Hard time in the New Deal: racial formation and the cultures of punishment in Texas and California in the 1930s
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“Hard Time in the New Deal” bridges historiographies in criminal justice studies, working class history, and cultural histories of the Depression and New Deal to paint a detailed picture of life behind bars in the earliest years of the American welfare state. It analyzes the ways in which punishment structured racial and social hierarchies in a location where members of the multiracial working class worked, lived, fought, played, and sometimes protested in a period of massive political economic crisis. It argues that Depression-era prisons – as a last resort of state control – produced social inequality even within the egalitarian vision that the New Deal era promised. Because Texas and California State Prisons incarcerated poor black, white, Mexican, and Asian and Native American inmates, they provide key sites to examine the practices of white supremacy and racial subordination among multiracial populations; processes through which racial antagonism generally, if incompletely, eclipsed class identities. Not only were prisoners divided against each other, but all criminals were situated against an image of white male citizenry ascendant in the New Deal years. “Hard Time in the New Deal” explores the complex social and cultural worlds of punishment through the interwoven categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation. It illuminates the multifaceted forms of social conflict animating every level of punishment to demonstrate how the state attempted to reproduce, and thus guarantee, social hierarchies in the midst of economic crisis. Drawing on a range of state- and prisoner-authored sources, “Hard Time in the New Deal” examines prison labor laws, sports, radio programming, as well as the organization of space, the distribution of labor, and the instrumentality of violence – to gain insight into the experience of prison as a contested site of social control. Despite government officials’ seemingly limitless ability to shape life behind bars, Texas and California prisons remained beyond firm control through the Depression years. The social contradictions prisons attempted to contain – but continued to produce – would persist and expand through the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.