Scandal and Reform(1909-1911)
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The Investigation of 1909
In an emergency meeting of the Penitentiary Board in late 1909, the board issued strict new rules on the use of corporal punishment.
Governor Campbell, busy with his own agenda, initially tried to dismiss Briggs as “the yaller journalist.” He suggested that Briggs had failed to report on the many instances of kindly treatment bestowed upon the inmates. The legislature was quicker to react to the public outcry engendered by the newspaper series, forming a special committee to mount a sweeping in-depth investigation of the charges.
The investigation, which lasted most of 1909, blew up into one of the greatest scandals ever to rock Texas politics. As it turned out, the stories uncovered by Briggs were only the tip of a large and very ugly iceberg of prisoner suffering, official abuse of power, and a management system so haphazard and antiquated that no auditor could make sense of the books or ascertain the true financial condition of the prison system.
The committee discovered that conditions at the sugar farms, cotton camps, and coal mining and timber operations were degrading and unsanitary. At many camps, men were permitted to bathe only once a week. There was no laundry, and men were forced to wear the same socks and underwear and sleep on the same bed linen for weeks at a time. The legislators found men wearing filthy rags, men covered with bruises and wounds, men tormented by bedbugs and lice.
The investigation revealed that the prison inspectors, who were paid $2,000 a year plus traveling expenses (over $45,000 in 2009 dollars), were seldom seen around the work camps. By law, inspectors were supposed to be notified and sign off on whippings and other corporal punishments. Instead, they simply signed a stack of blank punishment slips for the camp officers, to be filled out at leisure and mailed to the inspector as desired.
In a special session in the summer of 1910, the legislators enacted sweeping reforms. Convict leasing was abolished for good—from now on, all prisoners would work within the walls of Huntsville or Rusk or on farms owned by the state. The operation of the system would be distanced from politics with the creation of a full-time board of commissioners that served overlapping terms and was subject to Senate confirmation. The board would manage all day-to-day operations at the prison, including financial matters, care and treatment of inmates, and supervision of all employees.
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