Fear, Force, and Leather - The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years, 1848-1948


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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The Perpetual Inquiry (1911-1927)

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What are you going to do with a big strapping man who says flatly that he won’t work unless you whip him? We took him and gave him a good cow-hiding and he went to work. – Governor Pat Neff

Dinner at Huntsville Prison, July 4, 1911

Prisoners assemble for the visit of Governor Colquitt, July 4, 1911. Topical photographs, Photographs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Oscar Branch Colquitt, who campaigned on the issue of prison reform, took over as governor in 1911. Colquitt selected the first board of directors under the reformed administration. He purged the prison of political appointees and ordered a swift end to convict leasing. By the end of 1912, all contracts had been terminated. Per his campaign promises, Colquitt also ended whipping and implemented a 10-hour work day, new educational and recreational programs, medical and dental care, a revised rulebook for guards, and a schedule by which prisoners could earn time off their sentences for good behavior.

Though popular with the public, the reforms placed severe strain on the prison system, which had depended on contract labor for income and on the contract farms to house and employ hundreds of prisoners. In 1913, the legislature appropriated $500,000 ($10.3 million in 2009 dollars) and authorized $1.5 million in bonds ($31 million in 2009 dollars) to lease new farmland and pay for upgrades to Huntsville and the state-owned farms. But real improvement proved elusive. By the time Colquitt left office in 1915, the prison system had run up a debt of $425,000 ($8.6 million in 2009 dollars) and was back in the headlines, this time for escapes and brawls.

Learn More About the Bat

Prisoners who were destructive or unwilling to work were flogged with a thick leather whip called the “bat." Learn more about Oscar Colquitt's crusade against the bat and why its use continued.



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Page last modified: August 23, 2019