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)

Lancing a "Cancer-Carbuncle"

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Governor James E. “Farmer Jim” Ferguson had called the prison situation a “cancer-carbuncle” on the state of Texas. Ferguson took the unprecedented step of traveling to Huntsville and the work farms to eat with the prisoners and listen to their complaints. He then announced that he would consider a pardon for each inmate, regardless of the man’s race, social status, or political affiliation. To qualify, all an inmate had to do was work hard, chopping more wood and picking more corn and cotton than ever before. At the same time, Ferguson and the legislature reinstituted whipping and the bat. The carrot-and-stick approach worked. Within two years the prison system was self-supporting, with profitable farms producing cotton, sugar, corn, syrup, and potatoes.

And as far as the convicts were concerned, Ferguson was a man of his word. In one incident, he brought 30 convicts to Austin to work on a mosquito drainage project for the Texas National Guard at Camp Mabry. He ordered the guards to go home, promising that if the convicts did a good job and no one tried to escape, he would pardon every man. The convicts accepted Ferguson’s offer, and the governor freed every man when the project was complete.

Notiification of Discharge of Guard, March 1917

This notice explains the suspension of a guard for 30 days for allowing three convicts to escape.

In 1917, Governor Ferguson was impeached and removed from office on 10 charges of misapplication of public funds and failing to enforce state law. With the explosive ending of the governor’s reign, the last of the progressive impulse that had led to prison reform in Texas seemed to be spent.

Some of the reforms of 1911 had led to lasting changes. Prison staff now attempted to group prisoners according to their age and criminal history. Mosquito screens and modern plumbing had vastly improved sanitation, and prisoners were issued clean bedding and clothing three times a week. Inmates were allowed to have record players and to organize Sunday games of football and baseball, and Huntsville inmates had access to movies, a library, and vocational training.

Yet in other ways, the outrage of 1911 was just a fading memory. Prisoners still labored all day in the fields on plantation-style farms; guards were still permitted to whip and brutalize the prisoners. In the 1920s, the prison system entered into a cycle of perpetual investigation in which legislature after legislature found the same slipshod management, political interference, incomplete recordkeeping, petty graft, and inhumane treatment.

Learn More About Pardons

The governor of Texas had the power to pardon, or release, inmates that he deemed deserving. Most Texas governors pardoned hundreds of inmates each year until the 1920s. Learn how pardons and "Fergusonism" went hand-in-hand.


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Page last modified: August 23, 2019