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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Reform & Reaction (1927-1948)

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Through improved conditions and accountability among managers and guards, Simmons managed to curb the escape epidemic. By 1935, only 71 prisoners escaped—just 1 percent of the prison population and a 75% drop from the escape epidemic of 1929. However, the Eastham Breakout of 1934, in which the outlaw Clyde Barrow staged the escape of four members of his gang, was a crushing embarrassment to the prison system and to Simmons personally.

With Simmons’ departure in 1935, the prison system lost a prominent advocate. However, the system was still getting good reviews in 1940, when Governor W. Lee O’Daniel commissioned a study by Texas A&M University on how to make the prison system more efficient. In the meantime, the work force was upgraded with competitive exams and in-service training for guards and other personnel.

Inmate poetry from The Echo, October 1933

Excerpt from Report of Texas Centralization Commission, 1929

Casualty of War

World War II dealt a serious blow to prison reform efforts. The convict population declined by 50 percent as men joined the service or went to work in wartime industries. Many guards left as well. Most of the prison farms were converted to raising livestock or allowed to lie fallow. At the former license plate factory, inmates made steel window frames and screens for military installations in Texas.

A 1943 investigation revealed the return of many of the system’s chronic problems. Unqualified employees staffed many positions, escapes and prisoner abuse were again on the rise, and standards of sanitation and medical care had noticeably slipped. Following the investigation, the legislature banned the bat for good and mandated a disciplinary committee to ensure fairer treatment of inmates. Most of the other problems remained unaddressed.

Learn More About Goree State Farm

Learn about the Goree State Farm, home to the approximately 150 female inmates of the Texas State Prison System.


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Page last modified: August 23, 2019