Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, also known as the Walls unit of the state prison system, was the state's first enclosed penitentiary for convicted felons. On March 13, 1848, the Texas legislature passed the bill to establish a state prison. The language of the law indicated clearly that the new prison would be a place where inmates would be forced to abide by strict rules of behavior and discipline and would work so as not to be a burden on the state's taxpayers. The law required the governor to appoint a committee of three to select a site for the new institution. The location chosen should be no larger than 100 acres and should cost no more than $5 an acre. The three committee members, John Brown of Henderson County, William Palmer of Walker County, and William Menefee of Fayette County, ultimately selected Huntsville as the home for the new state facility. Upon making their selection, the three men purchased 4.8 acres of land at a total cost of $22 on which to construct the prison buildings. In addition, they spent $470 for a tract of ninety-four acres of heavily timbered land nearby. These holdings, along with separate gifts from private citizens of rock and timber in the vicinity, enabled state officials to begin construction almost immediately. The reasons for the choice of Huntsville remain a mystery. That the town was home to Sam Houston and other notable figures in early Texas possibly played a part. Similarly, local support for the institution, demonstrated by the gifts of rock and timber, likely also had a favorable influence on the committee members. The site specifications in the enabling legislation stipulated only that the location chosen be in a healthful climate and near a navigable body of water, in this case the Trinity River, that would permit "the importation of machinery, tools, [and] materials to be . . . manufactured, and for the transportation of articles made . . . by the convicts to a market." The new facility envisioned by the lawmakers was to be constructed of "substantial materials" and surrounded by a "secure wall" that would "enclose a yard of sufficient dimensions as to allow room for the erection of workshops." Within those shops inmates would be kept busy performing whatever labor state officials "deemed most profitable and useful to the State."
Construction began late in 1848 and proceeded smoothly, except for a brief dispute over the quality of some of the materials being used. By late spring 1849 workers had finished most of the ground floor of the first brick cellblock and expected to complete the entire structure later in the year. In anticipation of possible construction delays, prison officials had erected a makeshift jail of heavy logs and iron bars to house any prisoners who might arrive before the permanent structures were completed. In these temporary cells the first prisoners were confined when they arrived on October 1, 1849. The inmate population grew rather slowly for the first few years, placing very little strain on state resources. In spite of this, however, prison administrators soon recognized the reluctance of state legislators to set aside public funds for the maintenance of convicted felons. In 1853 Governor Peter H. Bell, anxious to find additional sources of revenue for the prison, requested a legislative appropriation of $35,000 to establish a cotton and woolen mill within the walls. Prison inmates would work in the mill, and earnings from the sale of the finished fabric would help defray the cost of operating the prison. By giving the inmates remunerative employment, prison officials believed they were accomplishing a dual objective: the work itself instilled habits of discipline, self-restraint, and responsibility, while the profits from the labor helped repay the prisoners' debt to society. Through the late 1850s officials purchased additional equipment to enlarge the capacity of the mill, so that by late in the decade the inmate workers could process into cloth 500 bales of cotton and 6,000 pounds of wool annually. The earnings from the fabric made in the prison proved to be especially important during the years of the Civil War. Through sales both to the civilian population and to Confederate military units, gross earnings during the war exceeded $1 million of which approximately $800,000 was deposited in the state treasury as profit.
The Huntsville Penitentiary was the only prison in the eleven Confederate states still standing at the end of the Civil War, at which time it entered a dramatic period of its history. The increase in lawlessness that accompanied the end of the war resulted in more persons being sentenced to prison. This occurred at a time when state government found itself virtually bankrupt and the public unwilling to support tax increases to provide for additional prisons to house the larger number of inmates. A way out of the problem came in 1867, when the state entered into lease arrangements with private individuals who hired state prisoners to work on private farms, on railroads, and in mines and quarries. Those prisoners not leased out remained in the prison where they worked in a variety of shops producing goods for sale on the open market. During the years of the convict lease system the several lessees who hired the labor of the inmates made a number of permanent improvements to the Huntsville facility. Prisoners built workshops, new cellblocks, warehouses, and outbuildings; remodeled existing structures to provide room for a hospital, a chapel, and a library; constructed residences for senior prison officials; and undertook major renovations and expansions of the outside wall. Prisoners were most often housed two to a cell, and the total number of inmates serving time in the unit fluctuated widely, generally ranging in the neighborhood of 500.
Also through the years of lease, state leaders implemented a number of changes intended to ameliorate the harsher aspects of prison life. Officers in the Huntsville unit, led by Thomas J. Goree, who served as superintendent from 1878 to 1891, established weekly worship services, including choir presentations and Bible study, initiated night classes that offered the rudiments of a basic education, and set up a library of several thousand volumes. These innovations, the officers believed, could help transform convicted felons into productive citizens who would live within the law when they were released. Similarly, the adoption of a classification system for the inmates, along with an indeterminate sentence program to encourage compliance with prison regulations, plus the publication by the prisoners of a semimonthly newsletter, further attests to the efforts of some officers in the Huntsville unit to introduce a measure of flexibility into the prison routine and perhaps to bring about improved behavior among the inmates. Regrettably, not all the prison personnel supported the reform spirit, with the result that opportunities for personal improvement and intellectual growth available to the inmates depended invariably on the attitude of the prison administration at the time. The state also operated the Rusk Penitentiary beginning in 1883, but the closing of that facility in 1917 left the Huntsville prison as the state's only enclosed penitentiary. The broad reform movement of the early decades of the twentieth century brought an end to leasing and a return to state control of the prison. By this time the Walls unit had clearly emerged as the headquarters of the entire state prison system. The principal executive officers, including the superintendent, resided there, all departments of the system maintained their central offices there, and all permanent records, those concerning inmate activities as well as prison operations, were stored and maintained within the unit. Increasingly, more of the prisoners worked on state-owned farms in the coastal areas of the state, where their labor earned greater revenues than came from the sale of goods produced in the prison shops. Increased financial yields aside, however, the prison continued to require large appropriations to cover operating costs, and intensive investigations of the inner workings of the institution revealed evidence of ongoing prisoner abuse and neglect and administrative incompetence and corruption.
Efforts to solve the many problems associated with governing the prison, including an ineffective attempt to close down the Huntsville facility and transfer the inmates to a more central location near Austin, yielded only short-term improvements at best. Opposition to reforms, growing out of bureaucratic inertia and public indifference to prison affairs, did not vary substantially until pressures beyond the control of state officials demanded change. The economic crisis of the 1930s proved to be just such an irresistible force (see GREAT DEPRESSION). Prison officials had to make the system more efficient with less money from the state. Improved farming and cattle-raising methods were adopted to increase the amount of food produced. Large canning operations were established to preserve as much of the food as possible. A plant to manufacture license plates was set up, as were a number of additional new shops, so that during the World War II years prison officers in Huntsville oversaw the production of a wide array of products for use either in the prison or by other agencies of the state. The inauguration of the Texas Prison Rodeo in 1931 provided recreational opportunities for some of the inmates and, as it grew through the years, brought in substantial amounts of money. The war years also witnessed a renewed public awareness of continuing problems within the entire prison system, especially with regard to management and the treatment of inmates. The result was a high-level commission, directed by prison professionals from outside the state, to inquire and examine all areas of prison-system operations and make recommendations. Austin MacCormick, nationally recognized penologist, leveled severe criticism against virtually every aspect of the Texas prison system, which he termed "among the worst in the United States."
Beauford H. Jester, whose successful campaign for governor in 1946 included a strong endorsement of prison reform, urged support for a program of improvements in the prison that would eliminate the objectionable features highlighted by MacCormick. Oscar Byron Ellis, director of a state prison farm in Tennessee, was hired as general manager, later director, of the Texas prison system; working from his base in Huntsville, he implemented a reform program that brought fundamental changes in the management of Texas prisons. Ellis upgraded all facilities at Huntsville, cleaned up cellblocks, brought in modern equipment for the shops, instituted up-to-date methods of keeping books and accounts, and established a system of accountability that assigned specific responsibility for specific tasks and operations. He expanded rehabilitation programs, raised salaries of prison personnel, and set up programs to train prison employees in better methods of doing their jobs. After Ellis's death in 1961, his successor, George John Beto, continued and expanded the reform program in Huntsville. From 1961 to 1972 he made additional educational opportunities, including college-level work, available for the inmates, further streamlined the governance of the prison system with the construction of a new central administration building, and oversaw the completion of a diagnostic center for newly arriving inmates. He also further upgraded the qualifications needed for employment, presided over the opening of a separate unit for first offenders, and implemented a prerelease program for those persons completing their terms of confinement. Within a decade of Beto's retirement, however, the Texas prison system had come under the administration of a federal court, which decreed, as a result of a lawsuit filed by an inmate, that the rules and regulations for governing prisoners in Texas violated the United States Constitution. The Walls unit in Huntsville remained the administrative headquarters for the prison system as the state responded slowly to the Ruiz v. Estelle case during the 1980s and as Texas embarked upon the construction of new penal facilities across the state.