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Doing Time in the Depression

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

Ethan Blue
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 335
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  • Book Info
    Doing Time in the Depression
    Book Description:

    As banks crashed, belts tightened, and cupboards emptied across the country, American prisons grew fat. Doing Time in the Depression tells the story of the 1930s as seen from the cell blocks and cotton fields of Texas and California prisons, state institutions that held growing numbers of working people from around the country and the world--overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately non-white, and displaced by economic crisis.Ethan Blue paints a vivid portrait of everyday life inside Texas and California's penal systems. Each element of prison life--from numbing boredom to hard labor, from meager pleasure in popular culture to crushing pain from illness or violence--demonstrated a contest between keepers and the kept. From the moment they arrived to the day they would leave, inmates struggled over the meanings of race and manhood, power and poverty, and of the state itself. In this richly layered account, Blue compellingly argues that punishment in California and Texas played a critical role in producing a distinctive set of class, race, and gender identities in the 1930s, some of which reinforced the social hierarchies and ideologies of New Deal America, and others of which undercut and troubled the established social order. He reveals the underside of the modern state in two very different prison systems, and the making of grim institutions whose power would only grow across the century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2316-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    Crime is a matter of history and geography. It is not what you do, “but how, when, and where you do it. No definition of crime can be made without first making that statement.” In 1933—in the thick of the Great Depression—the author of these remarks, Edwin Owen, listed the many reasons for “the condition we call crime” and the imprisonment that followed: “environment, war, financial depression, broken homes, laziness, temporary or partial insanity from stress, lack of proper education and the greed of Society itself.”¹ By listing environmental rather than supposedly biological causes for crime, he joined...

  5. 1 Of Bodies and Borders: The Demography of Incarceration
    (pp. 20-52)

    In Robert Joyce Tasker’s 1928 memoir,Grimhaven,the narrator describes his entry into California’s San Quentin State Penitentiary:

    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.

    The room into which I now passed was small—a mere recording office for the registry of new-comers. A convict rose from behind a desk and came to the counter that...

  6. 2 Work in the Walled City: Labor and Discipline in California’s Prisons
    (pp. 53-76)

    After new arrivals found their cells and met their cellmates, they negotiated bunk space and where to put any belongings they might have. They did not have long to do it, though. Soon enough they would be expected to make their way to their job assignment. Work mattered. From the San Quentin jute mill to the Folsom mess hall, from the bookkeepers’ department to honor road camps outside the walls, work was a crucial part of prisoners’ lives. It had always been. Behind bars as on the outside, work contained a range of meanings and practices that went beyond the...

  7. 3 From Can See to Can’t: Agricultural Labor and Industrial Reform on Texas Penal Plantations
    (pp. 77-99)

    In the California Prison System, labor assignment mimicked the race-blind coercive meritocracy through which American society and liberal capitalism were supposed to function. And while California officials hoped that income from prisoners’ labor might help offset the costs of running the institution, they scarcely believed they might actually turn a profit. Things were different in Texas. Since the prison was situated on more than seventy thousand acres of fertile agricultural land, officials saw no reason why it shouldn’t make money. After all, the traditions of slavery and the convict lease system loomed large, and setting black, Mexican, and poor white...

  8. 4 Shifting Markets of Power: Building Tenders, Con Bosses, Queens, and Guards
    (pp. 100-134)

    Bull was a long-time building tender, appointed by guards to keep order in the “ tanks”— dormitories where inmates slept on Texas prison farms. Dumpling was a new young inmate, and even though he should have been sent to a unit for first-termers, he was assigned to the Retrieve Farm. When the transport dropped Dumpling off, the captain paraded him before the farm’s building tenders, or BTs, who hollered obscene remarks about the newcomer and begged the captain to let them have him in their tank. The captain made a half-hearted attempt to settle down the BTs. Perhaps in consolation,...

  9. 5 Thirty Minutes behind the Walls: Prison Radio and the Popular Culture of Punishment
    (pp. 135-162)

    At 10:30 p.m., on March 23, 1938, four chimes sounded on Fort Worth Station WBAP, and listeners heard words that in other circumstances would have struck them with terror: “We now take you to the grounds of the Texas State Prison.” But instead of the sound of a gavel strike or the word “guilty” from a jury foreman, there was pleasant music. No judge spoke to declare a sentence; rather, listeners heard a radio broadcaster’s smooth intonation, with music playing softly in the background.

    Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen. . . . This evening through the facilities [of] WBAP, Texas...

  10. 6 Sport and Celebration in the Popular Culture of Punishment
    (pp. 163-188)

    Though understood as “play,” prison sports were serious business. For inmates, athletics and the celebrations that went with them were a means of pleasure and recreation, and personal and collective fulfillment. Sports allowed prisoners to move their bodies in ways that were profoundly different from the exhausting or numbing tasks of hard labor, or the deadening monotony of inactivity. As a result, prisoners took every opportunity to engage in this play, and loved the holidays when they could rest, relax, eat different foods, and either participate in or watch sports. Boxing was always a favorite, and it featured prominently among...

  11. 7 A Dark Cloud Would Go Over: Death and Dying
    (pp. 189-212)

    There were many ways to die. From the capitally condemned to the tubercular to the overworked to those stabbed in fights, prisoners developed an intimacy with death. At San Quentin, they called it “going out the back door” or getting a “backdoor parole.” The condemned to hang would “do the air dance,” those sentenced to the gas chamber would “sniff the eggs.” In Texas, black prisoners spoke of death as a dark cloud. The dead could walk for some Texas prisoners, who might call on them for strength to keep living, as they worked on these haunted grounds. Augustus “Track...

  12. 8 Going Home
    (pp. 213-240)

    Doing time was hard, and getting out was hard, too. If prisoners hoped for an early release, they had a lot of work to do— bags to weave or cotton to pick, certainly, but also powerful friends to make, petitions to write, bureaucracies to navigate, and favors to ask. Through the 1930s, parole boards would gain increasing power over inmates’ lives. Their ability to fix a sentence or set a release date incorporated what had once been judicial sentencing power into their administrative positions. Inmates and their families needed to learn what worked, and what did not, to help get...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 241-252)

    San Quentin prison, like the rest of the Golden State and the rest of the nation, went on high alert on December 7, 1941. Unlike previous emergencies, when desperate prisoners tied sheets together to escape from a window or burrowed under the thick walls, this threat came from outside rather than within. Authorities were concerned that dimmed nighttime floodlights could hide escaping prisoners, but they were even more afraid that the lights would guide Japanese bombers attacking the Bay Area. Instead of fighting with each other, international war gave prisoners and authorities a common enemy. They could all agree that...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 253-312)
  15. Index
    (pp. 313-325)
  16. About the Author
    (pp. 326-326)