Oscar Byron Ellis, prison administrator, was born in Oneonta, Alabama, on August 27, 1902, the son of school superintendent John Wesley Ellis. He lived at Cleveland, Alabama, during his youth and graduated from Birmingham Southern College with a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1924, the year he married Gertrude Tidwell. After graduating, Ellis worked as manager of a Florsheim shoe store in Memphis, Tennessee, for a brief period and later taught science and coached football at a high school there. By 1928 he was business manager of the Memphis schools. He was elected a commissioner of Shelby County, Tennessee, in 1937 and served as commission secretary and commissioner of the Shelby County Penal Farm and of county roads and bridges. He attracted national attention for his supervision of prisoners and his efficient management of the demonstration farm, designed to promote better agricultural practices for farmers in the region.
Ellis served in Texas as general manager of the prison system from January 1, 1948, until November 12, 1961. The Texas legislature enacted a law in 1957 that changed his title to director and the name of the state penal institution to Texas Department of Corrections. The Texas Prison Board recruited Ellis to reform an agency plagued by mismanagement, brutal disciplinary practices, harsh working conditions, poor living standards, and large numbers of escapes during World War II and afterward. From 1949 through 1961 Ellis, in cooperation with governors Beauford H. Jester, Allan Shivers, and Price Daniel, Sr., persuaded the legislature to appropriate $19 million for capital improvements. Using those funds, as well as revenues derived from the sale of prison agricultural and industrial products, the "Ellis Plan" resulted in new building projects at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville and on the more than 73,000 acres of prison lands. During Ellis's administration the state constructed cell blocks to replace many of the prisoners' dormitories or "tanks" and built fences, picket towers, workshops, and other facilities at the eleven units of the prison system. Ellis reduced prison food and clothing purchases through reorganized agricultural and industrial methods that enabled prisoners to produce most of the food they consumed and most of the clothing they wore. Under the direction of Byron W. Frierson, assistant general manager for agriculture, the Ellis administration consolidated the various prison farms into a single unit, adopted modern drainage techniques for low-lying properties, placed thousands of acres in soil-conservation districts, improved the prison beef and dairy herds, and mechanized farming operations by replacing mules with tractors. With a labor force that increased from slightly fewer than 6,000 to nearly 12,000 prisoners between 1948 and 1961, Ellis held operating expenses well below the national average, as inmates performed agricultural, construction, and some industrial work.
He expanded educational, recreational, and religious programs and revamped prisoner-classification procedures in order to segregate individuals according to such factors as age, offense, and rehabilitation potential. His administration saw a sharp decline in escapes. Ellis virtually ended the practice of self-mutilation among inmates by refusing to transfer prisoners from the farms to hospitals when they intentionally injured themselves to avoid labor. He raised living standards through his building program and placed televisions in dormitories as a means of enhancing morale. He fired many brutal and corrupt prison employees and persuaded the legislature to raise guards' salaries. He also worked with members of the press to win support for his administration and avoid unfavorable publicity. His monthly automobile travel to prison facilities often totaled as much as 4,600 miles; "you can't run the prison system from a desk," he observed. Austin MacCormick, perhaps the most renowned penal expert in the United States, praised Ellis and commended him for elevating Texas prisons from among the nation's worst to among the best. The American Correctional Association elected Ellis president for the 1958–59 term; he was the first person from a state south of Virginia to occupy that position.
Though Ellis voiced his opposition to abusive treatment of prisoners by his employees, some criminal-justice scholars have characterized the supervisory methods of his administration as "repressive," "paternalistic," and "idiosyncratic." Those methods involved psychological and physical force exercised at the discretion of individual guards. Though Ellis criticized the use of inmates for the supervision of other prisoners, he allowed the practice to expand during his regime. Subsequent prison administrations continued the disciplinary tactics systematized during the Ellis years. In 1980, in the case of Ruiz v. Estelle, federal judge William Wayne Justice ordered the end of the inmate guard practice and issued other rulings intended to replace traditional control methods with more modern bureaucratic and legalistic procedures.
Ellis suffered critical injuries in an automobile crash in January 1957 but survived and returned to work six weeks later. Some observers believe, however, that he never completely regained his health. Ellis was a Methodist; he and his wife had one child, a son. Ellis died of a heart attack on November 12, 1961, in Houston, at a dinner on the eve of a scheduled prison-board meeting. He was buried in Huntsville. The state of Texas honored him by naming a new prison facility for him. The Ellis Unit, located north of Huntsville, opened in 1963.