J.W. Reed Cedar Company to the State Penitentiary Board, June 15, 1907
The idea of privatization as a means of funding a prison system is not new. In the years following the Civil War, Texas, like the other former Confederate states, confronted widespread lawlessness coupled with an empty treasury. The prisons were overcrowded, conditions for the inmates were poor, and morale among the guards was low. In 1871, the state leased the state penitenitary at Huntsville to a private company. The management company would pay the state an annual fee for the unrestricted use of prison labor, and was also expected to maintain the prison, care for the prisoners, and pay the salaries of the staff.
The first company to have the lease was unsuccessful, but the second one made great profits by subletting the convict labor to private companies, small industries, and railroads. In fact, the lease was so successful that taxpayers and the legislature began to question why the state should not run the prison itself and keep all of the profits from the convict lease system. In 1883, the state took back control of the prisons and began to do just that. For the next 30 years, income from the labor of prison inmates formed a significant portion of the state's total revenue.
This letter to the State Penitentiary Board is one of hundreds from businesses wanting to lease convicts. The beginning of the end for the convict lease system came in the fall of 1908, when the San Antonio Express ran a series of articles about inmate abuse, hellish conditions, and official corruption in the convict lease system. In the summer of 1910, Governor Campbell called a special session of the legislature to revamp the prison system. By the end of 1913, all inmates were back under the exclusive control of the state.
J.W. Reed Cedar Company to the State Penitentiary Board, June 15, 1907, Records of Thomas Mitchell Campbell, Texas Office of the Governor, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.