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 1940s

Bacon; Gravy; Fried Potatoes;
Oatmeal; Stewed Prunes;
Hot Rolls; Syrup; Coffee

Fried Pork Chops; Gravy;
Stewed Okra; Fried Potatoes;
Green Peas; Corn on the Cob;
Vegetable Soup with Croutons;
Beet Pickles; Hot Peppers;
Wheat and Cornbread; Syrup;

Raisin Cobbler; Iced Tea

Meat Pot Pie; Fried Potatoes;
Creamed Corn; Pinto Beans;
Yams; Vegetable Soup with Croutons;
String Bean Salad; Rolls;

Rice Pudding with Pineapple;

Reform & Reaction (1927-1948)

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The MacCormick Report

The end of the war saw a boom in the prison population. In 1947, the Texas Council of Methodist Women adopted the cause of prison reform. The timing seemed right. Texas was at the beginning of a post-war boom that was greatly increasing state tax revenues, while at the same time a wave of young veterans had been elected to public office. From Governor Beauford Jester down through the ranks of the legislature, politicians were more reform-minded than ever before. To present their case, the women commissioned famed criminologist Austin MacCormick to conduct an investigation into conditions at state prisons. The state agreed to cooperate.

MacCormick's report painted a dismal picture of a prison system that had become one of the worst in the nation. Inmates, especially those on the farms, were subject to brutal abuse, and some resorted to self-mutilation in order to be shipped back to Huntsville. The farm dormitories were nothing short of hellholes. Prisoners were allowed to smuggle in drugs and alcohol, and homosexual acts, both forced and consensual, were commonplace.

Committee Report on Investigation of Penitentiaries, 1947

Looking Forward, Looking Back

The 1949 legislature appropriated more than $4 million ($34 million in 2009 dollars) to fund the upgrades. While the Texas prison system may have entered the era of professional penology, its history of strife, reform, and resistance formed an indelible legacy. The harrowing past would inform the struggles to come, as the system coped with dramatic changes in modern Texas, explosive growth in the inmate population, the civil rights era, legal challenges, and federal mandates.

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Page last modified: August 23, 2019