by Chad R. Trulson and James W. Marquart. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009. 328pp. Hardback. $55.00. ISBN: 9780292719835.

Reviewed by Joyce A. Baugh, Department of Political Science, Central Michigan University. Email: joyce.baugh [at]


Following BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1954), the modern Civil Rights Movement ushered in major changes to the racial landscape of the American South. Local grassroots activists and prominent civil rights leaders organized and conducted numerous protests against Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement, which had pervaded every aspect of southern life since the end of Reconstruction. This racial caste system, legitimated by the Court in PLESSY v. FERGUSON (1896), mandated segregation in transportation, schools, water fountains, hospitals, and a host of other public accommodations. During the 1950s and 1960s, economic boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and other demonstrations led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, laws that officially ended Jim Crow and, along with other legislation and court decisions, put the nation on a path toward equality, freedom, and democracy.

As far-reaching as these changes were, an important bastion of government-imposed segregation remained alive well into the 1970s – the prison system. Chad R. Trulson and James W. Marquart’s FIRST AVAILABLE CELL: DESEGREGATION OF THE TEXAS PRISON SYSTEM chronicles the transformation of one state’s penal institutions from segregation in all aspects of operation to the most racially desegregated prison system in the United States. The book focuses particularly on the desegregation of two-man prison cells, the point of greatest opposition from prison administrators and custodial staff, who believed that racially mixing prisoners in the cells would unleash a violent race war. The book is meticulously researched, carefully written, and well-documented, and the authors weave together an interesting, important, and complex story. Following a very brief introduction and detailed timeline, the book is divided into three sections: “The Outside,” “The Inside,” and “A Colorless Society.”

In the three chapters comprising section I, Trulson and Marquart place the topic of prison segregation into a larger political, cultural, and social context. In Chapter 1, after a brief focus on early efforts against segregation in Texas schools they introduce readers to the Texas prison system of the 1950s, known to convicts as “the burnin’ hell.” Trulson and Marquart then set out a theoretical framework utilizing the work of Park and Burgess (1925), two sociologists who studied how neighborhoods in Chicago changed over time as new immigrants moved in and out of the city. Trulson and Marquart adapt this framework of urban growth and transition to explain how prison desegregation followed changes in the [*337] larger society from the mid-1950s to early 1990s. In their “Zones of Desegregation” model, Zone V represents the court decisions and federal laws that resulted in the end of Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s. Zone IV represents the shift from separate prisons for white, African-American, and Hispanic inmates in Texas to housing them in the same institutions in the 1960s. Zones III and II represent changes within the prisons in 1970s: first the desegregation of work and service areas (III) and then the dormitories and cell-blocks (II). Finally, Zone I comprises desegregation of the two-man prison cells, the longest and most difficult to achieve (1990s).

Chapter 2 provides a brief history of segregation and race relations in Texas from slavery to Jim Crow, including a detailed listing of numerous segregation laws passed in the state from 1866 until1958 and a description of lynchings from 1890 to1899. Trulson and Marquart then discuss the efforts of blacks and Hispanics to challenge the color line in Texas from the early-to-mid- twentieth century: from the white primary laws used to disenfranchise them, to segregated education, to the impact of military service in World War II on African American and Mexican American soldiers, and finally to significant cases leading up to BROWN, particularly the 1950 Supreme Court decision in SWEATT v. PAINTER ending the exclusion of blacks from the University of Texas Law School. They note that while the civil rights revolution began in Montgomery, , Little Rock, , and other southern communities in the mid-to-late 1950s, by the 1960s, “here and there desegregation was taking root in Texas” (p.38). Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the change occurred in the field of sports. The desegregation of the Dallas public school system and the United States military are the primary focus of Chapter 3. Here Trulson and Marquart apply their framework to examine the military experience with desegregation, as they envision a similar pattern emerging with the Texas prison system.

The six chapters in section II constitute the core of the text. Chapter 4 begins with a discussion of the pattern of official racial segregation in American and Texas prisons, which persisted even after segregation “on the outside” was ruled unconstitutional and changes occurred in many other institutions. They then explore key federal court decisions concerning prison matters, including COOPER v. PATE (1964), in which the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners could challenge prison conditions in federal courts using the Civil Rights Act of 1871, found in section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code,. Four years after COOPER, the Court held that racial segregation in prisons was unconstitutional, unless there are special circumstances that require segregation in order to maintain security and order (LEE v. WASHINGTON, 1968). After these decisions, the federal district and appellate courts heard numerous prisoners’ rights lawsuits and prisoner desegregation cases. The last part of Chapter 4 traces the operation of the segregated prison system in Texas, which began with private entities leasing the entire system, including the responsibility for supervising, housing, and disciplining prisoners. Under a later model, private interests continued to lease convicts, but the responsibilities [*338] connected with the inmates fell to state prison officials. Finally, the state developd agricultural prison farms and camps, where convicts were employed by the state to farm state-owned land for profit. Rigid segregation continued until 1965, “the first time that inmates of different races coexisted in the Texas prison system” (p.83). It was not until the 1970s, however, that major change would occur, and this was the result of two main factors: 1) an in-depth investigation into prison operations by a reform committee of the state legislature and 2) a class-action prisoner lawsuit challenging segregation and discrimination in the system. The investigation ultimately led to passage of a 1975 law prohibiting segregation of prisoners by race.

The filing of the class-action prisoner lawsuit and the events that followed it are covered in Chapters 5, 6, and 7. A section 1983 suit was brought in 1972 by Allen Lamar, a habitual offender, alleging that the system-wide segregative and discriminatory practices of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) deprived prisoners of their civil rights (LAMAR v. COFFIELD). A year later, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened on behalf of Lamar and other plaintiffs. The case resulted in a consent decree approved by the federal court in 1977, but it took over two decades to get all of the changes implemented, with the order to desegregate the prison cells as the final sticking point. Allen Lamar and the relevant issues are introduced in Chapter 5, while Chapters 6 and 7 focus on early developments in the case and on interactions among the government actors involved – the federal judges assigned to the case, officials from the TDC and DOJ, and representatives from other state agencies.

In Chapter 7, Trulson and Marquart describe the process leading to the TDC’s development of a serious plan to implement cell desegregation (1988-91) and the factors affecting its decision. One critical factor was political pressure from the state legislature and corrections board, which had grown weary of the lengthy litigation. At the same time that the TDC was dealing with LAMAR, three other class-action prisoner lawsuits had been filed, including RUIZ v. ESTELLE, a broader suit that brought significant change to the prison system. In 1980, months after the Ruiz trial ended, the judge ordered changes in many areas of prison operations, including overcrowding, security and supervision, health care, discipline, and work safety and hygiene. One factor particular influential in bringing about change wasa population explosion in the system that led to new prisons and new officers to staff them. Consequently,

[o]ld traditions and customs were lost upon this new crop of officers, and inmates did not know any different. By 1991 TDC had been desegregating inmates in all other aspects of housing and system operations. These forms of desegregation were met with little resistance by new prison staff and few problems emerged. If any time was right for cell desegregation, it was now (p.150).

The final two chapters of section II return to the question posed earlier about the impact of desegregating individual cells: did this change result in a large-scale, violent race war that prison officials had predicted would occur? Chapter 8, examines inmate-on-inmate [*339] incidents across the Texas prison system, while Chapter 9 looks at incidents occurring at the cell level. Using official statistics provided by prison officials for the years 1991-2005, Trulson and Marquart found no significant increase in interracial incidents generally or in racially motivated incidents specifically. In fact, in some years the numbers and rates of intraracial incidents exceeded those of interracial incidents. They supplement the data with comments gathered from inmates based on a survey that they placed in the prison newspaper. Although some inmates complained bitterly about the desegregation of individual cells, these sentiments did not translate into increased incidents of violence because of it. The authors conclude:

Despite the fact that inmates do not appear to like it, and notwithstanding the occasional racial disturbance or racially motivated attack, cell desegregation invokes little fanfare or sensationalism in today’s Texas prison system. . . . [T]here is no evidence to suggest that it automatically leads to disproportionate racial violence and disorder (p.199).

Section III contains only one chapter. Its goal is to explain why the TDC was successful in this massive prisoner desegregation experiment and to speculate whether the Texas experience can be replicated elsewhere. Trulson and Marquart point to several factors, some internal and others external, leading to success. The internal factors include a carefully formulated revised inmate classification plan that matched the most appropriate inmates together, the ability of Texas officials to make changes in an incremental fashion, the removal of predatory inmates from the general prison population, and the eventual endorsement of desegregation by initially recalcitrant prison authorities. Externally, the willingness of the federal court and the DOJ to tolerate the incremental approach, increased funding from the Texas legislature as the prison system expanded, and the improvements to the system resulting from RUIZ also were influential.

Other states hope the Texas experience can be replicated. California prison officials have consulted with their counterparts in Texas in light of the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in JOHNSON v. CALIFORNIA rejecting the state’s claims that absolute racial segregation of inmates in two-person cells was necessary because it prevented violence among rival gang members. The Court held that race could be used to segregate inmates only under limited, specific circumstances where it was necessary to maintain safety and security. On the broader replication question, the authors write:

For prison systems to achieve desegregation successfully, whether voluntarily or forced, they will have to reach the point where desegregation becomes the expectation and tradition of the system. The Supreme Court has made this clear for the twenty-first-century prison. How systems get to that point is largely left to the peculiarities of individual systems and their internal and external environments. Today, inmates expect desegregation in the Texas prison system – it is largely a non-issue among both inmates and staff. This institutional acceptance was not achieved overnight and without obstacles. Cloning the Texas experience might not be possible elsewhere (pp.217-18). [*340]

FIRST AVAILABLE CELL tells a complex story with clarity and an incredible level of detail. Trulson and Marquart accomplished a herculean research task, mining numerous documents from the TDC, courts, and other sources, and conducting extensive interviews to help illuminate the story. The amount of detail they provide is both an advantage and a disadvantage. For example, as the authors explain the background and proceedings in the LAMAR case, the reader learns about nearly every aspect of Allen Lamar’s life and incarceration experiences. While this puts a personal face on the issues presented, one has to be careful not to get bogged down in trying to keep all the places and years straight. Similarly, discussions of the numerous court proceedings and conflicts between the TDC and DOJ that resulted from TDC delays in fully implementing the consent decree can be overwhelming at times. But the timeline presented at the beginning of the book is useful in countering these concerns, by offering the reader a helpful guide on where particular events fit in the overall story.

Trulson and Marquart have made an important contribution to the literature on race and criminal justice. FIRST AVAILABLE CELL nicely illustrates how the color line in corrections institutions reflects similar patterns in the society at large. This book should prove useful to scholars who study race in a variety of contexts and for undergraduate and graduate courses dealing with this issue. In addition, state officials contemplating desegregation of their double cells will find much benefit from this research.

Park, R., Burgess, E., and McKenzie, R. 1925. THE CITY. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
COOPER v. PATE, 378 U.S. 546 (1964).
JOHNSON v. CALIFORNIA, 543 U.S. 499 (2005).
LAMAR v. COFFIELD, Consent Decree, Civil Action No. 72-H-1393 (S.D. Tex. 1977).
LAMAR v. COFFIELD, 951 F. Supp. 629 (S.D. Tex. 1996).
LEE v. WASHINGTON, 390 U.S. 333 (1968).
PLESSY v. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
RUIZ v. ESTELLE, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (1980).
SWEATT v. PAINTER, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Joyce A. Baugh.