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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Convict Diet in the 1930s

Steamed Rice; Milk;
Sugar; Oleo; Syrup;
Ginger Cookies; Hot Buns;

Homemade Sausage;
Gravy; Yams; Hominy;
Applesause; White Bread;
Syrup; Ice Water

Vegetable Soup;
Beef Short Ribs; Gravy;

Mashed Potatoes; Corn Bread;
Syrup; Lemon Pudding;
Ice Water

Reform & Reaction (1927-1948)

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Enter Lee Simmons

In March 1930, the board hired Lee Simmons, a prominent stockman and former sheriff of Grayson County, to take over as general manager. Simmons would become the most influential prison official since Thomas J. Goree.

Simmons took on the task of convincing the legislature and the public that in 1930s Texas, the prison farms, with their high costs and unskilled labor base, could never be successful as a business enterprise. The time was right: in the depths of the Depression, Simmons was able to gain funding not only for guards, housing, clothing, food, and medical care, but also for vocational training, literacy classes, and recreation.

Convict bronc riding at Texas Prison Rodeo

Starting in 1931, the Prison Rodeo attracted thousands of fans to see convicts rope and ride. Photo circa 1935. Photographs, Texas Prison Rodeo Records, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

In 1930, 1,200 inmates enrolled in the literacy program. By 1935, almost 3,000 convicts were enrolled in vocational classes, including printing, electricity, refrigeration, cooking, bookkeeping, building trades, automotive, air conditioning, welding, plumbing, horticulture, and livestock. Simmons also implemented recreational programs including a library, music, sports, and a commissary where inmates could buy tobacco, candy, and personal toiletries.

Another major innovation of the 1930s was the beginning of scientific prisoner classification. Texas received a grant from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Foundation to hire experts to assess each convict and then assign him or her into four groups ranging from those with good prospects for rehabilitation, those with more doubtful prospects, habitual criminals, and violent criminals.

Learn More About Lee Simmons

Learn more about the colorful lawman Lee Simmons--once tried for murder himself--who instituted new programs designed to foster self-respect and self-discipline among the convicts.


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Page last modified: August 23, 2019