentence short and memorable. Speaking in the language of populist punitiveness (Pratt 2007, p. 28) we learn that while Texan prisons might be safe, Texas still adopts a tough approach to the punishment of its criminals. Moreover, visiting the Texas Correctional Institutions Cemetery in Huntsville reinforces this image. The sheer number of gravestones—each of which represents an inmate who has died while somewhere in the system of Texas corrections— reminds tourists that punishment in Texas must indeed be ‘big business’.
The strength shown by Texas in the face of criminal threat is a celebrated feature of Texan punishment stories. This type of tough approach is further reflected in the museum spaces that depict Texas as fighting a war on crime; a war in which there have been casualties but a war that Texas is nonetheless winning. The evocation of the war on crime metaphor is most easily illustrated through the military-style monuments and memorials erected in the memory of officers who have died in the line of duty. Examples can be found in the Beaumont Police Station lobby and outside the Texas Prison Museum, where a monument and plinth honours deceased serving officers and the surrounding remembrance trees carry a Texas map name plaque. A black marble monument can also be found in downtown Dallas commemorating the service of police officers in Dallas County. In addition there are also many display cases and memorials inside institutions associated with law enforcement—the Texas Prison Museum, the Beaumont Police Museum (Fig. 8.1), the Border Patrol Museum (Fig. 8.2) and the Houston Police Museum all contain memorabilia, the latter, for example, presenting officers’ badges on black velvet housed in a glass and marble surround (Fig. 8.3).
All of these displays (the memorials, the remembrance trees and cabinets) evoke the war metaphor within their crime and punishment stories; they are not unlike displays commemorating the death of military s oldiers. Similar to news reporting about police officer deaths, using
Fig. 8.1 Beaumont Police Museum Memorial
Fig. 8.2 Border Patrol Museum Memorial Room
Fig. 8 .3 Houston Police Museum Memorial Cabinet
images of officers in uniform, phrases like ‘fallen heroes’, and engraving names on commemorative brass plaques, all conjure the image of a ‘battle between good and evil by means of symbolic signifiers’ (Mythen 2007, p. 469). In short, the displays construct a narrative in which Texas is fighting a war on crime and the police and prison officers who have died in the line of duty should be awarded the status of heroic, courageous and honourable soldiers.
On closer inspection, there is actually rarely any indication within the displays (memorials, trees or monuments) that the deaths were unlawful, let alone heroic or in the course of duty. When asked, a member of staff at the Texas Prison Museum said that some of those named in the museum display cabinets had died of heart attacks, in road traffic accidents or falls at work. This (alternative) story is not told anywhere in the museum. The displays are de-contextualised which ultimately distorts the reality of the representation; it creates a void which can then be filled with imagined meaning. The audience is given no context cues to imagine an accident victim and instead as Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz (1991, p. 379) contend, memorialisation assumes that the people who have been selected for commemoration are ‘necessarily heroic and courageous’.
Moreover, as Greer (2007, p. 39) suggests, to place emphasis on deaths in the line of duty—which are statistically rare, isolated incidents—constructs an image of all police and prison officers as ‘heroes’, ‘carrying out dangerous work under constant threat of murderous violence’. All officers take the identity of brave, bold, honourable hero- soldiers fighting the war on crime; ready to engage in combat to defend and protect the law-abiding peoples of Texas. Further, as Graham et al. (2004) argue, stories which evoke the war metaphor represent a kind of ‘call to arms’. The law-abiding are positioned as an army in support of criminal justice institutions. While the war metaphor may be used to capitalise on (or even actively construct) public fear of crime, within the museums the war metaphor is coupled with stories that celebrate Texan boldness and toughness. Rather than a narrative of fear (in which punishment is symbolic of a safe society), these Texan stories use the war metaphor in a narrative of toughness (punishment is a celebrated way to display strength and boldness in the face of threat or danger). Texas Correctional Institutions are fighting a war on crime, and there have been causalities, but Texas is winning. The criminal threat is dangerous but not unmanageable and Texas will face that danger with boldness and toughness.
Yet whilst the displays dedicated to the symbolic soldiers are sombre spaces of memorialisation, the punishment stories told in other parts of the museums and tours at times engage in light-heartedness; the sites seem to play with the state’s tough identity for comic and nostalgic effect. For example, in the Texas Prison Museum visitors can take part in the ‘cell for you’ experience in which they dress as an inmate and have their photo taken inside a replica cell for $3 which ‘always gets a laugh from the kids’ (staff member at the Museum). Additionally, the prison museum gift shop sells comically-titled books such as Meals to Die For (a recipe book of executed inmates’ last meals), pullovers incorporating witty slogans such as ‘Texas Prison Museum: preserving the best bars in Texas!’ and a women’s baby pink t-shirt with the image of a cartoon chain gang upon it.
The tour guides of the old jail cells also use comical references within their stories. Guides in Eastland and Beaumont both cite the anti-littering slogan ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ when speaking about the high number of executions that take place in the state, and they all speak in jest about the lack of privacy afforded inmates with regard to bathroom facilities in cells. Similarly, a volunteer at the Texas Prison Museum jokingly describes the electric chair as ‘Old Sparky’, adding an element of nostalgia to his punishment story. The introduction of a nostalgic or comic tone serves to normalise the more severe elements of Texan punishment practices, to make them appear standard when—compared with those of other US states or countries—they are in fact somewhat unusual.
Garland (2010, pp. 56-7) is right to suggest that the peculiarity of the American death penalty means that ‘legislators, judges and prison officials take care to discuss the issue in solemn tones’; depicting it as a tragic necessity ‘they seem, in short, embarrassed, as if caught in a transgression’. Yet while this might be true of official statements made to the news media, even those originating from Texas, the museum and guide stories reveal a different dimension to the cultural life of punishment in the state. There is no ‘palpable embarrassment’ or ‘anxiety’ (Garland 2010, p. 59)—instead, execution and harsh treatment become the fodder of comical musings. The stories construct Texas not only as a place of harsh punishment, but as a place which can—at times—joke about harsh punishment.
To find these comical elements in the museums and tours might suggest that the punishment sites are what Stone (2006, p. 152), a writer in the field of ‘dark tourism’, has called ‘fun factories’, visitor sites that have an entertainment focus and commercial ethic while still associated with some form of suffering. Yet he suggests that dark fun factories are often not considered to be ‘authentic’ by the tourist (2006, p. 153). The punishment sites visited for this research make numerous claims to authenticity based on their location, their staff and through the pervasive employment of official state symbols (primarily the state flag, but also the map of Texas and the Lone Star emblem). As such, possibly a better framework in which to explore the comical elements of the punishment stories is the literature associated with the ‘kitschification of memory’ within tourism sites. Speaking instead about the commoditisation of Ground Zero, Sturken (2007, p. 217) predicts that ‘the “teddy-bearification” of 9/11, the development of a kitsch comfort culture ... operates to smooth over tragedy ... constituting a kind of erasure of the effects of violence’.
Selling cookery books with titles like Meals to Die For and offering a ‘cell for you’ photo opportunity, or a baby pink t-shirt sporting the image of a cartoon chain gang might encourage a similar response. Speaking about prison tourism, Brown (2009) argues that introducing comical and nostalgic elements into the punishment story creates a distance between the audience and the subject matter of the museum or tour. This distance, she suggests, is what shields the penal spectator ‘from the most fundamental feature of punishment’; the infliction of pain (2009, p. 9). In short, the ‘humorous’ elements of the sites’ narratives not only normalise the more severe punishment(s) for which Texas is well known, they also function to make light of the suffering associated with them.
It could be suggested that these comical or nostalgic references represent a narrative of vengeance. Rather than use the rational, detached and impassive language of retribution, these are stories which allow the audience to find some amusement in the plight of the prisoner, to take pleasure in their pain. Yet this is not a vengeance narrative centred on vic- timhood and is thus distinct from the vengeance narrative found by other cultural life scholars (there is no mention of a specific crime or indeed a specific victim). The audience is not encouraged to ‘desire revenge’ or see harsh punishment as somehow compensating for the brutality of the crime. Yet as a visitor we are invited to take some form of pleasure from the inmates’ discomfort, and thus in Garland’s (2010 , pp. 56-7) terms the story moves away from the retributive rationale, locating itself instead with vengeful desire (see Chap. 5 for a detailed discussion). Convicts are caged and we, as the law abiding, can find amusement in their predicament. The tone of these comical stories is thus similar to the mocking tone identified by scholars working in the tourism tradition. However, we can now contextualise that mocking tone within the experience of touring these sites as a whole. The stories which mock the convict are but one part of a much larger narrative about Texan toughness and Texan boldness when faced by threat.
The Texan punishment stories celebrate punishment as a display of strength. The mocking tone might be interpreted as an expression of vengeance (encouraging the tourist to find amusement in punishment- related suffering) but more accurately this is an expression of the Texan commitment to appear tough and bold. Texas can make light of tough punishment because it reinforces a sense of superiority over the criminal threat. Moreover, by mocking the men and women who once posed a danger, the tourist sites’ stories also serve to remind visitors that while these inmates might once have been dangerous, they no longer pose any kind of threat; we can mock them without fear of retort. Texas may indeed be fighting a war on crime, but mocking the enemy invites the tourist to assume that Texas is winning.
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