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

Lee Simmons (1873-1957)

Lee Simmons

Lee Simmons. Photographs, Texas Prison Rodeo Records, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

Lee Simmons was the first prison administrator since Thomas J. Goree to put convict welfare ahead of political considerations. A native of Linden, Simmons grew up on a farm in Sherman. His plans for a legal career were derailed at the age of 21, when he was arrested and charged with murder after he shot a man in an argument over family honor. Simmons was acquitted by reason of self-defense but never forgot what it was like to be on the other side of the law.

Settling down to a career as a stockman, Simmons was elected sheriff of Grayson County in 1912. In an adventurous four-year term, he tamed a bootleggers’ war in Denison, shut down gambling halls, illegal bars, and brothels, and survived an assassination attempt that left him with three gunshot wounds. In 1923, Governor Pat Neff appointed Simmons to a committee that studied conditions in Texas state prisons and issued a highly critical report. Impressed by Simmons’s ideas for fostering reason and self-discipline in the inmate population, Governor Dan Moody appointed him to the Prison Board in 1927, and he was persuaded to take the job of general manager in 1930.

Many of Simmons's measures had immediate visible results. He built modern dormitories, bridges, levees, and drainage ditches at state farms and oversaw the renovation of Huntsville, including the installation of modern plumbing and heat, a new power plant, a sprinkler system and fire escapes, an upgraded hospital and laundry, and a locker room, showers, and break room for the guards. Simmons also introduced the “live at home policy,” a drastic modernization of the farm system. Within three years, he had increased the production of cotton while slashing the acreage in cultivation by 30 percent, and made the prison system self-sufficient in terms of vegetables and livestock. Inmates were also put to work in manufacturing license plates, producing shoes and garments for other state institutions, and operating a sugar mill, cannery, and printing press.

Simmons implemented recreational programs to boost morale and garner favorable publicity. The “Prison Tigers,” a semi-pro baseball team, attracted a good crowd from the local community when they took on visiting teams. “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a music and variety radio broadcast with inmates as performers became popular nationwide. Most sensational of all was the Texas Prison Rodeo. From a humble start in 1931, the event had mushroomed by 1937 to attract a crowd of more than 30,000 fans to listen to famous musical acts and see convicts roping and riding. From the 1940s to the 1960s the show attracted well over 100,000 fans. (Declining popularity and the dilapidated condition of the stadium led to the rodeo’s 1986 demise.)

Despite his successes and high profile, Simmons also had his critics. He never wavered from his support of the bat and other harsh physical punishments, and he was greatly embarrassed by the escapes engineered by the Clyde Barrow gang and the subsequent bloody crime spree. (It is worth noting that Simmons threatened the bat more but used it far less than his predecessors. There were 326 incidents of corporal punishments in 1929, the year before Simmons took over; by 1935 there were only 80 incidents.) Other critics pointed out that Simmons had made progress at Huntsville but almost no progress in rooting out brutality and inefficiency at the prison farms. Simmons resigned in 1935 and returned to private business. He later authored Assignment Huntsville, a book on his experiences. He died in 1957.

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Page last modified: October 9, 2019