The convict lease system in Texas functioned in much the same manner and for many of the same reasons as it did in the other states of the former Confederacy. In the years immediately after the Civil War a variety of factors associated with the Confederate defeat brought about substantially higher levels of lawlessness. At the same time, persistent shortages of funds in the state treasury effectively tied the hands of prison officials, who found they could not house and care for the larger number of individuals sentenced to the penitentiary. Leasing the prison and the inmates to private individuals appeared to offer the best and, in the view of many, the only solution to the problems.
The first leases in Texas came about in 1867, when two railroad companies headquartered in the state hired prison inmates to help construct their roadbeds. The parties to these early agreements, despite the enthusiasm that greeted them, did not anticipate all of the problems inherent in such a contractual arrangement. The most difficult problem resulted from the conflict between the profit motive of the contractors, who wanted to get the most labor possible from the prisoners at the least cost, and the interests of the state, which wanted at least a minimal effort to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the prisoners. Owing to the many difficulties encountered in the course of administering the early leases, state officials abrogated the contracts after only a few months, and the prison inmates were returned to the penitentiary.
Prison problems intensified through the next few years, as chronic overcrowding and lack of adequate funding fostered a general breakdown of morale among prison employees and a concurrent decline in discipline and growth of resentment among the inmates. The findings and conclusions of several legislative investigations all pointed to the seemingly unresolvable nature of the problems, given the limited resources available to the state. By late March 1871 the governor and most legislators agreed that another lease of the penitentiary had to be undertaken. Accordingly, on April 29, 1871, state officials entered an agreement with Ward, Dewey, and Company of Galveston. The men leasing the prison, A. J. Ward, E. C. Dewey, and Nathan Patton, all had reputations as successful businessmen, and Patton, the preeminent politician among the three, had particularly close ties to the administration of the Republican governor, Edmund J. Davis. The terms of the lease agreement gave the lessees full use of all prison facilities and property, including inmates, for a period of fifteen years. The prisoners could be placed at whatever labor the lessees directed, subject to minimal state regulation and control.
For their part, Ward, Dewey and Company agreed to assume financial responsibility for all costs necessary for the support and maintenance of the institution. These would include food, clothing, and medical care for the prisoners, as well as salaries for guards and prison officials. In addition, the lessees obligated themselves to make annual payments to the state for the labor of the prisoners. For the first five years of the lease, the labor payment totalled $5,000 annually. It increased to $10,000 for each of the next five years and reached $20,000 annually for each of the remaining five years.
For the first few months of the lease all parties to the agreement seemed pleased. Ward-Dewey made a number of improvements and additions to the prison, restored discipline and order among the inmates, and evinced a genuine concern, according to inspection reports, for the care and treatment of the prisoners. This mood of satisfaction was short-lived, however, and by the spring of 1873 reports of abuse and neglect of prisoners began to be heard regularly in the state capital. Repeated attempts by the governor and other state officials to force a strict compliance with the regulations for inmate care proved futile, and for the remaining years of the Ward-Dewey lease reports of mistreatment of prisoners persisted.
The year 1873 also witnessed the beginnings of financial difficulties for the prison lessees. In May, Ward-Dewey appealed to state officials for a delay in making the company's already-overdue annual payment to the state. After much debate and disagreement, state officials agreed to the delay, fearing that to do otherwise might cause the lessees to abandon their lease and return the prison to state control. The financial difficulties did not improve, however, and they, along with continuing reports of prisoner abuse and mistreatment, plus growing political differences between Ward-Dewey and the administration of the Democratic governor, Richard B. Hubbard, led eventually to the resumption of state control of the penitentiary in early 1877.
Shortly after terminating the Ward-Dewey lease, the state entered into a short-term agreement with a firm headed by John H. Burnett, a Galveston cotton merchant and long-time acquaintance of Governor Hubbard. This temporary arrangement, concluded to spare the state the financial burden of operating the prison, gave state officials time to advertise and prepare for a new long-term lease. By December 1877 all preparations had been completed and all requirements met, so the state entered into an agreement with the firm of Cunningham and Ellis.
Ed H. Cunningham and L. A. Ellis both owned substantial agricultural property in the counties to the south and west of Houston, where they raised sugarcane, along with some feed grains and cotton. During their lease, which lasted until 1883, Cunningham and Ellis sublet the prison inmates to private farmers, small industries, and railroad companies. Over the tenure of their lease Cunningham and Ellis earned handsome profits, paid several hundred thousand dollars into the state treasury, and made substantial improvements to prison facilities, including constructing the branch penitentiary at Rusk. But to a significant degree, the financial success of the Cunningham and Ellis lease served as its undoing. Influential members of the legislature, with substantial support from the public, began to question the financial desirability of continuing the lease. Editorials in Texas Siftings fed the controversy. The principal question was whether the state should resume control of her penitentiaries, hire out the prisoners directly to private individuals, and reserve for the state treasury the profits that had gone previously to Cunningham and Ellis. The sentiment for resumption grew until, in the spring of 1883, the legislature refused to renew the lease and the state prison system reverted to state control.
For the next thirty years the income from the labor of state prison inmates formed a significant portion of total state revenues. The prisoners worked at many of the same jobs as under the lessees and, increasingly, through the latter decades of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on large state-owned farms located through the eastern and southeastern parts of the state. The decision to purchase farmland on which to place the prisoners arose primarily from the belief that farm work was the ideal type of labor for the generally unskilled inmates. In addition, state-owned and operated farms represented a wise investment of the state's money and would better enable state prison employees to care properly for the inmates. In spite of the handsome and dependable earnings that came from prison labor, however, by the first decade of the twentieth century a spirit of reform had emerged in the state against convict leasing.
The beginning of the end for convict lease in Texas came in the fall of 1908, when a young reporter for the San Antonio Express began a series of investigative articles on the inner workings of the Texas prison system. Revelations of long-term abuse and neglect of inmates, along with allegations of mismanagement, corruption, and indifference on the part of elected leaders to the hellish prison living conditions, led to a public demand for change. Newspapers in all parts of the state, expressing the sentiments of Progressive era civic and religious groups in the towns and cities, featured editorials calling for legislative action to bring all prisoners back under the exclusive control of the state and implement new prison policies to provide better care for the inmates.
The public pressure for change reached the point that Governor Thomas M. Campbell, nearing the end of his second term of office, called a special session of the legislature to meet in the summer of 1910. Out of this session came laws providing for a major revamping of the prison system. A modified administrative structure, enabling closer accountability, was established, new work programs and policies were implemented, and the private employers of prison inmates were told that no labor contracts would be extended beyond the expiration dates already in force. By January 1, 1914, all prisoners were to be back under the exclusive control of the state, working within the walls of the prison, on state-owned farms, or on private property that the state had acquired under long-term rental agreements. The state actually succeeded in terminating all of its leases by the end of 1912. See also PRISON SYSTEM.