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Re-imagining Texas: The Cultural Life of Lone Star Punishment

While Texas should still be viewed as a place of harsh punishment— because this is the reality in the state—I would argue that the Lone Star commitment to tough justice is not underpinned by feelings of fear, by desires for vengeance or by demands for closure. This emotive triad of cultural sentencing rationales did not feature heavily in the Texan museum stories or in the interviews and tours. Indeed, considering the Texan penchant for punishment we might expect the Lone Star State to use victimhood scripts as a justification for execution or mass incarceration, yet unlike the stories told about punishment across the US this was simply not the case.

For example, the cultural life of punishment as expressed in Lone Star museums did not employ a narrative of fear in quite the same way as the stories told in other cultural products. When examining the prison documentary Lockup, Cecil and Leitner (2009) found that the stories tended to focus on the ‘worst of the worst’. Yet the tourist sites we visited told more stories about ‘reformed inmates’ by way of prisoner-made arts and crafts, carpentry and tapestry. Moreover, Altheide (2006) suggested that the news reporting media can encourage support for harsh punishment by over-representing the likelihood of becoming a victim of violent crime. Punishment becomes a way of restoring feelings of safety and security. In contrast the Texan tourist site stories did not actually mention crime rates. At no point were the audience encouraged to see themselves as potential victims of crime. These were success stories about a contained threat: the criminal is a threat that we (as prison outsiders) should no longer fear.

The punishment sites did, however, suggest that prison ‘as a place’ should be feared. Using a similar narrative to that identified by Mason (2006b) in prison movies, the stories did (at times) encourage the audience to view everyday life in a Texan prison as violent. Stories of escape attempts, cabinets of contraband weapons and a padded cell all served to enforce the image of incarceration as violent and unpredictable. Yet as mentioned above, the prison is also depicted as a safe environment in which creativity (woodwork, leatherwork, needlework, etc.) thrives. In short, the punishment sites told stories both about reformed prisoners and about dangerous convicts. However, while the museums humanised some inmates, they still depicted all prisoners as deserving of harsh punishment.

Moreover, other cultural life scholars have found that narratives of vengeance can manifest within punishment stories. Following Sarat (1999b) we used Nozick’s (1981) five-part distinction between vengeance and retribution and found that the Texan tourist sites employed a more pervasive narrative of retribution as opposed to vengeance. The Texan tourist sites did not always place the audience with the victim or the victim’s family, and thus the vengeance narrative struggled to manifest. For example, in the Texas Prison Museum we became a ‘witness to an execution’ through an audio recording. Listening to the audio, we—as an audience—were often positioned with the condemned and his family at the moment of death; we were encouraged to feel sympathy for their suffering and question the Texan commitment to execution.

That said, all of the museums and tours did (at times) employ a narrative of vengeance through ‘mocking’ and/or ‘humour’, and the tour guides did briefly express a desire for less ‘civilised’ punishment. Yet we would have struggled to locate this within a broader story about victims’ rights. Unlike the narrative of vengeance identified by other cultural life scholars in other cultural products, the Texan desire for ‘excessive’ punishment was expressed within stories which justified excess due to its ability to increase deterrence. There were no highly descriptive accounts of homicides, no images of bloody crime scenes, no capital crime case files. In many ways the victims of crime were somewhat notable by their absence. Unlike America more broadly, it would appear that the cultural life of punishment in Texas does not need a victim to justify a commitment to (and desire for) harsh punishment.

Due to the limited expression of the victims’ stories we also found that the closure narrative—as identified by other cultural life scholars—was not at all pervasive within stories told at Texan tourist sites. The tourist site stories did not attempt to comment on the victims’ worth. The closure narrative did manifest once in the temporary photographic exhibit, yet closure was portrayed as elusive and ill-defined. Interestingly, this depiction of closure as elusive was closer to the findings of Berns (2011) who studied anti-death penalty cultural products. This is somewhat surprising considering the reputation of Texas as a hyper-punitive state. Moreover, while the photographic exhibit was the only place in which a victimhood story was told, it was related in the way Peelo (2006) might predict. As an audience we were encouraged to sympathise with pain and suffering and enter the realm of ‘virtual victimhood’. Yet we can use our analysis to extend Peelo’s (2006) notion of virtual vicitmhood. The photographic display and audio exhibit encouraged the audience to view the executed man and his family as victims. Rather than align with the victim and their family, we were invited into the virtual space of a different type of ‘un-ideal’ victim.

We also found, in line with Lichtenstein (2004), that the tourist site stories did—at times—use humanising narratives and these were identified as similar to those employed within the Benetton campaign ‘We, on Death Row’. Yet unlike analyses of the Benetton campaign (undertaken by Girling 2004, 2005; Kraidy and Goeddertz 2003) we found that the Texan museums did not show the ‘face’ of the condemned, instead representing those who await their fate through objects and artwork. As such, the nature of spectatorship changed; rather than seeing a death row inmate ‘staring back’ and hearing an inmate make claims of reform (which victims’ rights activists saw as ‘opening wounds which had begun to heal’) the tourist site stories implied reform without inmate image or statement. With no specific crime, no specific criminal and no specific victim, Texas was able to tell stories about reformed inmates—even those on death row—without inviting the criticism associated with the Benetton campaign. While Texan museums about punishment did employ humanising politics, in contrast to the analyses undertaken by Girling, and Kraidy and Goeddertz, there was no suggestion within the museum story that humanised inmates who demonstrated the characteristics of reform should not be executed. The tourist sites differed significantly from the Benetton campaign because the museum did not make the reformed inmates part of an abolitionist story.

In short then, we need to re-imagine the Texan commitment to harsh punishment. While we might have expected to find the most punitive state in America using the scripts of victimhood to justify execution and mass incarceration, this was not the case. The tourist sites in Texas did not rely heavily on narratives of fear, vengeance or closure and victims did not take prominence within the Texan punishment stories. Moreover, it is worthy of note that we found some tourist sites offering a decidedly sympathetic, even compassionate portrayal of the reformed inmate. While on the jail cell tours we found, at times, that the tourist was encouraged to imagine the pains of imprisonment, and within the Texas Prison Museum we were sometimes invited to situate ourselves with the condemned and their family at the moment of the execution.

Michelle Lyons—a Public Information Officer for the Texas Correctional Institutions Division—suggested that ‘Texans are not bloodthirsty, let’s- hang-em-up-in-the-town-square kind of people’ (cited in Massingill and Sohn 2007, p. 82). If this journey through the cultural life of punishment in Texas has taught us anything it is that she is quite right. While other stories told about punishment in America might deploy the narratives of vengeance, fear or closure, and while other states might justify their commitment to harsh punishment using these emotive scripts of victim- hood, Texas does not. Instead, by way of the modernisation motif, Texas told stories about progression and improvement; punishment in Texas was depicted as safe and civilised in comparison to what came before. Moreover, the stories told about execution and mass incarceration in Texas portray the state as fighting a war on crime. The Lone Star State celebrates punishment as a display of strength and toughness, employing masculine scripts of bravery and boldness in the face of threat.

This second conclusion, that Texas uses a narrative of toughness to speak about its own relationship with punishment, is particularly significant when we consider what else we know about Texas, or more specifically about Texas and its relationship with history. Scholars from other disciplines, primarily those working in tourism studies and cultural memory studies, have been suggesting for some time that the ways in which Texas remembers its history might help us understand the Texan approach to a number of social issues including punishment. Indeed, they argue that the Texan self-identity is underpinned by two dominant ‘nationhood narratives’ (the Alamo and the Old West) and that these narratives construct the image of Texas and Texans in highly specific ways.

As such, after examining the tourist sites associated with punishment, we turned our attention to the stories Texas was telling about its own history. We knew from touring the punishment sites that a narrative of Texan toughness was used to evoke the image of a bold and tough Texas, ready and willing to engage in combat when threatened by the criminal other, but we were less sure how (if at all) this ‘Tough Texas’ narrative manifested within the memories of the Alamo and the Old West. Directed not by criminologists, but instead by cultural memory scholars, we considered the ways in which Texas depicted its own self-identity— that is Texanicity—within its top visited historical sites. In short we turned our attention to the cultural life of Lone Star memories and as a result we once again have to re-imagine Texas and its commitment to harsh punishment.

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