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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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.” By listing environmental rather than supposedly biological causes for crime, he joined the ranks of liberal thinkers on crime and punishment. By historicizing definitions of crime and punishment and demanding the spatial specificity inherent in them, Owen surpassed existing liberal criminology. This was notable in itself. But perhaps more striking was that Edwin Owen was himself a prison inmate, and that he wrote these words in the San Quentin magazine, The Bulletin.

The period of history Owen lived through was bleak. The stock market crash of 1929 set off a spiral of economic and social crises. The gross national product sank by nearly 24 percent in 1931, twice the previous year’s precipitous fall. In late 1931, 4.3 million Americans, nearly 10 percent of the population, had no work. Though unemployment had been high on occasion in the past, it would soon rocket higher still. By early 1932, some 20 percent of the labor force was out of work. Men, women, and children rooted through garbage for scraps; New York City school officials counted some twenty thousand malnourished children. In cities based on the hard-hit steel or automotive industries, unemployment came closer to 50 percent. Those lucky enough to receive paychecks got smaller ones; the banks where they might have cashed them were increasingly closed and in crisis themselves. Some 2,294 banks failed in 1931 alone. Shaky markets plunged, businesses closed, and the pillars of capitalism faltered. Workers struck for higher wages in factories, in fields, and on waterfronts, and were met with bayonets and bullets. Economic refugees took to the road: failing cotton crops, the boll weevil . . .

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