Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System&rsquot;s First Hundred Years 1848-1948


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Politics and the Prison System

Colonel Edward M. House

During the contract leasing and state account era, the governor controlled the appointment of prison personnel. The prison commissioners were generally prominent loyalists of the governor. After 1891, when Governor James Hogg fired Thomas J. Goree and replaced him with political ally Lucius A. Whatley, the same could be said of the prison superintendent. Whatley and his successors were appointed not to make waves, but to maintain the status quo and keep the system operating efficiently and profitably.

In the 1890s and 1900s, the prison system became an important cog in a political fund-raising machine developed by Edward M. House, the heir to an enormous cotton and sugar fortune (House would one day go on to national politics, where he helped mastermind the rise of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency). In Texas, the political network that House developed was the power behind the election of four governors: James S. Hogg, Charles A. Culberson, Joseph D. Sayers, and S.W.T. Lanham.

House’s political machine was the most sophisticated that Texas had ever seen. Using prison personnel, House set up a network of operatives that traveled the state soliciting donations from other powerful sugar titans who used state prisoners to work their fields and thus depended on them for profitability and competitive edge. It became a common practice to have prison employees, especially the traveling inspectors who were supposed to be keeping tabs on the work camps, carry out political missions such as overseeing election activities instead of doing their jobs.

The interconnections of sugar money, prison labor, and the use of prison personnel to staff the political machine created powerful forces that resisted any attempts to end the convict leasing system or reform the prison system.

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Page last modified: February 10, 2016