Prison System

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 24, 2020

Before a central state penitentiary was established in Texas, local jails housed convicted felons. The Congress of the Republic of Texas defeated bills for a penal institution in both 1840 and 1842; in May 1846 the First Legislature of the new state passed a penitentiary act, but the Mexican War prevented implementation of the law. On March 13, 1848, the legislature passed the act that began the Texas penitentiary. The law authorized gubernatorial appointment of three commissioners to locate a site and choose a superintendent and three directors to manage the institution. After the commissioners selected Huntsville, in Walker County, for the site, construction began on August 5, 1848, and continued for several years. Abner H. Cook supervised the construction and was the first superintendent of the prison. On October 1, 1849, the first prisoner, a convicted horse thief from Fayette County, entered the partially completed Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. The facility held only three prisoners in 1849, but by 1855 it housed seventy-five convicts, and by 1860, 182. In 1852 the state established the office of financial agent, a position first held by John S. Besser. Texas initially supervised its prisoners under the Auburn System, developed by penologists at the state penitentiary in Auburn, New York. In Auburn penology, prisoners housed behind enclosed walls engaged in day labor and retired in silence to their cells during the evening hours. By 1856 the state had built a cotton and wool mill at Huntsville in order to make the penitentiary self-sustaining. The mill, which could process 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 pounds of wool annually, provided money to the state. During the Civil War the penitentiary sold more than two million yards of cotton and nearly 300,000 yards of wool to both civilians and the government of the Confederate States of America. Wartime production made a profit of $800,000. The end of the war and reduced demand for cotton and wool products, however, resulted in financial difficulties as the prison population began to grow.

The number of convicts increased from 146 to 264 between the end of the Civil War and the fall of 1866. On November 12, 1866, the legislature enacted a measure that established a five-member Board of Public Labor to administer the penitentiary. The governor, secretary of state, comptroller, attorney general, and state treasurer composed this body. In February 1867 the board leased 100 prisoners to the Airliner Railroad and 150 to the Brazos Branch Railroad. For most of the next forty-five years the state contracted large numbers of Texas prisoners to private employers. From April 1871 to April 1877 the Ward Dewey Company of Galveston leased the entire penitentiary from the state. For six months of 1877 another Galveston firm, Burnett and Kilpatrick, leased the prison. E. H. Cunningham of Guadalupe County and L. A. Ellis of Marion County leased the Huntsville Penitentiary from January 1878 through March 1883, and Morrow, Hamby, and Company leased the new Rusk Penitentiary in Cherokee County from January through March 1883. During the remainder of the leasing era the state contracted many prisoners to railroads, mining companies, and plantations; other convicts remained at the Huntsville and Rusk penitentiaries. Important penitentiary superintendents in this period included James Gillaspie, Thomas Jewett Goree, Jonas S. Rice, Searcy Baker, and J. A. Herring.

During the era of the convict lease system the prison underwent a number of managerial changes. In 1879 the legislature formalized existing practices by requiring the governor to name three directors, with state Senate approval, to serve two-year terms. Also, pursuant to the 1879 law, a superintendent, appointed by the governor with Senate approval, was to serve as chief executive, assisted by an officer responsible for inspecting prisoner labor camps operated by private employers. The legislature amended this law in 1883 by allowing the governor to appoint two officials, subject to Senate confirmation, who with the governor would constitute a Board of Prison Commissioners. The Rusk Penitentiary, constructed to develop iron-ore deposits in East Texas, began receiving prisoners in 1883. The legislature had also authorized a third penitentiary west of the Colorado River for the production of wool, cotton, and leather, but the state never built the facility. Between 1885 and 1887 about 500 prisoners quarried granite and limestone for construction of the new Capitol in Austin; prisoners at the Rusk Penitentiary manufactured the building's interior cast-iron features. Convicts also constructed the Texas State Railroad from Rusk to Palestine between 1893 and 1909. The prison system operated the Rusk Penitentiary until 1917 and owned the railroad until 1921. The prison population increased from 489 in 1870 to 1,738 by 1878. It reached 3,199 by 1890 and 4,109 by 1900. The number declined slightly during the remaining years of the convict lease, reaching 3,471 at the end of 1912. During the years 1870–1912, 59 to 60 percent of Texas state prisoners were Black, 30 to 40 percent were White, and 10 percent were Hispanic. Female prisoners usually constituted less than 2 percent of the total.

After lengthy discussion and debate, the legislature abolished the convict lease system at a special session in 1910. A new law imposed a number of reforms and established a three-member Board of Prison Commissioners to administer the prison system. Each commissioner was to be appointed by the governor, subject to Senate confirmation. One commissioner would serve as the prison system's financial agent, another would manage the employees, and the third would direct the convicts. Although the 1910 law permitted existing contracts to run until January 1914, Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt canceled the leases before the end of 1912. Notable prison commissioners under this managerial system were Ben E. Cabell, Louis W. Tittle, Robert W. Brahan, W. O. Murray, S. J. Bass, W. O. Stamps, J. A. Herring, S. J. Dean, H. C. McKnight, W. R. Dulaney, S. G. Granberry, and H. W. Sayle.

During the convict lease period the state entered into some share-cropping arrangements in which prisoners worked the lands of private farm owners. The state also began to purchase large plantations for commercial agricultural production. In 1883, to house disabled or ill prisoners, the prison system bought the 1,900-acre Wynne Farm near Huntsville. Two years later, the system acquired the 2,500-acre Harlem Farm (later Jester State Prison Farm) on Oyster Creek in Fort Bend County; subsequently the state expanded the size of Harlem by purchasing adjoining lands. Texas bought the 5,527-acre Clemens Farm in Brazoria County during 1899 and subsequently added an adjoining plantation that increased the size of Clemens to 8,212 acres. During 1908 the state bought Imperial Farm, a 5,235-acre tract, from the Imperial Sugar Company in Fort Bend County; in the same year the prison system acquired the 7,762 acre Ramsey Farm. By 1911 officials had placed women prisoners on the 1,000-acre Goree Farm, near Huntsville. After the conclusion of the convict lease system, the state continued to expand prison farmlands, but, except for 1916 through 1918, 1924, and 1927, failed to profit from them. By 1921 state prison farms encompassed more than 81,000 acres. Much of the land was used for cultivation of sugarcane, cotton, corn, feed crops, and vegetables. New farms included the 6,747-acre Darrington Farm and the 7,428-acre Retrieve Plantation in Brazoria County. The state had also purchased Blue Ridge Farm (5,416 acres) in Fort Bend County, Eastham Farm (13,040 acres) in Houston County, and Shaw Farm (4,688 acres) on the Red River in Bowie County.

The prison system remained a notable public issue despite the end of convict leasing. Repeated financial losses and routine legislative investigations of alleged mismanagement, corruption, and poor treatment of prisoners characterized the system. During the 1920s an organization known as the Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor received authorization from the legislature to conduct an extensive survey of the prison system. As a result of the CPPL study and a series of prison scandals during Governor Miriam A. Ferguson's administration, voters adopted a state constitutional amendment in 1926 that permitted the legislature to abolish the Board of Prison Commissioners and replace it with a nine-member Texas Prison Board. The new law, which the legislature adopted in 1927, also permitted the board to set policy for the prison and to hire a general manager to direct the system. This administrative structure remained virtually intact until September 1990. Robert Homes Baker served as first chairman of the new board, and W. H. Mead was the first general manager (June 1927-November 1929). Although the prison farms earned a profit in 1924 and 1927, they showed financial losses thereafter. During much of the 1920s the state debated proposals to dispose of most prison properties and to centralize operations in a single penal facility either in Brazoria County or in Central Texas near Austin. Governor Dan Moody and the CPPL urged the Austin plan, believing that the state should expand industrial training for prisoners and reduce commercial agricultural operations. The legislature refused to approve the relocation, however, but appropriated $575,000 in 1930 to upgrade existing prison properties. By 1931 the state had sold the Shaw Farm and changed the name Imperial Farm to Central Farm, but continued to employ most of a population of 5,000 convicts at the Huntsville Penitentiary and at eleven prison farms covering more than 73,000 acres. Although commercial agriculture and the iron works at Rusk typically had occupied most Texas prisoners, the Huntsville and Rusk penitentiaries also operated modest industrial plants. Convicts at those two facilities manufactured bricks, ice, wagons, railcars, lumber, brooms, paint, mattresses, iron ore, boxes, furniture, shoes, clothing, and sheet metal before the end of the convict lease system in 1912. Although the iron industries had closed, the prison system added a printing shop, license-plate factory, and a number of food-processing plants by the 1930s to manufacture goods for the prison and other state agencies.

Although the prison system continued to incur annual financial losses during the 1930s, Texas governors largely avoided prison issues and granted generous acts of clemency through the Board of Pardons and Paroles. General manager Marshall Lee Simmons, who served from April 1930 to November 1935, proved especially adept at public relations and helped promote a favorable image for the prison system by inaugurating the Texas Prison Rodeo, which was performed from 1931 to 1986 at the Huntsville Penitentiary. Board member Dave Nelson succeeded Simmons in November 1935 but died after only two weeks on the job and was replaced by O. J. S. Ellingson, who served until October 1941. "Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls," a series of weekly radio broadcasts over station WBAP in Fort Worth, began in 1938, featured an all-prisoner cast, and ran for more than five years; it also brought favorable publicity to the prison system. Nevertheless, reports of unsanitary living conditions, atrocities perpetrated by employees, and mysterious deaths of convicts, as well as the system's repeated financial failures, persisted during the decade and ultimately persuaded the Texas Prison Board to dismiss Ellingson, who lacked Simmons's public-relations talent.The prison population increased to almost 7,000 prisoners by 1939. During most of the 1930s, about 50 percent of the prisoners were White, 40 percent were African Americans, and 10 percent were Mexican Americans. The female prisoners usually numbered around 100, nearly two-thirds of whom were Black.

The number of prisoners in Texas declined during World War II. From 6,070 in 1940, the total fell to 3,270 in 1945. However, after the war the inmate population rose to 5,675 in 1947 and 6,424 in 1950. Douglas W. Stakes, who replaced Ellingson in November 1941, resigned under pressure in November 1947 after an investigation by national penal reformer Austin MacCormick. The board replaced Stakes in January 1948 with Oscar Byron Ellis, who persuaded the legislature to appropriate funds to modernize prison facilities and alleviate overcrowding. Ellis expanded mechanization on prison farms and increased the number of prison industries. The state built cell-block units to replace dormitories ("tanks") on many of the farms and increased expenditures for fences, picket towers, flood lights, and other equipment. However, the prison system retained its austere character, and most prisoners continued to be employed in agriculture. Although the farms still did not become completely self-supporting, Ellis's management successfully lowered operating costs. In 1957 the legislature renamed the state prison agency the Texas Department of Corrections. The Texas Prison Board became the Texas Board of Corrections, and the general manager became the director. In all other respects the administrative structure did not vary from that specified in the 1927 law. By the end of 1953 the inmate population had increased to 7,781, of which White prisoners composed more than 50 percent, Blacks 30 percent, and Hispanics nearly 15 percent; only ninety-one of the prisoners were women. The system's landholdings exceeded 74,000 acres in 1958. After Ellis died in November 1961, George John Beto, a former board member, became the prison system's new director, effective March 1, 1962. Beto largely continued the policies implemented by Ellis but expanded prison industrial operations. Aided by the legislature's enactment of a law in 1963 that required prison industries to sell products to other state institutions, TDC developed a dental laboratory, garment factories, a bus-repair shop, a tire-recapping facility, a coffee-roasting plant, a wood shop, and a record-conversion operation. The prison population increased from 11,890 at the beginning of 1962 to 15,709 by the end of 1972. Approximately 44 percent of the inmate population at that time consisted of African Americans, 39 percent Anglo-Americans, and 17 percent Mexican Americans. Females made up less than 4 percent.

During the 1960s TDC designated the Huntsville Penitentiary and prison farms as "units" and opened several new facilities. The state no longer owned the Blue Ridge Farm, and the Ferguson Farm for a number of years acted as a special unit for offenders between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one. The system inaugurated a separate Diagnostic Unit at Huntsville in 1964 to evaluate and classify new prisoners, and in 1963 TDC opened the 11,672-acre Ellis Unit north of Huntsville; the 22,640-acre Coffield Unit, near Tennessee Colony in Anderson County, began operations in 1965. In 1969 Windham School, an institution for inmates in all units, became a regular school district eligible to receive state foundation funds. The prison system owned more than 100,000 acres in 1972. W. James Estelle succeeded the retired Beto as director in 1972. During the 1970s the inmate population grew at an accelerated pace as the state's overall population increased and public attitudes toward offenders hardened. The state population increased by 19 percent between 1968 and 1978, while the Texas prison population grew 101 percent. During the middle of the 1970s the state incarcerated felons at a rate of 143.7 per 100,000, compared to a national rate of 86.9 per 100,000. The number of prisoners reached 22,439 by the beginning of 1978. The demographics did not change much, although the percentage of Hispanic prisoners increased slightly to 19 percent.

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of dramatic change in TDC, characterized by a growing population, the opening of new units, and increasing legal challenges of prison management on the part of inmates. In 1980 federal district judge William Wayne Justice issued a ruling in a class action case, Ruiz v. Estelle, filed by inmates in 1972. Justice's ruling, which determined that conditions of confinement violated the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution (the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment"), required the state to reduce overcrowding, improve prisoner rehabilitation and recreational programs, and refrain from practices deemed detrimental to the prisoners' safety and welfare. Ruiz, the longest-running prisoners' lawsuit in United States history, was followed by lengthy litigation as the state of Texas reluctantly adjusted to the federal court order. Several new prison units opened during the 1980s, and the functions of some older ones changed. The Goree Unit became a facility for male inmates, as TDC transferred its female population to property formerly operated by the Texas Youth Council near Gatesville in Coryell County. The ninety-seven-acre Mountain View Unit began receiving females in 1975; by 1980 the 1,244-acre Gatesville unit also incarcerated female felons. The Hilltop Unit, another former Texas Youth Council facility on 1,240 acres in Coryell County, started accepting male prisoners in 1981. Beto Units I and II, comprising 18,000 acres in Anderson County, housed TDC prisoners beginning in 1980 and 1981. Pack Units I and II, 6,000 acres in Grimes County, opened in 1982. The prison system established the Texas Department of Corrections Hospital on one floor of John Sealy Hospital at Galveston in 1983. Additional units opened on existing prison properties. Jester added a third unit in 1983, TDC opened the Ellis II Unit on 7,000 acres north of Huntsville in 1983, and the Michael Unit began operation in 1987 on property shared with the Coffield Unit in Anderson County. TDC was also supervising some prisoners at prerelease halfway houses in various cities by 1987. Beginning in July 1988 the prison system reserved the Skyview Unit for the care of mentally ill inmates at the fifty-eight-acre site of the former Rusk State Hospital in Cherokee County.

During the 1980s a succession of directors administered the prison system. After Estelle resigned in October 1983 amid controversy surrounding the Ruiz case and allegations of mismanagement and mistreatment of prisoners, the board selected Dan V. (Red) McKaskle to serve as interim director. Raymond Procunier became the new director in May 1984 and served until June 1985, when he resigned for health and personal reasons. The board then hired Lane McCotter, who occupied the position until January 1987; he resigned due to differences with Governor William Clements. McKaskle, Procunier, and McCotter led TDC during a period of turmoil and heightened inmate violence that followed the demise of an inmate guard system. In May 1987 the board named James Lynaugh, who had been serving as acting director, to the position of director.

The inmate population grew from 36,769 on August 31, 1983, to 39,664 at the end of August 1988. Between August 1987 and August 1988 the prison system received 33,816 new inmates but released 33,428 prisoners through parole or discharge, to mandatory supervision, or after termination of shock probation. TDC initiated construction on several new units in 1988 in order to jail an expanding number of convicted felons. Maximum-security units at Amarillo and Gatesville, as well as prerelease facilities in Snyder, Dayton, Woodville, and Marlin, increased the system's capacity by 10,000. Four 500-bed prerelease centers operated by private contractors were opened in 1989 at Bridgeport, Venus, Cleveland, and Kyle. In 1990 the prison system planned 2,250-bed maximum-security units for Abilene, Jefferson County, and Beeville, and selected 1,000-bed medium-security sites in Childress, Freestone, and Frio counties. Prison industrial operations had expanded by 1988 to include factories producing for TDC and other agencies. Industrial facilities made stainless steel, license plates, retreaded tires, and fabricated metal products, as well as garments, mattresses, cardboard boxes, woodwork, shoes, refinished furniture, highway signs, soap, and wax. The prison system managed a print shop, textile mills, and bus-repair and record-conversion facilities. Some prisoners engaged in construction and building maintenance on prison property, while others continued to work in farming and food processing. As of August 1988 TDC employed more than 19,000 regular staff members and 779 Windham School personnel. The prison system requested a 1990–91 biennium budget of more than $1.7 billion.

Effective September 1, 1989, the Texas legislature once again changed the administrative structure of the Texas prison system. The legislature abolished the Texas Corrections Board, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Texas Adult Probation Commission and merged them into a Texas Department of Criminal Justice, supervised by a nine-member Texas Board of Criminal Justice. The board named James Lynaugh executive director, responsible for coordinating the three agencies of the new department. The new law renamed TDC the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division. See also GOVERNMENT, and LAW.

Ronald Craig Copeland, The Evolution of the Texas Department of Corrections (M.A. thesis, Sam Houston State University, 1980). Ben M. Crouch and James W. Marquart, An Appeal to Justice: Litigated Reform of Texas Prisons (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989). Herman L. Crow, Political History of the Texas Penal System, 1829–1951 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1964). Steve J. Martin and Sheldon Ekland-Olson, Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987). James Robertson Nowlin, A Political History of the Texas Prison System, 1849–1957 (M.A. thesis, Trinity University, 1962). C. W. Raines, Year Book for Texas (2 vols., Austin: Gammel-Statesman, 1902, 1903). James Robert Reynolds, The Administration of the Texas Prison System (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1925). Lee Simmons, Assignment Huntsville: Memoirs of a Texas Prison Official (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1957). Charlotte A. Teagle, History of Welfare Activities of the Texas Prison Board (Huntsville, Texas: Texas Prison Board, 1941). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Donald R. Walker, Penology for Profit: A History of the Texas Prison System, 1867–1912 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988).

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Prisons and Correctional Facilities
Time Periods:
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Paul M. Lucko, “Prison System,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 24, 2020