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The Development of the Texas Prison System By: Amanda Kritsonis
The Contract Period The Congress of the Republic of Texas defeated bills for a penal institution in both 1840 and 1842 In May 1846, the First Legislature of the new state passed a penitentiary act, but the Mexican War prevented the law On March 13, 1848, the legislature passed the act that began the Texas penitentiary. The law authorized three commissioners to locate a site and choose a superintendent and three directors to manage the institution. Abner H. Cook was the first superintendent and supervised the construction. On October 1, 1849, the first prisoner was a convicted horse thief from Fayette County. He entered the Texas State Penitentiary facility in Huntsville. The facility had only three prisoners, but by 1855, it housed seventy-five convicts. In 1852, the state established the office of financial agent led by John S. Besser. Texas initially supervised its prisoners under the Auburn System, developed by penologists at the state penitentiary in Auburn, New York. Prisoners are housed behind enclosed walls, engaged in day labor, and retired to their cells during the evening.
Continued By 1856, the state had built a cotton and wool mill at Huntsville in order to make the penitentiary self-sustaining. The mill could process 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 yards of wool annually, provided money to the state. During the Civil War, the penitentiary sold more than two million yards of cotton and nearly 300,000 yards of wool to both civilians and the government of the Confederate States of America. The demand for cotton and wool products reduced at the end of the war, but resulted in financial difficulties as the prison population began to grow.
Lease System The number of convicts increased from 146 prisoners to 264 prisoners between the end of the Civil War and fall of 1866. On November 12, 1866, the legislature enacted a measure that established a five-member Board of Public Labor. The members included the governor, secretary of state, comptroller, attorney general, and state treasurer. In February 1867, the board leased 100 prisoners to the Airliner Railroad and 150 to the Brazos Branch Railroad. The state contracted large numbers of Texas prisoners to private employers over the next forty-five years. From April 1871 to April 1877, the Ward Dewey Company of Galveston leased the entire penitentiary from the state. Another Galveston firm leased the prison for six months, led by Burnett and Kilpatrick. E.H Cunningham and L.A. Ellis leased the Huntsville Penitentiary from January 1878 through March 1883. Morrow, Hamby, and Company leased the new Rusk Penitentiary from January through March 1883.
More on Leasing During the remainder of the leasing era, the state contracted many prisoners to railroads, mining companies, and plantations, while other convicts remained at the Huntsville and Rusk penitentiaries. James Gillaspie, Thomas Jewett Goree, Jonas S. Rice, Searcy Baker, and J.A. Herring are important penitentiary superintendents in this period. The prison dealt with a number of managerial changes in the era of the convict lease system. In 1879, the legislature formalized existing practices by requiring the governor to name three directors, with state Senate approval, to serve two-year terms. The legislature had also authorized a third penitentiary west of the Colorado River for the production of wool, cotton, and leather. The state never built the facility. Between 1885 and 1887, prisoners quarried granite and limestone for the new Capitol in Austin. Convicts also constructed the Texas State Railroad from Rusk to Palestine between 1893 and 1909.
The number of prisoners declined during the remaining years of the convict lease, reaching 3,471 at the end of 1912.
The legislature abolished the convict lease system in 1910 over a debate and discussion.
A new law was created, causing a number of reforms. It established a three-member Board of Prison Commissioners to administer the prison system. One commissioner would serve as the prison system’s financial agent, another would manage the employees, and the third would direct the convicts.
The leases were canceled before the end of 1912, due to existing contracts to run until January 1914.
The prison remained a notable public issue despite the end of convict leasing.
Farm Period Prisoners worked the lands of private farm owners during the convict lease period. The state entered into some share-cropping arrangements and began to purchase large plantations for commercial agricultural production. Texas bought the 5,527-acre Clemens Farm in Brazoria County during 1899 and also bought Imperial Farm in 1908. In the conclusion of the convict lease system, the state continued to expand prison farmlands, except for 1916 through 1918, 1924, and 1927. There was no profit from them. By 1921, state prison farms covered more than 81,000 acres. Most of the land was used for cultivation of sugarcane, cotton, corn, feed crops, and vegetables.
Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor Financial losses and routine legislative investigations of alleged mismanagement, corruption, and poor treatment of prisoners characterized the system. During the 1920s, this organization received authorization from the legislature to conduct an extensive survey of the prison system. Voters adopted a state constitutional amendment in 1926. They wanted to abolish the Board of Prison Commissioners and replace it with a nine-member Texas Prison Board. In 1927, the new law was to hire a general manager to direct the system and permitted the board to set policy. Convicts at Huntsville and Rusk penitentiaries operated modest industrial plants, not just commercial agriculture. They manufactured bricks, ice, wagons, railcars, lumber, brooms, paint, mattresses, iron ore, boxes, furniture, shoes, clothing, and sheet metal before the end of the convict lease system in 1912. The prison system added a printing shop, license-plate factory, and a number of food-processing plants by the 1930s.
Public Relations Texas governors avoided prison issues and looked to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Marshall Lee Simmons was the general manager, who served from April 1930 to November 1935. He could adapt at public relations and helped promote a good image for the prison system by having the Texas Prison Rodeo, which was performed from 1931 to 1986 at the Huntsville Penitentiary. In 1938, a series of weekly radio broadcasts over station WBAP in Fort Worth featured an all-prisoner cast and ran for more than five years. Reports of unsanitary living conditions, atrocities, mysterious deaths of convicts, perpetrated by employees, and financial failures led to the broadcast ending.
Period of Reform and Stability The number of prisoners in Texas declined during World War II, however, after the war the inmate population rose. In January 1948, Bryan Ellis persuaded the legislature to appropriate funds to modernize the facilities and alleviate overcrowding. In 1957, the legislature renamed the state prison agency to The Texas Department of Corrections. The Texas Prison Board became the Texas Board of administrative. During the 1960s, TDC designated the Huntsville Penitentiary and prison farms as “units” and opened several new facilities. In 1964, a separate Diagnostic Unit was created to evaluate and classify new prisoners. In 1969, Windham School provided inmates in all units to receive state foundation funds. During the 1970s, inmate population grew and public attitudes toward offenders hardened.
Courts Intervened The 1970s and 1980s were a period of dramatic change in TDC due to a growing population, the opening of new units, and increasing legal challenges of prison management on the part of the inmates. Practices established by the case, Ruiz v. Estelle, went in effect in 1972. It required the state to reduce overcrowding, improve prisoner rehabilitation and recreational programs, and refrain from practices detrimental to a prisoner’s safety and welfare. In 1983, the prison system established the Texas Department of Corrections Hospital at Galveston. TDC also supervised some prisoners at halfway houses in various cities in 1987. In July 1988, the prison system reserved the Sky View Unit for the care of mentally ill inmates.
Succession in Prison During the 1980s, a succession of directors administered the prison system. TDC was in turmoil and inmate violence followed the demise of an inmate guard system. The inmate population grew from 36,769 on August 31,1983 to 39,664 at the end of August 1988. Between August 1987 and August 1988, the prison system had new inmates and released prisoners through parole, mandatory supervision, and probation. 1978-1983- The Trust-Guard System Convicts are made into guards over other inmates. The head of the convict system is the tier, boss who makes work assignments. They also turn inmates against other inmates.
Effective September 1, 1989 The Texas legislature changed the administrative structure of the Texas prison system. The legislature abolished the Texas Corrections Board, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Texas Adult Probation Commission and merged into a Texas Department of Criminal Justice, supervised by a nine-member Texas Board of Criminal Justice.
Few Facts Texas is the largest prison system in America. In the center of Huntsville is the Walls Unit. It is famously known for executions. In July 2000, corrections officials ran out of six-digit numbers to assign inmates and officially created prisoner number 1,000,000. More than one out of every five are serving time for drug-related charges.
Reference Texas State Historical Association(2008, January 18). Prison system. Retrieved April 3, 2008 from the TSHA Online Website: http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/ articles/PP/jjp3.html