First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System

First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System

First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System

First Available Cell: Desegregation of the Texas Prison System


Decades after the U. S. Supreme Court and certain governmental actions struck down racial segregation in the larger society, American prison administrators still boldly adhered to discriminatory practices. Not until 1975 did legislation prohibit racial segregation and discrimination in Texas prisons. However, vestiges of this practice endured behind prison walls. Charting the transformation from segregation to desegregation in Texas prisons--which resulted in Texas prisons becoming one of the most desegregated places in America--First Available Cellchronicles the pivotal steps in the process, including prison director George J. Beto's 1965 decision to allow inmates of different races to co-exist in the same prison setting, defying Southern norms.

The authors also clarify the significant impetus for change that emerged in 1972, when a Texas inmate filed a lawsuit alleging racial segregation and discrimination in the Texas Department of Corrections. Perhaps surprisingly, a multiracial group of prisoners sided with the TDC, fearing that desegregated housing would unleash racial violence. Members of the security staff also feared and predicted severe racial violence. Nearly two decades after the 1972 lawsuit, one vestige of segregation remained in place: the double cell. Revealing the aftermath of racial desegregation within that 9 x 5 foot space,First Available Celltells the story of one of the greatest social experiments with racial desegregation in American history.


Institutionalized sanctions of serious criminal offenders mirror the society in which they are applied. Punishment rationales and practices reflect prevailing values. In turn, citizens whose behavior and lifestyles least reflect those values are invariably those most often subject to criminal sanctions. And, as society changes, so too do institutions of punishment.

The history of prisons well illustrates these connections between punishment systems and social order. Though lockups have been around for centuries, only in early-nineteenth-century America did prisons emerge as places where offenders were incarcerated as punishment rather than as places for offenders to await punishment of some other type. In a religious society where both individual freedom and personal responsibility were core values and where crime (and the possibility of redemption) was thought to hinge on the will of the offender, prisons became institutions in which extended confinement itself constituted the punishment. Incarcerated offenders were expected to become penitent and to see the error of their ways.

Prisons, then as now, were populated primarily by marginalized people whose values and behaviors fall outside society’s socio-legal mainstream. Prisoners typically represent the lowest rungs of society’s life-chance ladder. In the United States, they are overwhelmingly poor, uneducated, and occupationally (as well as criminally) unskilled men. Moreover, racial and ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, are disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons. In Texas prisons, for example, African American inmates constitute well over 40 percent of the population, three times their proportion in the state overall. A similar disparity exists in prisons across the country.

Though activists in the last century sought to eliminate the discrimination in law and practice that disadvantaged minorities in particular, they made only limited progress until the mid-twentieth century. By the 1940s the tide . . .

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