Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System's First Hundred Years 1848-1948
Introduction
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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Scandal and Reform(1909-1911)

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Yet, given a system of irresponsible appointments, where special qualifications count for little and political pull is the all-important consideration ... what could we expect? – Editorial, Dallas Morning News, 1909

Men hauling sugar cane

The system of convict leasing had begun in 1883, when Texas had resumed direct control of its prison system. By the early 20th century, much had changed. The days of the frontier and the Wild West were over. Now Texas had major cities, new towns, railroads, telegraphs lines, and modern commercial enterprises. The transformation of the economy had created a new class of urban professional men and the first generation of highly educated women. These men and women formed the vanguard of the progressive movement in Texas, pushing for reforms such as temperance, good roads, women’s suffrage, and corporate regulation. By 1906, there were enough progressives in Texas to elect one of their own as governor. Thomas Campbell came into office promising an ambitious agenda of railroad regulation, antitrust laws, lobbying restrictions, equitable taxation, pure food and drug laws, and modernization of state government.

Notably absent from the list was prison reform. A major legislative investigation in 1902 had uncovered an abnormally high number of both escapes and deaths at the work farms. In fact, a convict assigned to a contract work farm could expect to live a mere seven years due to the grueling labor, unsanitary conditions, and the likelihood of being shot by guards. The committee recommended that convict leasing be abolished, but the findings were dismissed by the governor, legislature, and the public as impractical. Prisoners should work hard and serve as a source of revenue, not an expense to law-abiding taxpayers. While a few progressive and labor groups, women’s clubs, and African-American politicians in the Republican party continued to speak up, no one expected prison reform to wind up on the legislative docket any time soon.

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Page last modified: August 22, 2011