The Lease Era 1871-1883
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The Bowie knife and the shotgun were the chief ornaments; shooting and stabbing the chief amusements, drinking bad whiskey the chief industry with an occasional lynching and midnight murder to vary the monotony. – Texas Capital newspaper, 1879
In 1871, prison superintendent A.J. Bennett reported to the governor and legislature that years of neglect had reached a crisis point. Without the infusion of at least $241,000 ($4.1 million in 2009 dollars) to repair the prison and upgrade security and sanitation, the prison might as well be abandoned. The prison's financial agent, Louis W. Stevenson, seconded Bennett’s findings. In a tacit admission that the state was unable to operate the prison system on its own, he recommended that Texas follow the lead of several other southern states and lease the prison to an outside management company.
Ward-Dewey Takes Over
The legislature agreed. After a competitive bidding process, the state awarded Ward, Dewey, and Company of Galveston a fifteen-year lease of the prison in exchange for $325,000 ($5.5 million in 2009 dollars) spread out over the period of the lease. The state would retain a three-man oversight board and hire a chaplain, a physician, and a state inspector who would submit a monthly report to the governor.
Ward-Dewey made immediate improvements to the safety and sanitation of the prison. Within the first year, the company had torn down the old wooden shop buildings and constructed new fire-safe brick workshops, an infirmary, 40 new cells, and a new kitchen and dining hall that could double as a chapel on Sundays. They also put the prisoners back to work. By the end of 1872, about one-third of the convicts were laboring on railroad construction crews, while the remaining two-thirds were busy inside the prison’s walls, making cotton and wool garments, shoes and boots, wagons, and furniture and fixtures for state buildings.
Everything seemed to have improved under Ward-Dewey—except for the treatment of the prisoners. Reports of prisoner abuse would only increase over the years that Ward-Dewey held the lease.
An 1875 inspection report revealed scurvy, beatings, and self-mutilation among the prisoners assigned to wood-chopping detail on a railroad construction site.
Inspector J.K.P. Campbell wrote in September 1875 that "the rules and bylaws have not been complied with by the Lessees." Campbell goes on to detail bad food, lack of medicine, dilapidated buildings, and prisoner abuse.
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