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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Convict Leasing and State Account Farming (1883-1909)

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The inspector: Well, boys, how are you treated?
All right, Colonel
How are you fed?
All right.
Is your grub well prepared?
Yes, sir, Colonel.
Does the sergeant whip you much?
No, sir, Colonel.
– Interview of prisoners by state inspector, recalled by former prisoner J.L. Wilkinson in 1909

Guards working with dogs

Given political realities, state officials never seriously considered building more prisons or raising taxes to pay for them. Instead, the state began to hire out inmate labor to private enterprises. After all, Cunningham & Ellis had blazed the way to a profitable prison system. Over the course of the leasing era, lessees had paid the state $358,000 ($8.4 million in 2009 dollars) and kept over $500,000 in profits ($10.9 million in 2009 dollars) — a powerful incentive to retain the same system -- minus the abuses, of course.

Since the vast majority of convicts were from a farm background, it made sense to keep agricultural work as the lion’s share of the contracting. By November 1884, the state had contracted out 1148 prisoners to work on farms scattered across East and South Texas. By contrast, just 176 prisoners worked on railroad contracts.


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Page last modified: August 22, 2019