George John Beto, criminal-justice expert, teacher, and Lutheran minister, was born in Hysham, Montana, on January 19, 1916, the son of Margaret (Witsma) and Louis Beto, a circuit riding Lutheran minister. When he was a year old he moved with his parents to New Rockford, North Dakota. Two years later the family moved to Lena, Illinois, where Beto lived until 1930, when he enrolled in Concordia College, a Lutheran boys' boarding school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After completing a six-year college-preparatory curriculum in five years, Beto studied for the ministry at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1935 to 1937. He transferred to Valparaiso University in Indiana during 1937 and received his bachelor of arts degree there in 1938. Beto returned to the seminary in 1938 and completed his theological studies in 1939; the school awarded him a doctor of divinity degree in 1989. From 1939 until 1949 he taught history at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas. From January 1949 to June 1959 he served as the college's president. Beto was ordained a minister of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) at St. Paul's Church in Austin in 1944 and served for a time as the congregation's assistant pastor. Also in 1944 he earned a master of arts degree in medieval history from the University of Texas. In 1955 he completed a Ph.D. in educational administration at UT.
Beto began a lengthy involvement with criminal justice when in 1953 Governor Allan Shivers appointed him to the Texas Prison Board (renamed Texas Board of Corrections in 1957). Until July 1959 Beto served on the administrative agency of the Texas prison system, performing the duties of board secretary for three of those years. He played a crucial role in the establishment of perhaps the first General Education Development testing program for prisoners in the nation in 1956 and the following year received a medal from the Texas Heritage Foundation in recognition of his contributions to that project. Beto resigned from the Board of Corrections and Concordia College to become president of Concordia Theological Seminary at Springfield, Illinois, on July 1, 1959. He remained in that position until 1962. During these years he visited and surveyed prisons in Germany, France, England, Denmark, and Holland. He also served as chairman of the Committee to Evaluate the Illinois Youth Commission and was a member of the Illinois Parole and Pardon Board.
After the death of Oscar Byron Ellis in November 1961, Beto became director and chief of chaplains for the Texas Department of Corrections, on March 1, 1962; he held those positions through August 31, 1972. Prisoners often called him "Walking George" because he unexpectedly visited inmates and employees at the various prison properties. Beto, who observed that "the poor, the stupid, and the inept" composed the majority of the prison population, also believed in the possibility of rehabilitation. Although many inmates admired him for his willingness to communicate with them, they also regarded him as a stern disciplinarian, a "preacher" with "a baseball bat in one hand and a Bible in the other."
Like Ellis, Beto mastered the use of favorable publicity and media support for his administration. Cooperating with board chairman H. H. Coffield to promote a positive image, he secured legislative approval and appropriations for the prison system and successfully shielded his department from the scrutiny of potential critics. He persuaded the legislature and Governor John Connally to enact a state's-use law in 1963, which required state government agencies to purchase manufactured goods from the state's prisons. That law resulted in a tremendous expansion of industrial activity and employment and training for prisoners; the sale of prison-manufactured goods increased from less than $600,000 in 1964 to more than $6 million annually by 1972. As the prisoner population increased from 12,000 to 16,000 during these years, Beto supervised the opening of two new prison units at Huntsville and won legislative approval and funding for a large facility in Anderson County. Although fewer prisoners worked in agriculture than in earlier years, the farm program, under Byron W. Frierson, assistant director for agriculture, continued to produce income from cash sales as well as allow prisoners to raise most of the food consumed by the institution.
Through Beto's urging, the Board of Corrections in 1963 converted the Harlem Farm (see JESTER STATE PRISON FARM) into a prerelease facility to provide an eight-week program of counseling and education for state prisoners prior to their release. In 1969 the department began a special work-release program that allowed selected prisoners, with less than a year remaining before discharge, to work as paid employees for private employers and return to prison after completing their shifts. Also during 1969, at Beto's instigation, the Texas legislature authorized a nongeographical public school district for inmates housed at all prison units. Financed by the state Foundation School Program Fund, the Windham school district was possibly the first educational system of its kind established at any state prison in the nation. Beto also expanded college-education programs at prison facilities and cooperated with Sam Houston State University to develop a criminology program for research and the training of prison employees and others interested in pursuing criminal justice careers. In 1965, probably for the first time in the history of the Texas prison system, Beto hired African-American employees. During his years as director he received national and international recognition for his abilities; his peers in the American Correctional Association elected him president for 1969–70. From 1966 to 1969 he served on the National Advisory Council on Correctional Manpower and Training; in 1970 he was a delegate to the Fourth United Nations Conference on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of the Offender in Kyoto, Japan.
Despite the prestige enjoyed by Beto among penologists and political leaders, he also attracted a number of critics. Considered by some reformers as "enlightened" but "reactionary," he received much criticism for his use of authoritarian disciplinary policies and methods of control that allowed certain prisoners to supervise and discipline other inmates. Many prisoners complained that Beto and his staff harassed and threatened those who attempted to file civil-rights suits against prison officials. A federal court ruled in favor of prisoners and their attorney, Frances Jalet Cruz, who charged that Beto had denied them access to legal services. The court found Beto liable for "unlawful intimidation," and "unlawful punishments" and awarded monetary damages valued at $10,000 to twelve prisoners and Jalet. On June 29, 1972, near the end of Beto's tenure as director, prisoner David Ruiz filed a handwritten petition against conditions of confinement in Texas prisons that began the most enduring prisoners'-rights suit in the nation's history.
Beto's reputation among most criminal justice experts remained intact, however, for the remainder of his life. After he retired as director of the Texas Department of Corrections, he served as a professor of criminology and corrections at Sam Houston State University from 1972 until 1991. Beto was a member of the Texas Constitutional Revision Commission, 1973–74, and a member of the Texas Youth Commission board, 1975–78. Federal District Judge Frank Johnson in 1976 selected him to monitor conditions in Alabama prisons during class-action litigation by prisoners in that state. Beto served with the American Bar Association Commission on Correctional Facilities and Services, 1971–78, and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standard and Goals, 1972–73. He represented the United States at United Nations Conferences on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of the Offender at Geneva, Switzerland, in 1975 and Milan, Italy, in 1985 and evaluated correctional facilities in Poland, Egypt, and Qatar in 1976. As a consultant, he also surveyed United States military correctional sites in West Germany in 1974 and at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1984.
Beto received a Distinguished Alumnus award from the University of Texas in 1971; the state of Texas opened two prison units in Anderson County in 1980 and 1981 and named them for him. He and his wife, the former Marilyn Knippa, whom he married on March 5, 1943, were the parents of four children. Following his retirement from Sam Houston State University in 1991, Beto moved to Austin, where he served as chief of chaplains for the Texas Youth Commission from September until he died of an apparent heart attack on December 4 of that year. He was buried in the State Cemetery in Austin. See also PRISON SYSTEM.