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

 

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The Centralization Controversy

Excerpt from Report of Texas Centralization Commission, 1929

For some years, advocates of prison reform had proposed scrapping the entire system and starting from scratch with a new facility. Called “centralization,” the plan became the centerpiece of the prison reform efforts of Governor Dan Moody.

Elected in 1926, Moody was a former prosecutor who believed that the Texas prison system was at least 25 years behind the times—crowded, unhealthful, and with no meaningful opportunities for reform. Moody persuaded the legislature to form the Texas Prison Centralization Committee to study the possibility of building a modern prison near Austin, with manufacturing rather than agriculture as the main occupation of the convicts.

In 1929, Moody called a special session of the legislature to consider the committee’s recommendations. He ran into strong opposition from rural representatives. Not inclined to shoulder the enormous expense of building a new prison, these legislators were also scornful of the idea that farm labor was too brutal and degrading for the convicts of Texas. After all, didn’t the majority of their law-abiding constituents toil in the fields every day?

Over the course of five special sessions in 1929 and 1930, the legislature failed to pass Moody’s centralization bill. In early 1930, Moody and the Prison Board declared that Huntsville and the work farms had reached capacity and could accept no more convicts. It was a game of chicken. Inmates began stacking up in county jails, and on March 24, the Prison Board turned away a group of Tarrant County convicts arriving at Huntsville.

In the end, the legislature appropriated an additional $575,000 ($7 million in 2009 dollars) to upgrade existing prison properties. Angry about the failure of his reform agenda, Governor Moody allowed the appropriation to become law without his signature. The centralization issue was dead and was never revisited.

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Page last modified: August 23, 2011