Fear, Force, and Leather too often has been the motto of the Texas Penitentiary System. – George Waverly Briggs, San Antonio Express reporter, 1909
Whipping. Branding. Hanging. Such were the punishments inflicted on lawbreakers in early Texas. But by the 1840s, Texas — a freshly minted state in the American Union — decided to join a humanitarian movement that promised to put an end to such brutal justice forever. A state penitentiary would take criminals out of their communities and require them to reflect on their lives, work hard to pay their debts to society—and emerge reformed.
Texas had operated a state prison (forever dubbed “The Walls”) for only a decade before the state was caught up in the cataclysm of the Civil War. For decades to follow, Texas and the other states of the Old South were faced with the challenge of keeping their prisons operational with little money or public support from a strapped and impoverished citizenry. Their answer was a system called convict leasing. Under this system, lessees such as plantations and railroads agreed to house, feed, and guard the prisoners in exchange for the use of their labor. The state was paid in cash or in a percentage of the crops raised.
Within a few decades, the Texas prison system was transformed from a fledgling reformatory to a vast network of sugar and cotton farms. The system was known throughout the state for hellish conditions and brutal punishments, and investigation and scandal seemed to dog every legislative session. As petty criminals and famous outlaws passed through the system, so too did sincere public servants as well as a fair number of scoundrels, each leaving his or her mark on a perennially troubled institution.
Eventually, the brutality and neglect fostered by the system would create one of the greatest scandals in Texas history, and begin a cycle of reform that brought Texas to a new era of professional penology. The first hundred years of the Texas prison system represent one state’s struggle at the vortex of money, crime, and politics — even as the state transformed from a rough and isolated frontier to a modern industrial powerhouse.