Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons by Ethan Blue

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons

by Ethan Blue
New York University Press

“As I write the final words to this book in 2010, conditions are eerily similar to those of the 1930s,” writes Ethan Blue in his history of Depression-era imprisonment in Texas and California. As Marie Gottschalk revealed in The Prison and the Gallows, the legal apparatus of the 1930s “war on crime” helped enable the growth of our current giant. Such a system, based in laws deriving from public fears, will tend to expand rather than contract, as both Gottschalk and criminologist Michael Tonry have shown. Blue’s book offers an important piece of the historical puzzle of what American punishment means.

Today’s prisons disproportionately house minority inmates, much as they did in the 1930s. Many of today’s inmates lived lives of poverty on the outside, and this was also true in the 1930s. Although the US prison system back then was smaller, prisons were significant employers of inmates, and they served an important economic purpose—one that continues today, as Blue points out.

In 1936, San Quentin’s jute mill, which produced burlap sacks, employed a fifth of its prisoners, bringing in $420,803. During that same year in Texas, inmates raised nearly seventeen thousand acres of cotton and produced several hundred thousand cans of vegetables. In both Texas and California, the money went directly to the prison system. Total income from all industries in the Texas prison in 1934 brought in $1.3 million. After canning, the vegetables were used within the prison itself and distributed to other prisons.

Black prisoners frequently worked these grueling jobs. Although the San Quentin jute mill was the first job assignment for all new prisoners, white prisoners tended to earn their way to jobs for those who showed signs of rehabilitation much more frequently than did black or Mexican inmates, who were assigned to a series of lesser jobs. Among the many disturbing points here is the racism underlying prevalent ideas about prison job performance, rehabilitation, and eventual parole.

Blue claims rightly that these institutions, filled with the Depression-era poor, mirrored the broader economy and the racism and power systems of capitalism on the outside. “In the midst of radical economic crisis and widespread critiques of capitalism as a social and economic system, prisons might have become locations of working class politicization,” Blue notes. “But this was rarely the case,” because incarceration “affected inmates’ identities: they were quickly and thoroughly divided into groups.”

Blue, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Australia, has written a book that does many things well. But perhaps most pleasing and revelatory is the book’s rich description, often in the words of the inmates themselves. For instance, early in the volume Blue includes a quote from Grimhaven, a memoir by Robert Joyce Tasker, published in 1928. Tasker is describing the day he came to San Quentin: “The official jerked his thumb towards a door. The very motion gave me the key to my position. I was merchandise, duly received and acknowledged. Henceforth I was to be an animated piece of baggage. And for that I was grateful, for it fitted with the least effort into my mood.”

Blue draws on an extensive research trove, comments with intelligence and respect on his subjects, and discusses a diversity of inmate experiences. For instance, he offers a bald discussion of inmate rape and its role in the prison order. The book also looks at inmate sexual love, as Blue considers how queens (feminine gay men) used their sexuality to acquire possessions and a measure of safety. He includes snippets of letters between prison “husbands” and “wives,” including one in which a husband concludes, “I love you with all my Heart.”

Doing Time chronicles physical and psychic suffering of inmates, but also moments of joy or distraction. We learn about inmates worked to death, and inmates who would rather sever a tendon than labor in hot fields, but there are also episodes of pleasure. Music had an energetic presence in prison life—on the radio, where inmates performed, and during long farm days. We also learn about the joys of prison rodeos and dances, one of the few athletic outlets for female prisoners.

Blue’s insistence that prison life and power structures are complicated augments the book’s consideration of racial dynamics. He describes the Texas State Prison’s Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls radio show, which offered inmates a chance to speak to listeners outside the prison. Blue considers the show punishment for the prisoners by putting them on display as a moral warning to the public. The choice of speaker and speech were closely controlled and almost solely limited to white men, though black and Hispanic men and women of all races performed music regularly on the show.

California and Texas had strikingly different prison systems, but rehabilitation was flawed in each state. “White privilege,” as Blue calls it, infected the practice at every turn. Blue says that in Texas, for instance, the model prisoner who could be reformed by learning a trade was an English-speaking white man. Black and Mexican prisoners, on the other hand, “were rendered invisible and silent in the redemptive narrative of progressive prison reform and training.”

For all the claims to modernity at the time, the California prisons still maintained segregated cellblocks. In Texas, such segregation was the law; in California, it was the state’s choice. California and Texas also chose strikingly different approaches to punishment. Texas inherited a legacy of slavery and inmate leasing, while California was more “modern.” For instance, California made extensive use of parole, an institution associated with the 1930s progressive prison philosophy. Texas for the most part eschewed parole, though close connections to the white hierarchy back home could help inmates earn pardons.

Doing Time is an academic book but a readable one, partly because of its vivid evocations of prison life. It falters infrequently, and when it does so the reasons seem academic. Blue interrupts a discussion of the prison radio show’s treatment of a Mexican interviewee to draw a parallel to the title of cultural theorist Gayatri Spivack’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The gesture may distract general readers and strike academic ones as elementary.

Blue also seems driven to maintain skepticism toward progressive rehabilitative philosophy. The book corrects previous scholarship that had been heavily critical of parole, which Blue sees as flawed but more complicated in its structures and effects than the earlier scholarship indicated. And as his epilogue makes clear, there was some promise in the idea of rehabilitation—however circumscribed it was by lack of funding and its availability to white inmates alone. In the late twentieth century, however, American prisons pretty much abandoned that promise, rather than extend it to all inmates. Despite Blue’s criticisms of how the system worked in practice, prisons in the 1930s seem humane in contrast to those of today: longer sentences and harsher punishments have replaced the old rehabilitative aims, however modest and flawed they were.

US prison expansion accelerated in the 1930s, and our current system has inherited and built upon the laws that caused that growth. According to 2010 numbers, the most recent available, the American prison and jail system houses 1.6 million prisoners, while another 4.9 million are on parole, on probation, or otherwise under surveillance. (That 6.5 million is 3 percent of the total US population.). By contrast, American state and federal prisons in 1930 housed 129,453 inmates, with the number nearing 200,000 by the end of the decade—or between 0.10 and 0.14 percent of the general population.) But the sheer size of our prison population, and the culture’s abandonment of rehabilitative aims in favor of retributive ones, can make the idea that prisoners can improve their lives seem naive at best. When states reduce their prison populations now, they do so to cut costs and do not usually claim anyone has changed for the better.*

A full understanding of American culture seems impossible without studies that seek to enter the prison world. In recent decades, sociologists, political scientists, historians, criminologists, and journalists have interrogated this realm that is closed to most of us. The result has been a fascinating literature about punishment’s role in American culture. Blue’s history of 1930s imprisonment in Texas and California is a necessary and powerful addition.

*A note about the numbers available on the US prison system and race: In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, African Americans constituted 41.7 percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons. According to data on prison admissions from the 1930s, African Americans made up between 22 and 26 percent of the state and federal prison population. However, the data from the 1930s are not comparable to data collected today. Nowadays, prisons collect the data at the end of each year, while during the 1930s, prisons collected such information only as prisoners entered the system. (The National Prisoner Statistics series report from the bureau of Justice Statistics is available at In the early decades of the twentieth century, states submitted the numbers voluntarily; there was no requirement to submit them. The prisons did not collect data on Hispanic prisoners at all, and state-to-state comparisons are not available for all years in the 1930s. States also varied in the methods they used to collect the data. As the report notes: “Some admission records submitted to the Federal Government deviated from collection rules, according to the explanatory notes accompanying the reports. Consequently, state-to-state and year to-year comparisons of admission data that fail to take into account such rule violations may lead to erroneous conclusions.”

Moreover, missing records and unfiled state information have left cavities in the data. The data holes are likely to be more frequent in earlier periods, such as the 1930s, which was the decade that the national government started collecting year-to-year data on prisoner race. For instance, notes the report, “the 1931 movement series count of 71,520 new court commitments did not include Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi.” While “reporting completeness has fluctuated widely over the years,” reports the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “since 1983 the trend has been toward fuller reporting.”

The possibility that prisons in the 1930s underreported information about race makes evident the difficulty in comparing decades. We are left with the question whether the proportion of black inmates in US jails and prisons has grown or whether the less accurate data in earlier decades make the proportion of black inmates in the 1930s appear smaller than it actually was.