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The Jail Cell Tours

The stories told on the jail cell tours in Beaumont and Eastland similarly employ the modernisation motif. Like the Texas Prison Museum, they discursively evoke the modernisation motif within different types of stories. For example, in Eastland one guide spoke about the ‘police tools’ that are no longer used including ‘less trustworthy firearms’; another told stories about arrest procedures, suggesting that ‘today, we have a much better system for cataloguing who was arrested, how they were arrested and what we’re bringing them in about’. In Beaumont the tour guide spoke about the ways in which policing has improved, both in terms of ‘the equipment designed to detect suspects and the vehicles used in pursuit of those suspects’. He also told stories about the changing nature of police accountability and the improved training now available to new recruits.

Moreover, these types of stories about policing past and present were told alongside those which focused on punishment past and present. For example, while touring the Eastland County Jail House Museum, both of my guides told me about the last lynching in Texas which occurred in Eastland County. Both guides (unsurprisingly) positioned the lynching as something that happened in the past. One explained, ‘it was a different time back then. We don’t have nothing like that happen anymore,’ and the other suggested ‘it was really different back then, you know, systems to ensure people were punished weren’t in place like they are now’.

Historical accounts of the lynching—like the historical accounts of policing—can thus be understood as employing the modernisation motif; they were chronological narratives which began with the lynching and concluded with the present day. A text-covered stone marker in Eastland entitled ‘Last Mob Lynching in the State of Texas’ likewise placed the story as one told about the past. While (as a story) the marker narrative did not include any commentary on the Texan present, it did make clear that this was the last event of its kind in the state. However, while the lynching event could be used to illustrate the modernisation motif as manifested in the stories told at the Eastland tourist site, these types of stories were not told in Beaumont. The more common form of modernisation narrative (offered in both Eastland and Beaumont) related not to execution past and present, but instead to conditions of confinement past and present.

On all of the tours at both Eastland and Beaumont, tourists are told that the old cells (that is the cells the tourist can see and go inside) were decommissioned because they lacked the facilities now required by law. Using the language of modernisation within their stories, the guides spoke about the old jails as ‘dreadful’, ‘brutal’ and ‘horrible’. The old jails were repeatedly portrayed as uncivilised and no longer fit for purpose in modern America:

We have a duty of care to the people that find themselves in jail and these [old cells] just didn’t come up to State standards. [Eastland guide]

You can see why things had to change. This just wasn’t an acceptable way to house prisoners. [Eastland guide]

Legislation changed and so we changed too. [Beaumont guide]

Moreover the modernisation motif constructed by representing the old jails as uncivilised commanded further rhetorical power because of the tourist experience. At each of the sites, visitors are encouraged to go inside the cells to get a better understanding of what the conditions of confinement ‘felt’ like. Similar to the experiences Brown (2009, p. 87) writes about when she toured defunct prisons, the knowledge gained from the tour is fundamentality built around past practices of punishment as a ‘lived experience’; the stories come to life as tourists are encouraged to imagine:

You get a better feel once you’re inside and the door closes behind you. Just imagine being in here for any length of time. [Beaumont guide]

Go inside if you like. I’ll shut the door but I won’t lock it. You get a sense of just how tiny they are don’t you? [Eastland guide]

Now you’re up here you can imagine what the smell would have been like in the summer ... there isn’t any ventilation. And the winter wouldn’t have been much better. [Eastland guide]

While Brown (2009) suggests that engaging in and enjoying prison tourism can distance the tourist from the pains of imprisonment, parts of these tours (in Beaumont and Eastland) are used instead as an opportunity to encourage the tourists to imagine—and sympathise with—the fact of being imprisoned. The act of experiencing works together with the stories the guides tell, to construct a narrative about Texas and its penal past. Within that narrative, past conditions of confinement are portrayed (and experienced) as uncivilised and austere. That said, Brown (2009, p. 91) is right to suggest these experiences, once completed, feel as if they are authentic; they are grounded in institutional legitimacy. In both Beaumont and Eastland there is no opportunity to look at or go inside those cells that are currently being used. No authentic experience of them can be claimed by the visitor. Moreover, the new cells feature only sporadically in the stories told by guides during the tour. At the end of the tour the visitor is left imagining (rather than knowing) what present conditions of confinement might look like.

However, once the tours have been completed all of the guides encourage visitors to ask questions. It was here—in ‘question time’—that we learned more about what the new cells might look and feel like. The way in which the guides speak about the old jails changes when they tell these stories in question time:

These [old cells] were actually pretty good in comparison to some. I mean they’re not all that bad really. [Beaumont guide]

I bet it taught them a lesson though, I bet they thought twice about doing it again. [Eastland guide]

Moreover, while the question time stories still construct a modernisation motif (new cells are described as ‘cleaner’, ‘nicer’, ‘easy’ and ‘comfortable’) the tourist is at times encouraged to view the new cells as too good, the state as too amenable:

The jails we use now are pretty nice—no joke they are probably better than the motel you’re staying in—ha ha. [Beaumont guide]

Who am I to judge if it’s right or not? [Some people] might do well to have a night or two in one of these you know what I mean? It sure would teach them a lesson. [Eastland guide]

The conditions are better now, yeah. It’s warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer—that kind of stuff. I hear the food is pretty good too! [Eastland guide]

The inmate is characterised as someone undeserving of the luxury they have been afforded. The guides encourage the audience to question the appropriateness of the newer ‘motel-like’ cells. Moreover, some of the guides suggest that given the chance they might be tempted to use the old cells again. While this was said with a humorous tone and was no doubt hoping to get a laugh, it tells the tourist that confinement conditions in the present are devoid of the punishing features their predecessors could offer. Punishment becomes understood in terms of its power to be retributive and its function as a deterrent.

If we take these discursive tensions into account, the cells are still being pitted against one another in a single symbolic space (the austere against the lenient), but now the old jails become symbolic of a lost era in which punishment meant punishment. In short, while the tour time stories portray the old jails as antiquated and uncivilised, the question time stories serve to destabilise and challenge the latter conclusion. Rather than discrediting the past as uncivilised, the question time stories embrace the past as a better way of punishing.

We might then conclude that these question time revelations express a desire for excessively harsh punishment and thus represent a narrative of vengeance as opposed to retribution. However, this type of story (told in Beaumont and Eastland) is very different to the vengeance narrative found by other cultural life criminologists. Within the Texan jail tour s tories, the desire for excess (which is a key feature of the vengeance narrative) does not result from a particularly brutal murder; there is no highly descriptive account of the crime and there are no emotional scripts of victimhood. While they can be understood as expressing a vengeful sentiment, the stories told by the guides in Eastland and Beaumont are, more accurately, part of a narrative about harsh punishment as a deterrent. The austerity of the old cells is preferred, not because of a vengeful desire for excessive cruelty justified by victimhood stories of suffering, but in large part because austerity is an improved deterrent. The sentiment is arguably still vengeful, but it is not the victim-orientated vengeance that cultural life criminologists have found elsewhere.

Furthermore, Nozick (1981) and Garland (2010) tell us that vengeance is personal but the agent of retribution will have no personal tie to the victim. The guides who take the tours in Beaumont and Eastland are all serving police officers. While they may be critical of the newer cells, they are still agents of the state and never mention having any personal ties to victims. Nozick (1981) also suggests that vengeance narratives will have an emotional—even irrational—tone. The guides did not tell emotional stories like those found in death penalty movies, victim-centred webpage’s, or news media. They relate rational tales about the retributive dimensions of deterrence, rather than irrational stories driven and underpinned by emotional accounts of pain and suffering.

As complete experiences the tours lasted around an hour each and, as suggested in Chap. 3, the guides were all very well informed and took great pride in their museum spaces. While they were not professional curators, it was clear that they had undertaken extensive research and as such were very knowledgeable about their specific county’s history and penal past. Finally, it is worthy of note that when the guides did suggest that current conditions of confinement were too good, this was a very transient sentiment. The dominant narrative offered in both Eastland and Beaumont was one in which officers expressed a duty of care toward those in their custody.

That said, however, we have nevertheless found that the tour guides tell two types of stories and that there is a tension between them. In most stories, civilised punishment is portrayed as a good thing and thus punishment is depicted as retributive rather than vengeful. Yet, however infrequent, there were also instances in which the guides embraced past, less civilised methods of punishment as acceptable, which could suggest a narrative of vengeance. This is interesting when we reconsider the stories told in the Texas Prison Museum (presented earlier in this chapter and in Chap. 8) because there is some continuity in the tensions at work: the tour guides’ stories used the modernisation motif to suggest that incarceration in the present is civilised, yet (at times) embraced the past as an acceptable way of punishing, and the Texas Prison Museum used a modernisation motif to suggest that execution in the present is civilised, yet also embraced electrocution (through nostalgic language) and past methods of punishment (through their ball and chain logo).

We thus encounter a real difficulty in interpreting this tension between ‘modern punishment as civilised punishment’ and ‘embracing less civilised punishment as acceptable’. We have seen that the stories Texas tells are of penal reform and modernisation, within which past punishment practices are depicted as less civilised, so does embracing less civilised punishment (as opposed to overtly condemning it) constitute a narrative of vengeance? Is what we are seeing a desire for excessive brutality? Indeed, a museum managed by an ex-warden and tours conducted by serving police personnel are unlikely to explicitly speak about a desire for excessive cruelty, and so might these subtle expressions of that desire be understood as vengeful? I would suggest not.

Taking these three sites (the jails in Eastland, the jails in Beaumont and the Texas Prison Museum) as a collective, we can identify two common themes within the stories told at all locations. Firstly, we rarely see victimhood narratives—victims suffering does not underpin the Texan commitment to harsh punishment. Secondly, within all of the stories told at all of the sites the Texan commitment to harsh punishment is a celebrated part of a toughness narrative—harsh punishment is a display of strength and represents boldness in the face of threat. Franzosi (1998, p. 520) suggests that stories usually have ‘basic narrative building blocks’ which help the audience interpret what they are seeing. The narrative building blocks of the Texan punishment stories are notions of toughness, boldness and strength. As a visitor this is what we are given to interpret the Texan commitment to harsh punishment. Thus a more appropriate analytical interpretation of these vengeful sentiments is to understand them not as an explicit vengeance narrative but as a further celebration of Texan toughness, past and present.

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