Home Law Prisons and Punishment in Texas: Culture, History and Museological Representation
Re-imagining Texas as a Place of Harsh Punishment
With more than 550,000 people under some form of criminal justice supervision, and having performed its 517th execution in 2014, the Lone Star State has a reputation for harsh judicial punishment. Yet criminologists rarely take a state-specific approach to the study of punishment in America. Instead there is a pervasive tendency to reduce the complexities of individual US states—and their relationships with punishment—into a simplistic binary of Northern and Southern. The nuanced position that punishment (and stories told about punishment) achieve within the cultural production of state-specific meaning is lost in totalising arguments about an ill-defined Southern punitiveness.
The aim of this book was to consider the stories that Texas was telling about its own relationship with punishment. Drawing on diverse work, including criminological scholarship about cultural representations of punishment, as well as research on dark tourism and cultural memory, we constructed a scheme of narrative frames in which judicial punishment plays a role. Then, with our narrative framework at the ready, we entered the punishment museums of the Lone Star State. As part of our journey we toured exhibitions, visited old jail cells and listened to the
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 H. Thurston, Prisons and Punishment in Texas,
stories our guides had to tell. It was by examining these narratives of the collective that we were able to build an image of Texas from the inside. This final chapter will thus complete our journey and reflect upon the conclusions we have drawn. Indeed, as will be demonstrated, the ways in which Texas speaks about punishment differed from what we might have imagined given the stories others were telling about the hyper-punitive Lone Star State.
More specifically, after analysing the punishment stories told in the Texas Prison Museum, the Joe Byrd Cemetery, the Eastland Old County Jail House Museum and the Beaumont Police Museum and jail cell tour, we arrived at two related conclusions. Firstly, the Lone Star stories use a narrative of toughness to speak about the Texan commitment to harsh punishment. Celebrating punishment as a display of strength and employing masculine scripts of bravery and boldness, Texas overcomes the criminal threat. Secondly, we identified a narrative of retribution which manifested itself by way of the modernisation motif. Texas told stories which juxtaposed punishments past and punishments present and within these temporal constructions Texan punishment becomes seen as tough, but also safe and civilised.
However, in addition, we also revealed some tensions within the Lone Star punishment stories. The first appeared within the tales Texas told about the prison and prisoners. We found that while Texan punishment was portrayed as safe some prisoners were nevertheless depicted as highly dangerous, and while some stories presented the prison as civilised (and civilising), others presented it as a battleground in which symbolic soldiers had lost their lives. The second tension occurred when we considered the tone or atmosphere created by certain stories. In Chap. 8 we found that the Texas Prison Museum seemed to embrace the Lone Star reputation for harsh punishment by selling ‘comical’ products in the gift shop, yet there was also a poignant audio track playing within the museum that invited visitors to question the Texan commitment to execution. Thirdly, there was a tension between the storied construction of modern punishment as civilised and thus retributive (as opposed to vengeful) and the stories told about the Texan desire to return to more brutal forms of punishment.
By exposing these tensions we were able to illustrate the complexity of the Texan punishment identity, and avoid the pitfalls of assumption. There is a tendency within criminological scholarship to imagine Texas as a hyper-punitive state characterised by desires for vengeance, to offer ill-informed accounts of the Texan experience which merely reflect and arguably construct the image of Texas as offered by the news media. By going to Texas and listening to the stories the state had to tell we obtained an insider perspective. Rather than reducing the Lone Star State to a cardboard cut-out cliche, we were able to examine the Texan commitment to tough justice on its own terms. Moreover, it was through this examination that we discovered that the punishment narratives offered by other cultural life scholars focusing on the US more broadly, were not as relevant in the Texan context as we might have expected. In short then, we now have the task of re-imagining Texas.
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