Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years 1848-1948
Introduction
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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Top Men Bring a Good Price

Penitentiary Board minutes, November 1903

At first, the state charged the farms different rates depending on the value of the crop raised. Sugar plantations paid the highest rate, $17 per month for a fit young field hand ($387 in 2009 dollars). Cotton plantations paid $16.50 a month, while farms growing corn paid $15.50. Eventually, the state divided their workers into two tiers and charged a premium for the best hands. By 1908, first-class workers — young, fit, and usually African-American — commanded $31 a month ($707 in 2009 dollars). Second-class workers—older, slower, or white or Hispanic—brought in $29 ($661 in 2009 dollars).

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African-Americans made up 20 percent of the population of Texas, but about half of the prison population. Learn more about the role of race in the sentencing and treatment of Texas convicts.
 

The advantage for the farms was not the price, which was only slightly less than the prevailing wages for law-abiding citizens. The attraction of convict leasing was the ability to purchase guaranteed numbers for workers who could not walk off the job, demand better wages or working conditions, or complain about bad treatment. Overall revenues for the state rose from $175,000 per biennium in the first years of convict lease ($3.9 million in 2009 dollars) to $460,000 ($11.3 million in 2009 dollars) by 1900.

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What about the women? In the early days of the Texas prison system, the number of female prisoners was very small. By the turn of the century, the number of female convicts had risen to 130. Learn more about the women prisoners and the conditions they faced.
 

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Page last modified: August 22, 2011