Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System&rsquot;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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The Civil War and the Collapse of Civil Authority 1861-1871

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An Institution Adrift

The aftermath of the war sent every aspect of Texas society reeling, and the prison system was no exception. The inmate population ballooned as African-American convicts arrived for the first time.

At the same time, the market for the clothing mill collapsed. The Legislature authorized a “Board of Public Labor,” consisting of the governor, secretary of state, comptroller, state treasurer, and attorney general, to contract out the labor of inmates to companies rebuilding Texas’s wrecked railroads, grading roadbeds, and operating mines and iron foundries. But with the state in chaos, the contracts proved a fiasco. The state was unable to properly supervise the projects, and large numbers of convicts escaped or were killed or wounded in the attempt.

In 1868, Texas held a Constitutional Convention. The main purpose of the convention was to draw up a new constitution for the state as part of Reconstruction, but the delegates also held investigations into urgent public policy issues. One such investigation found that the Texas State Prison was bursting with 400 convicts, nearly twice as many as it was designed to handle. Killers were rubbing elbows with men convicted of such dubious offenses as stealing an orange or shooting a dog. Over 90 percent of these men were idle, sanitation was dismal, and the prison lacked a functioning hospital, chapel, or dining hall.

Moreover, no one was keeping books, so there was no way to determine how money was being spent or how food, clothing, and other supplies had been dispersed. Almost $80,000 in goods ($1.2 million in 2009 dollars) had gone missing.

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Thaddeus C. Bell to Morgan C. Hamilton, June 1867In this 1867 letter to the state comptroller, prison superintendent Thaddeus Bell reports a shortage of staples such as shoe leather and tobacco.




Charles Kirsch to General Butler, April 1869House painter Charles Kirsch tells of his arrest in Victoria for taking a buggy part from a client who had refused to pay him. The prosecutor told the jury "he is a yankie and you know what to do with him."




Learn MoreFor the first 15 years of its existence, only white and Hispanic inmates were incarcerated at the Texas State Prison. Learn more about the first African-American convicts.

Page last modified: February 9, 2016