Rusk Penitentiary

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: General Entry

Published: June 1, 1995

Updated: January 14, 2021

Rusk Penitentiary (East Texas Penitentiary), which existed near Rusk in Cherokee County from 1883 until 1917, was the state's second enclosed penitentiary for convicted felons. It was authorized by the Fourteenth Legislature in 1875 and built between 1877 and 1883. The state established it in order to relieve overcrowding in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville and to employ convicts in the development of iron-ore resources in East Texas. Civilian laborers employed by the Ohio firm of Kanmacher and Denig and convict workers used by the Cunningham and Ellis company of Texas combined to build the Rusk Penitentiary, which began receiving prisoners in January 1883. Morrow, Hamby, and Company operated the facility between January and March 1883, when the state cancelled all penitentiary leases. From January through September 1884 the state leased the penitentiary's iron industry to the Comer and Faris Company, which directed convict workers but failed to profit from the enterprise. After the termination of this contract the state managed the Rusk Penitentiary until its closing. The director of the penitentiary was usually an assistant superintendent, who reported to the superintendent in Huntsville, in charge of all state penal operations. When completed, the Rusk Penitentiary consisted of a three-story sandstone administration building and a domestic building constructed largely from brick and sandstone. The domestic building contained cooking and dining facilities as well as a chapel, a library, and a hospital. A two-story sandstone and brick cell house, larger than the one at Huntsville, had 528 double-bunked cells that could hold 1,056 prisoners. A brick wall, twenty feet high and thirty inches deep, enclosed the seven-acre site. By 1888 the state had equipped the penitentiary with a 300-kilowatt power plant, which provided electric lighting at least two years before the Huntsville Penitentiary achieved a similar capability. Outside the penitentiary walls were various manufacturing shops, an ice factory, a brick kiln, a sawmill, iron foundries, and a blast furnace.

The making of pig iron and finished implements for commercial sale was the most important production endeavor at the penitentiary. The original blast furnace was the twenty-five-ton, charcoal-burning Old Alcalde, given the nickname of Governor Oran M. Roberts, who had promoted the penitentiary. A second furnace, the more efficient fifty-ton, coke-burning Sam Lanham, replaced the Old Alcalde. Water-pipe foundries, one named Jim Hogg after Governor James S. Hogg, and a cast-iron foundry augmented the Rusk properties. Despite protracted efforts, however, the iron ventures lost over $2 million by 1910. The penitentiary faced problems similar to those that private iron producers often encountered. Inefficiency of charcoal fuel, the high costs of importing coke, and fluctuating market demands for pig iron contributed to financial losses. Historians also attribute the failure to poor management, political interference, frequent changes in administration resulting from biennial gubernatorial elections, the absence of experienced iron workers, and the continued transfer of convict laborers to prison agricultural operations in other parts of the state. (see IRON AND STEEL INDUSTRY.) As timber and iron-ore reserves near the penitentiary diminished, the state acquired and leased additional properties that added to operating costs. Beginning in 1893 state officials attempted to alleviate transportation expenses by building the Texas State Railroad, which extended from Rusk to Palestine in adjoining Anderson County. The railroad, completed in 1909 and deemed a "white elephant" by at least one gubernatorial administration, never earned a profit and only emphasized the futility of the Rusk iron industry. When the pig iron market plummeted during the depression of 1907, the state curtailed production and began to reduce the size of the convict population at Rusk.

Texas leaders hoped to house all White male convicts, physically disabled Black prisoners, felons of all races with sentences of more than fifteen years, and the most dangerous criminals inside the Rusk and Huntsville penitentiaries. However, as the convict population expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the state never totally achieved the type of segregation desired by penal authorities. Because neither the Rusk nor the Huntsville properties could hold all convicts, the state contracted most prisoners to private plantation owners, railroads, and a few other private employers. When Texas began to end the convict lease system, the prison system purchased large farms that employed most convicts. For several years, a majority of the criminals sentenced in Texas arrived at the Rusk Penitentiary before dispersal to the various contract or state-owned farms. Many prisoners lived in camps in the piney woods of East Texas while they chopped timber for the prison sawmill or processed charcoal for the iron furnace; other convicts dug iron ore from East Texas surface mines or labored on the Texas State railroad. Convicts housed at the Rusk Penitentiary manufactured bricks, ice, wagons, sugarcane railcars, brooms, lumber, paint, and mattresses, in addition to iron products. Some convicts raised fruits and vegetables and livestock on nearby prison farms. One year the prisoners even produced 50,000 pounds of tobacco, but federal taxes forced the state to abandon tobacco planting.

Convict management at the Rusk Penitentiary largely followed the Auburn System. That technique, introduced at the Auburn, New York, prison in 1823, required rehabilitation and discipline for prisoners through a daily routine of silence, meditation, and labor designed to encourage desirable moral habits and self-respect. Prison labor also benefited taxpayers by forcing convicts to absorb a portion of their incarceration costs through productive employment. Although prisons seldom attained the ideals sought by reformers, Texas, like other states, at least emulated Auburn penology. Within the walls of the Rusk penitentiary, convicts marched to their cells or jobs in the lockstep single-file Auburn fashion with each prisoner placing his right hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Prisoners, clad in blue and white stripes, ate their meals in silence. The Rusk Penitentiary employed a chaplain and permitted outside ministers to conduct religious services within the walls. With the assistance of the better-educated convicts, the chaplains also held literacy classes on Sunday mornings for prisoners who desired to attend. During the last years of the penitentiary, the chaplains conducted classes in the evening hours, after the convicts had completed their daily work activities. Prisoners could also read books from the prison library. For a time the convicts published a monthly magazine, The Light, and conducted an annual Christmas program attended by citizens from Rusk and surrounding communities.

Despite the existence of educational and recreational opportunities, physical labor consumed the time of most inmates, and discipline was harsh. Convicts informed legislators about prisoners' dying from heat exhaustion or from beatings administered by employees. State law permitted officers to whip prisoners for rule violations or poor work performance. Though regulations prohibited more than thirty-nine lashes and strictly defined the whipping instrument as "a leather strap three feet long and two and ½ inches wide," prisoners testified that guards often broke the rules. Reformers complained vociferously about the mortality rates and working conditions that accompanied the construction of the railroad. Prison officials removed large numbers of convicts from the Rusk Penitentiary to labor on the road, which a critic described as "stained with the blood of some helpless convict man or boy lashed cruelly by a savage prison guard or sergeant." Prisoners also received other forms of punishment for rule violations. They were given bread and water diets as well as solitary confinement in special, nearly airless, dark cells. Convicts also protested that corrupt employees stole food and supplies from the penitentiary.

Texas ended the unprofitable iron operations in 1910 and closed the Rusk Penitentiary in 1917. That same year the legislature approved the use of the property as an insane asylum for Blacks. Two years later the new institution was named Rusk State Hospital and opened to insane persons of all races. In 1919 the state sold the iron works to the Texas Steel Company of Beaumont. That company failed, however, and the plant reverted in 1929 to the state, which razed it in 1931. When the Rusk Penitentiary closed, the Huntsville Penitentiary was the sole remaining of its type, as the vast majority of convicts worked and lived on state prison farms. The penitentiary's cell building has served as the administrative center for the Rusk State Hospital, formerly operated by the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. The Texas Department of Corrections (see PRISON SYSTEM) assumed management of the hospital as a center for mentally ill prison inmates in 1988 and renamed it the Skyview Unit. Perhaps the cast iron structures inside the State Capitol serve as the most visible reminder of the Rusk Penitentiary. Between 1885 and 1887 Rusk prisoners manufactured virtually all of the interior cast-iron features in the Capitol, including the columns and connecting ornamental iron and probably the stairs and balusters.

Sandra Fuller Allen, The Iron Men: An Historical Review of the East Texas Penitentiary (M.A. thesis, Stephen F. Austin State University, 1982). Billy Martin Birmingham, An Historical Account of the East Texas Prison at Rusk (M.A. thesis, Sam Houston State University, 1979). Herman L. Crow, Political History of the Texas Penal System, 1829–1951 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1964). James Robertson Nowlin, A Political History of the Texas Prison System, 1849–1957 (M.A. thesis, Trinity University, 1962). Donald R. Walker, Penology for Profit: A History of the Texas Prison System, 1867–1912 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988).


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

Paul M. Lucko, “Rusk Penitentiary,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 17, 2021,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

June 1, 1995
January 14, 2021