Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948


Rough Beginnings, 1849-1861

War and Collapse, 1861-1871

The Lease Era, 1871-1883

Convict Leasing, 1883-1909

Scandal and Reform, 1909-1911

Perpetual Inquiry, 1911-1927

Reform and Reaction, 1927-1948

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Penalties in the Republic of Texas

Theft Under $20
A Fine Plus 39 Lashes

Horse Theft
A Fine Plus 39 Lashes
And the Branding Of
T On The Hand

Murder, Rape, Arson,
Robbery, Burglary,

Rough Beginnings 1848-1861

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You cannot fail to digest a code of criminal law which will not only supercede the savage practice of whipping posts, but will deter the wicked among us from violating the rights of others. – Governor George T. Wood, 1846

A Prison for Texas

The idea of building a state prison in Texas dated back to the time of Mexican rule. But neither the Mexican government nor the Republic of Texas could ever manage to organize a penal system, much less raise the funds to construct a prison. In the meantime, local sheriffs and juries dealt with wrongdoers. The most common punishments were whipping and hanging.

In 1848, the Texas Legislature passed a law providing for the establishment of a state prison. A new penal code abolished corporal punishments and restricted the death penalty to the crimes of murder, treason, inciting a slave rebellion, and breaking and entering. Other felonies would be punishable by a prison term. To control the prison system, the governor would appoint a three-member board of directors and a superintendent to manage the day-to-day operation.

Prison official on horseback

Photo: Unidentified prison official (no date). Topical photographs, Photographs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.


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Penitentiary commissioners to Governor Wood, July 1848Commissioners chose "a beautiful eminence in the town of Huntsville" as the site for the state prison. By the summer of 1848, they had obtained deeds to the land along with the timber rights and "rock privileges" (mineral rights)





Plan of the Texas penitentiary, August 1848The plan for the Texas penitentiary included not only walls and cells, but offices, workshops, a cooking house and pantry, and a hospital.

Page last modified: August 27, 2019