Race and the Sentencing and Treatment of Convicts
Prisoners at work in a cane field (no date). Prints and Photographs Collection, 1976/31-180.
African-Americans comprised only about 20 percent of the population of Texas, but for decades after the Civil War, they made up about half of the prison population. About 40 percent of the prisoners were white, and about 10 percent were Hispanic. The disparity was typical of the states of the former Confederacy. In fact, Texas’s sentencing was not as unequal as some. In Mississippi, 90 percent of the prison population was African-American; in Georgia the figure was 87 percent.
The inequality was rooted in the Jim Crow system that became embedded in Southern life after the end of Reconstruction. In a nutshell, African-Americans were systematically excluded from voting, with no say over the election of sheriffs, judges, or district attorneys. They were permitted to testify in court, but not allowed to serve on juries. In addition, very few could afford legal counsel. It was not until 1964 that the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright that the court must appoint an attorney for indigent defendants.
Texas used prison as a punishment more often than almost any other state. By 1900 Texas had the largest prison population in the South and the second largest in the nation, as well as the largest percentage of incarcerated whites. An examination of the records of the numerous investigations does not reveal any particular racial differences in the cruelty meted out to convicts. In this respect as in no other, it appears that the system was color-blind.
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