Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books)

The PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award is a biennial award given to a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective and illuminating important contemporary issues which has been published in the United States during the previous two calendar years. It is intended that the winning book possess the qualities of intellectual rigor, perspicuity of expression, and stylistic elegance conspicuous in the writings of author and economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose four dozen books and countless other publications continue to provide an important and incisive commentary on the American social, intellectual and political scene.

2011 Judges

Charles R. Morris, Elaine Showalter, and Lee Siegel

From the Judges’ Citation

Texas Tough is not a nice book, or a beautiful book. Rather it is a shocking, honest, original book. Though a work of nonfiction, its style recalls that of Theodore Dreiser. Robert Perkinson’s study of the southern, and particularly, the Texan, origins of our modern penal system is, like Dreiser’s astringent naturalism, unwieldy, loose, and baggy. Yet it illuminates depths of human injustice with a raw power rarely seen in a work of nonfiction. Interweaving stories of inmates, prison guards, wardens, politicians, and policymakers, Perkinson exposes the deeply buried assumptions of racial superiority that still shape the most confident proclamations of American virtue. He demonstrates how, far from being remedied and dispelled, segregationist sentiments are alive and well in the ferocity with which we consign black children to society’s margins, and then sanctimoniously send them off to prison, without any hope of redemption or mechanism for rehabilitation. For Perkinson, the policies that created America’s prison system constitute the hidden underside of the American psyche. Freud believed that the manner in which a person had sex revealed his or her essential character. Perkinson’s book proves that the way a society metes out punishment reveals its essential decency or lack thereof. Texas Tough is a masterpiece of detached historical research, cool social criticism, and unabashed personal outrage.”

Past Winners

John W. Dower for Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)
Isabel Wilkerson for The Warmth of Other Suns (Random House, 2010)