Reform & Reaction (1927-1948)
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The MacCormick Report
The investigation of 1947 revealed conditions that shocked the public. Governor Jester would write of his own "sense of humiliation" at the revelations.
The end of the war saw a boom in the prison population. In 1947, the Texas Council of Methodist Women adopted the cause of prison reform. The timing seemed right. Texas was at the beginning of a post-war boom that was greatly increasing state tax revenues, while at the same time a wave of young veterans had been elected to public office. From Governor Beauford Jester down through the ranks of the legislature, politicians were more reform-minded than ever before. To present their case, the women commissioned famed criminologist Austin MacCormick to conduct an investigation into conditions at state prisons. The state agreed to cooperate.
MacCormick's report painted a dismal picture of a prison system that had become one of the worst in the nation. Inmates, especially those on the farms, were subject to brutal abuse, and some resorted to self-mutilation in order to be shipped back to Huntsville. The farm dormitories were nothing short of hellholes. Prisoners were allowed to smuggle in drugs and alcohol, and homosexual acts, both forced and consensual, were commonplace.
Wick Fowler of the Dallas Morning News commented that the report was only a starting point: “Investigations may come and investigations may go, but the Texas Prison System will be bad until the legislature gives it more money.” Prospects were shaky until a scandal lent emphasis to the report’s findings. A wealthy man serving time for murder was found to be living largely unsupervised in a private room on a prison farm, where he was allowed to roam freely with his wife and friends. The contrast with ordinary inmates, living in squalor, subject to terror from guards and attacks from fellow convicts, and denied clean underwear and wholesome food, was too great to ignore.
The Texas Prison Board devised a plan to implement many of MacCormick’s recommendations, including higher salaries for staff, better dormitories, revived vocational and rehabilitation programs, and a parole system that emphasized helping inmates find jobs. Young inmates and first-time offenders would be housed separately from hardened criminals. The board also fired general manager D.W. Stakes and replaced him with O.B. Ellis, who had made his name with efficient and ethical management of prison farms in Tennessee.
Looking Forward, Looking Back
The 1949 legislature appropriated more than $4 million ($34 million in 2009 dollars) to fund the upgrades. While the Texas prison system may have entered the era of professional penology, its history of strife, reform, and resistance formed an indelible legacy. The harrowing past would inform the struggles to come, as the system coped with dramatic changes in modern Texas, explosive growth in the inmate population, the civil rights era, legal challenges, and federal mandates.
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