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


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Pardons and Paroles

Since the beginning of the Texas prison system, the governor had used the power of the pardon to release deserving or politically well-connected inmates as he saw fit. In the nineteenth century, about 6 to 12 percent of the prisoners were pardoned in any given year. In the 1890s, governors Lawrence Sullivan Ross and James Hogg were concerned with the profitability of the prison system and failed to issue as many pardons as in the past. Legislators felt the pressure from their constituents and created a two-man board of pardon advisors to speed up the process again.

Before 1911, about 300 convicts received pardons each year. After the reforms, the numbers were even more impressive. Governors Oscar Colquitt, James E. Ferguson, and William P. Hobby issued more than 500 pardons per year.

In the 1920s, the issue of pardons became a political tug of war. Reform-minded governors like Pat Neff, Dan Moody, and Ross Sterling believed that the sentencing of judges and juries should be respected in all but exceptional cases. For example, in four years in office Pat Neff issued only 92 pardons.

On the other side were the Fergusons and their supporters. James Ferguson may have been impeached and declared ineligible to hold public office in Texas, but that didn’t stop him from putting forth his wife, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, as a candidate for Texas governor. It was widely understood that the unassuming "Ma" merely provided legal cover for “Farmer Jim” to resume his political career. During two non-consecutive terms in office, Mrs. Ferguson issued almost 4,000 pardons, many of them to free those convicted of violating prohibition laws. Though never proven, rumors persisted that pardons were available in exchange for cash payments to the governor’s husband.

In 1936, voters passed an amendment to the state constitution stripping the governor of the power to issue pardons and granting that power to a politically independent Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

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Page last modified: February 10, 2016