Doing Time in the Depression

Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons

335 pages

33 illustrations

February, 2012

ISBN: 9780814709405



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Ethan Blue is Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Australia.

All books by Ethan Blue

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.


  • “Ethan Blue's brilliant, original study of the last time doing time was so extraordinarily ordinary reveals how distinctive 1930s prison regimes converged in a singular achievement. They renovated racism, inequality, and vulnerability to premature death for the purpose of producing public revenues and legitimacy, at the expense of modestly educated people in the prime of life. Doing Time in the Depression is required reading for all who focus their energies on today's mass incarceration and other forms of dispossession.”

    —Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

  • "This reviewer is very happy to see this very much needed and important book on an earlier time of incarceration in the U.S., especially with all the discussion today about mass incarceration."

    —E. Smith, CHOICE

  • "Doing Time in the Depression shines especially brightly . . . as Blue takes us inside the world of prison sports."

    Journal of American History

  • "Doing Time in the Depression compellingly connects prisoners to the social, political, and economic turmoil of the 1930s."

    American Historical Review

  • “Ethan Blue presents such a dose of western scholarship in his complex and stark publication Doing Time in the Depression. Melding the U.S. borderlands, racial hierarchies, immigration politics, prison economies, and gender constructions, Blue builds a devastating study that illuminates a violence far removed from the invented western 'valor and daring' or 'glory and victory' favored by scriptwriters and novelists.”

    The Western Historical Quarterly

  • “During the Great Depression, inmate populations in Texas and California grew exponentially, reflecting the dire straits of many individuals amidst the economic downturn. Blue argues that the prison complexes of the two states reflected a cultural legacy of racial and class hierarchy and exclusion, and acted as a socioeconomic crutch during this period of schism and reintegration. Ultimately, prisons used violence and coercion to maintain a status quo that reinforced white supremacy and capitalist prerogative.”

    Journal of the West

  • “Blue innovatively deconstructs one of the strangest narratives of the ordinary convict. He breaks new ground.”

    Journal of Popular Culture

  • Doing Time offers a nuanced portrait of incarceration in a period that has been frequently overlooked by prison historiography. One of the book’s many strengths is the voluminous sources the author manages to weave into analysis and narrative, as well as its deft balancing of macro structural concerns (e.g. formal patterns of racial domination) with fine-grain attention to the minutia of inmate experience.”

    Punishment & Society

  • “Ethan Blue demonstrates that these present problems originate in a troubled past. Long histories of conquest, colonialism, enslavement and exploitation produced the patterns that pervade prison systems past and present. Court decisions and punitive practices that rendered people convicted of crimes as civilly dead in the nineteenth century provided the inner logic for a legal system that criminalized the survival strategies of oppressed people, protecting the propertied classes but in the process producing the very forms of non-normative behavior that the prison system purported to prevent. The prison system has functioned historically as a way of controlling and exploiting surplus labor. Yet all social structures ultimately revolve around human agency. Blue’s sophisticated research design and his extensive empirical research enable him to explore in this book the world that the prisoners made despite the many things they could not control. He shows that the history of macrococial practices and institutions encompass micropolitics of oppression and opposition. Blue argues that inmate investments in particular understandings of masculinity tragically enabled prison administrators to foment a radical divisiveness across racial lines that impeded chances for class solidarity.”

    —George Lipsitz, Australasian Journal of American Studies

  • “Blue, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Australia, has written a book that does many things well. But perhaps most pleasing and revelatory is the book’s rich description, often in the words of the inmates themselves.”


  • “Timely and required reading for all interested in the history of California’s criminal justice system.”

    California History

  • "Doing Time in the Depression taps prison newspapers, radio transcripts, autobiographies from inmates and guards, and official documents from the California and Texas prison systems to create a compelling, imaginative look at an off-limits environment. . . . Doing Time bristles with insights useful to scholars of incarceration, gender, culture, and the Depression era. Blue sympathizes with prisoners, although he avoids demonizing their overseers. He has humanized people whose actions forced them into a dehumanizing world."

    Journal of Social History

  • Doing Time in the Depression offers a rich, complicated view of prison life in California and Texas during the worst economic decade in twentieth-century America….We are in Blue’s debt for this densely researched, beautifully written, and wide-ranging examination of prison life during the Great Depression.  Doing Time in the Depression is a must-read for people concerned with working-class life in twentieth-century America.”