Reform & Reaction (1927-1948)
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If I’m not tougher than you boys, then the State of Texas has got the wrong man for the job. – Lee Simmons, general manager of the Texas Prison System
Texas Prison Board and officials during a visit to Huntsville, sometime in the 1930s. Topical photographs, photographs, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Governor Dan Moody appointed CPPL member Robert Baker Holmes as chairman of the Texas Prison Board, along with fellow activist Elizabeth Speer as the board’s secretary. In another era, Speer might have been the board’s chair: Baker called her “the only person in Texas that I know of who had a thorough training in criminology and penology.” CPPL members would make up a strong percentage of the board through the 1930s.
Not Fit for A Dog
Governor Moody charged the board with implementing humane treatment and rehabilitation and with stopping the prison system’s financial drain on the state. The board soon hired W.H. Meade, a successful civil engineer, as the first general manager. Long-standing prison employees resented the interference, especially after Meade fired guards suspected of brutality. As farm manager B.B. Monzingo put it, “I was afraid to work with the convicts for fear I would get a bawling out, or fired, from Mrs. Speer or Mr. Baker.”
In 1929, overcrowding led to a breakdown in discipline. Prisoners staged hunger strikes and threatened to riot. In June, 44 men escaped from the Clemens farm simply by walking off the job. In September, 18 men tunneled out of Wynne farm, the facility that housed inmates with tuberculosis and other disabilities. All in all, 302 men escaped—a full 6 percent of the prison population. A disgusted Governor Moody said, “If I had a dog that I thought anything of, I wouldn’t want him kept in the Texas penitentiary under present conditions.” Meade resigned in November, unable to cope with the enormous task before him.
Governor Moody and other prison reformers were convinced that the only way to effect true change was to close the prison at Huntsville and start over at a new location near Austin. Learn more about the centralization controversy.
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