Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: General Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Updated: March 19, 2021

The Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, a prison-reform organization that operated during the 1920s, was founded by a group of political activists from the Joint Legislative Council or "Petticoat Lobby" of Texas politics. The Texas CPPL succeeded in reorganizing the administration of the state prison system and actually controlled prison management from 1927 to 1930. The Texas CPPL enthusiastically served as a state chapter for the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, headquartered in New York City. Texas activists established the state organization in 1920 when Elizabeth F. Ring, Ina Caddell Marrs, Jessie Daniel Ames, and Florence Floore of the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs sought assistance from national penal reformers. Frustrated with a pattern of prisoner abuses, official misconduct, waste, inefficiency, and inadequate state legislative responses to prison issues, the Texas CPPL hoped to secure a permanent solution to Texas prison problems. Among notable women members of the state chapter were Jane Y. McCallum, Minnie F. Cunningham, Mary E. Brackenridge, and Elizabeth Speer. The Texas CPPL recruited a number of prominent citizens to promote changes in state penal operations. Robert H. Baker of Houston became state chairman. Other well-known reform advocates included Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, law professor Charles S. Potts of Austin, journalists George W. Briggs and Tom Finty, Jr., of Dallas, Dr. A. C. Scott of Temple, and state representative Claude Teer of Granger. Many CPPL members had long championed social-justice causes through membership in the Texas Conference on Social Welfare.

The state legislature permitted the Texas CPPL to conduct a scientific survey of the prison system in 1923. Because the legislature refused to fund the study, the CPPL raised money through national CPPL assistance, support from the Laura Spellman and Rockefeller foundations, and a statewide donation drive. Numerous Texas business and political leaders, including United States senator Morris Sheppard, Jesse H. Jones, H. J. L. Stark, I. H. Kempner, George Sealy, and future governor Ross S. Sterling, contributed to the campaign. The Texas CPPL advisory committee included representatives from important state civic groups-the League of Women Voters, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, the Texas Congress of Mothers (see TEXAS CONGRESS OF PARENTS AND TEACHERS), and the Texas Conference on Social Welfare. Additional organizations, including the Graduate Nurses Association of Texas, the Texas Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, the Texas State Federation of Labor, and the Texas department of the American Legion, worked within the Texas CPPL. The national CPPL, along with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Texas State Medical Association (now the Texas Medical Association), the Texas State Dental Society, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and faculty members from Texas colleges and universities offered technical assistance to the survey.

The Texas CPPL reported the results of the survey of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville and the various prison farms in the eastern and coastal regions of the state in 1924. "Texas needs new methods of dealing with her prisoners . . . [and] new methods of training them," the report concluded. The investigation revealed that the majority of prisoners suffered from mental and physical deficiencies and had not completed primary school. The CPPL denounced the prison system for its failure to rehabilitate prisoners through literacy or industrial training and criticized economic losses and poor management as well as the location of most farms in low-lying areas susceptible to flooding, disease, and noxious weeds. Stressing the importance of preparing prisoners for their eventual return to free society, the CPPL report suggested adoption of progressive penological practices such as scientific classification of prisoners according to age and reformation potential, educational and recreational programs, improved medical care, and an end to corporal punishment. The report recommended replacing the three-member Board of Prison Commissioners with a nine-member board of directors who would select an expert manager. The report's most controversial proposal called for sale of all existing prison properties and the construction of a central penal colony near Austin. The Texas CPPL achieved its greatest success in 1926 by sponsoring an amendment to the Texas Constitution that reorganized the governing body of the Texas prison system. CPPL members campaigned vigorously for voter ratification by providing speakers and writers for civic associations, writing articles and editorials for state newspapers, preparing announcements for ministers to deliver to congregations, and printing materials for radio stations and motion-picture theaters. The legislature enacted the CPPL management plan in 1927 by dissolving the Board of Prison Commissioners and establishing the Texas Prison Board.

Various women's organizations and the CPPL had campaigned for Daniel J. Moody, Jr., winner of the 1926 gubernatorial election. Moody endorsed the CPPL agenda and named four of its members to the new prison board. R. H. Baker served as first chairman; A. C. Scott, who had directed the medical survey, was vice chairman; and Henry Cohen and Willmot M. Odell of Fort Worth joined the board. Most of the remaining officials supported the CPPL program. Elizabeth Speer of El Paso, executive secretary of the CPPL, acted in a similar capacity for the board. Between 1927 and 1930 the CPPL-led Texas Prison Board expanded prisoner educational and recreational activities, discharged employees who mistreated prisoners, and attempted to improve prisoner nutrition. Facing opposition from veteran prison workers who believed the reformers oversympathized with criminals, CPPL lobbyists continued to urge prison relocation and modernization. However, despite efforts by the CPPL and Moody, the legislature refused to centralize the prison system. With the legislature's final defeat of the CPPL relocation plan in March 1930, Texas CPPL influence upon the state prison diminished. Baker, Cohen, and Scott had left the board by that time, and Speer left before the end of 1930. During the 1930s board members amenable to more traditional penal policies dominated prison management, although recreational and educational programs started by the reformers remained. The CPPL reduced formal operations shortly after the Texas Prison Board was established in 1927, as the reformers decided to work through the board and the governor's office. By 1930 the CPPL had virtually disappeared. Although the committee failed to transform the character of Texas penology, the administrative structure it designed remains intact today as the Texas Board of Corrections.

Emma L. M. Jackson, Petticoat Politics: Political Activism among Texas Women in the 1920's (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1980). Jane Y. McCallum Papers, Austin History Center. A Summary of the Texas Prison Survey (Austin?: Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, 1924). Charlotte A. Teagle, History of Welfare Activities of the Texas Prison Board (Huntsville, Texas: Texas Prison Board, 1941).


  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
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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, “Texas Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-committee-on-prisons-and-prison-labor.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995
March 19, 2021