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 Lease Era 1871-1883

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The Problem of Prisoner Abuse

In 1874, Huntsville took custody of a group of U.S. Army prisoners. When the prisoners were transferred to a military prison in Kansas, they arrived so emaciated that their appearance drew comparisons to the shocking wartime photos from the Andersonville prison camp. The prisoners testified that they had been starved, denied warm clothing, threatened with shotguns, and subjected to whippings and torture. They also reported that a prisoner who tried to escape was shot.

Embarrassed at the revelations, the Legislature ordered an investigation. A special committee found that under Ward-Dewey’s management, a number of convicts had died of preventable illnesses or been shot trying to escape, while several others had committed suicide.

Testimony of Fred Stone, April 1875

List of convicts under seventeen years of age, August 1881

Some of the conditions reflected societal problems. After the Civil War, Texas led the nation in murders. At least 900 people were murdered in Texas during 1869-70, almost 200 more than second-place Louisiana. Violent criminals were packed in with petty offenders and the young. A third of all prisoners were under 21 years of age, and the youngest was only seven.

Moreover, the prison was housing a number of disabled and elderly offenders, one of whom was 94 years old. These men were generally in prison on trumped-up charges to relieve their local communities of the burden of caring for them.

Ward-Dewey was given the opportunity to improve, but after more revelations about brutal conditions and missing equipment, the legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard to terminate the contract. The firm of Cunningham & Ellis, the founders of the Imperial Sugar Company, won the next bidding process and signed a five-year lease on January 1, 1878.

Learn More About Rusk Penitentiary (1883-1917)

As a result of the investigation of 1875, the Legislature authorized the construction of a second state penitentiary at Rusk. Learn more about Rusk Penitentiary (1883-1917) and its famous iron works.


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Page last modified: July 23, 2019