a1 University of Houston
The state of Texas' determined effort to keep African-Americans performing plantation labor was at the heart of its prison farm system, from Reconstruction through the 1920s. State and penitentiary officials followed a practice of racialized labor control, demanding that African-American convicts perform plantation gang labor, not only to make the prison system profitable but also keep them involved in extractive agriculture. As the prison population grew, so did the abuse of convicts. The story of Texas’ penitentiary system shows the continuing tie between African-Americans, plantation labor, and racism in Texas, as well as other southern states. The sprawling farm system that developed in Texas made it unique in the South. When Progressive Era reformers confronted abuses in the Texas prison system, they had to contend with an overwhelming profit motive that made reform difficult, and warped reform measures they managed to push through the legislature. Among the initial goals of Texas prison reformers were an end to convict leasing and a ban on the use of the whip as punishment. The agenda of reformers collided with the goals of the Texas prison system, with unexpected results. Looking at reform measures after they passed the legislature illustrates how prison managers tried to circumvent regulations that hindered profitability.
Theresa R. Jach is an ABD student at the University of Houston, where her focus is the New South. At Houston, her teachers have included Richard Blackett, Steven Mintz, and Eric Walther.
1 The author wishes to thank Jim Willett of the Texas Prison Museum for help in securing illustrations.