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Texas History 101

The state's first enclosed penitentiary, a 225-cell facility in Huntsville, has weathered some hard times—and expanded to include seven prison units.

By May 2003Comments

JUST THREE YEARS AFTER HUNTSVILLE’S incorporation in 1845, the city was chosen by a government-appointed commission as the site for the state’s first enclosed penitentiary. Shortly thereafter, construction began on the 225-cell Huntsville Unit, commonly called the Walls. On October 1, 1849, the first inmate entered the partially completed facility. By the end of the year, the prison held three inmates.

In an attempt to defray the cost of incarceration, the state instituted inmate labor. By 1854, enough inmates were housed in the Walls Unit to justify the construction of a cotton mill. Soon, the convicts could process up to five hundred bales of cotton and six thousand pounds of wool a year. The state sold the products to the public, as well as to the government of the Confederate States of America. During the Civil War, the prison mill grossed more than $1 million, depositing $800,000 in profits into the state treasury.

At the end of the war, the Huntsville Unit was the only prison still standing in all eleven of the Confederate States. When the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, Texas used inmates in place of slave labor. The 1871 case Ruffin v. Commonwealth declared that a convicted felon punished by the law “not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State.” Prisoners in Texas were considered so until 1946.

The dramatic increase in incarcerated persons during Reconstruction led the state government to continue to seek ways to make the prison system less costly; one of these was a convict leasing system, under which prisoners were leased out to private interests, building railroads and working on plantations, to help fill the labor void left after abolition. The leasing parties were responsible for the care of the prisoners and prison facilities, but frequently failed to do so. The convict lease system became so infamously brutal and inhumane that the Legislature abolished it in 1910.

From 1870 to 1912, women inmates typically made up less than 2 percent of the total inmate population. By 1911, all women inmates had moved into the Goree Unit, which also housed a garment factory run by the prisoners. The unit was named for Thomas Jewett Goree, an early prison director and reformist who established weekly worship services, night classes that offered inmates a basic education, and a library at the Huntsville Unit. But in the early years of the 1900’s, the prison system was characterized by fraud, mismanagement, and atrocious living conditions for the inmates, marked by overcrowding and extreme brutality. After a 1925 legislative session questioned the operations of the prison system, awareness of the problems in the penal system increased. By 1930, Governor Dan Moody declared the Texas prisons “not fit for a dog.” The facilities were so overcrowded that he declared a moratorium on further admissions of inmates until the units reached more normal capacities.

Lee Simmons, who served as general manager of the prison system from 1930 to 1935, instituted reforms. A new hospital was built at the Walls Unit, and advances were made in educational programs. But Simmons’ greatest contribution may have been softening the prison system’s reputation as cruel and inhumane. In 1931 he instituted the prison rodeo, which provided inmates with recreation and entertained the prison staff and the crowds that came to see the prisoners. All-inmate bands like the Cotton Pickers’ Glee Club, the Rhythmic Stringsters, and the Goree Girls performed at the rodeo until the event got so large—attendance peaked at around 100,000 during the fifties and sixties—that they were replaced by big-name musical acts. The prison rodeo continued annually until the end of 1986, when engineers condemned the stadium because of structural problems.

The prison housed a newspaper and, for more than five years, a radio show called Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls, which aired on WBAP in Fort Worth. The Prison Echo, which was founded in 1928, began to flourish in the thirties, printing everything from a sports page and editorials on the parole system to inmate short stories and coverage of World War II. Despite Simmons’ favorable public image campaigns for the prison system, living conditions in Huntsville remained vicious and cramped. In 1935 the Walls Unit housed 1,000 men in 350 cells, each built to accommodate one inmate. Mysterious deaths and charges of atrocities in the forties led to a Texas Prison Board—sponsored investigation. Nationally respected penal reformer Austin MacCormick delivered the results in 1944; his critical report led to pressure on the government to reform the system.

In 1948 the Texas Prison Board appointed O. B. Ellis to run the prisons, and Ellis persuaded the Legislature to appropriate funds to build new prison facilities and modernize existing ones. He oversaw the construction of an additional set of one-person cells, which would house maximum-security inmates, at the Huntsville Unit, and he worked to put an end to the brutality of guards and the ruthless punishment of inmates. Ellis died in 1961, facilitating the prison board to ask George Beto to take over.

Beto expanded prisoner education programs and rehabilitation opportunities, but his philosophy was based on the belief that inmates should receive religious, educational, and rehabilitative benefits only if they worked. It was during the sixties that the prison system began an era of change. In 1964 the Byrd Unit, a diagnostic facility, was established to evaluate and classify incoming inmates. A fifth facility in Huntsville, the Ellis Unit, was added in 1965. Death Row was moved to Ellis from the Walls Unit, where it had been housed since the state’s institution of capital punishment in 1928. In 1969 the Windham school district was established (the Wynne Unit houses the administrative headquarters for the district), and inmates were given the opportunity to take classes ranging from basic literacy to college level.

Despite outward appearances of cleanliness, order, and efficiency, life in Texas prisons remained deplorable for inmates. Two months before Beto’s resignation in 1972, Ellis Unit inmate David Ruiz filed his first lawsuit against the Texas Department of Corrections, charging that the environment in the facility violated his constitutional rights. By 1974, his suit was combined with seven others into a class-action suit, Ruiz v. Estelle, which was said to be the longest running prisoner lawsuit in history. Ending in 1979, after a 159-day trial with 1,546 exhibits and 349 witnesses, federal district judge William Wayne Justice sided with Ruiz and his co-defendants. Justice’s final verdict required the Texas Department of Corrections to amend those practices deemed detrimental to prisoner safety and welfare. The federal courts assumed control of the TDC to ensure that all mandated reforms were carried out.

One step in complying with Justice’s decree was to relieve overcrowding, a problem plaguing the system for a century. The prison system embarked on a massive building project throughout the state, and many changes were made. The women of Goree were moved to a unit in Gatesville, and Goree became a male inmate facility. The Estelle Unit was built in Huntsville in 1984 to house medical facilities, and in 1994 the new Texas Department of Criminal Justice established the Holliday Unit in Huntsville to serve as a transfer facility. In June 2002 the State of Texas reassumed control of the prison system.

The seven prisons in Huntsville operate in humane but sparse conditions. The prisons are heated but not air-conditioned. Inmates are provided with clothes, soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and three meals a day. And, as it has historically, the Texas prisons still run on the principle of work. Aside from the inmates on Death Row and those at the Administrative Segregation custody level, all able-bodied inmates are expected to work, though they can no longer be physically forced to do so. Inmates participating in educational programs receive a reduced work schedule. The prisoners tend gardens, grow edible and field crops, and operate livestock breeding, growing, and finishing operations. There are textile mills, machinery repair shops, license plate and garment factories, and other industrial operations. The inmates also assist with the beautification and maintenance of the City of Huntsville, a place that has grown up with and embraced the Texas prison system.

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