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?
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 and officers working with dogs (no date). Topical photographs, Photographs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Scandal may have forced an end to the leasing system, but that didn’t make the transition back to state control any easier. The prisons at Huntsville and Rusk could house only about half of the convict population of Texas. The rest of the prisoners lived in camps at farms, mines, and railroad construction sites. With the leasing system at an end, where would they live? And what about the revenue from the outside work—money that paid for the prison system’s entire operation?
Learn more about how convicts quarried the stone and fabricated the iron work for the Texas State Capitol.
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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