The New York Times presents "The Land of Lock and Key," a review essay on the history of prison farms in Texas and the South, by Daniel Bergner. Bergner writes beautifully about the "sacred" place of prisons in American society:
'Prisons are sacred places. There our society claims control over the lives of men and women; there we assume the roles of gods. And whether the prison sprawls over thousands of acres like the penitentiary farms of the Deep South, or compresses its convicts on tight tiers, the air within holds a particular density, a palpable weight created not only by the crimes the inmates have committed but also by the ownership we have taken of the convicts, whether we acknowledge it or not.'
Bergner, the author of God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, has done his own research into the role of religion in the prison system. Here, he takes up the work of another scholar, Robert Perkinson, the author of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire.
Like others who have wondered how today's sprawling prison complexes could have emerged from an older penitentiary system devoted to rehabilitation, Perkinson asks us to confront the ruined hopes of reform and the new realities of mass incarceration:
'As Perkinson sets out to tell the story of America’s movement from, in his words, “the age of slavery to the age of incarceration,” with the latter period beginning in the mid-1960s and continuing to the present day, he concentrates on Texas in part because the modern surge of its inmate population has far outstripped even the spike in national numbers. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of prisoners in the country rose by 600 percent; in Texas, the growth was twice that. The state ranks near the very top for the percentage of its people kept behind bars. And for well over a century, Texas has held to a perspective on penology — an outlook devoid even of the goal, let alone the reality, of rehabilitation — that now dominates the nation. The state, in Perkinson’s eyes, has provided a “template for a more fearful and vengeful society,” for a country that no longer aims, with its inmates, “to repair and redeem but to warehouse, avenge and permanently differentiate convicted criminals from law-abiding citizens.” '