Rough Beginnings 1848-1861
Working Under The Whip
Prisoners were required to work as a matter of discipline, rehabilitation, and as an economic support for the prison. At the same time, Texans took a dim view of prison enterprises that undercut work being done by law-abiding citizens. In 1852, Governor Peter Hansbrough Bell hit on a solution. He persuaded the legislature to appropriate $35,000 to buy looms and spindles for a cotton and woolen mill, so that the prisoners could be put to work turning out sheeting, sacking, and cloth for Texas plantations. The factory was built by the prisoners themselves and became operational in June 1856 at a cost almost double Bell’s original request. The enterprise proved an immediate success, processing 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 pounds of wool and earning the state over $16,000 within the first year of operation.
One of the main reasons for implementing the penitentiary system was to eliminate corporal punishments such as whipping. However, whippings and other severe physical punishments soon became the norm behind "The Walls" for inmates who got out of line or tried to escape. Some inmates suffered worse fates, such as having their heads shaved, being hanged by their thumbs, or being branded or maimed. Technically, these exotic punishments were outlawed by the legislature in 1857. In reality, for decades to come, guards would be allowed to exercise their own discretion, or imagination, when it came to controlling the inmates under their supervision.
The reason was tragic but simple to understand. Americans, particularly in the South and on the frontier, still faced a harsh and often brutal reality in their daily lives. Settlers on the Texas frontier had to be prepared on a daily basis to fight Indians or outlaws in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Frontiersmen settled differences not in a court of law but by fistfights, knife fights, and gun fights. Enslaved African-Americans were constantly under the threat of whipping and worse; the same discipline was used in the Army to punish rebellious soldiers. In a world where might made right even against a neighbor, a fellow soldier, or a family servant, it was little wonder that convicted criminals often got the worst of it.
In this undated letter, prison superintendent Thomas Carothers describes laying the groundwork for cotton manufacturing at the prison. In a few years, the work would make Huntsville a key link in the Confederacy's supply chain.