I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Authors often find themselves researching the strangest things. In my story, The Outcast’s Redemption, one of nine novellas in The Secret Admirer Romance Collection, I found myself needing to know details about where a prisoner would have been sent in Texas in the 1860’s. The answer was…the Texas State Penitentiary.
My hero, Lucky Tolliver, was a wayward young man who got himself into a fair bit of trouble in his youth. So much trouble, in fact, that he spent several years in this prison facility. What would life have been like for him, I wondered. To know that, I needed to research the history of the prison. Here’s what I found.
|3rd Governor of Texas,
In 1848, it was decided that Texas needed a prison, and the location of Huntsville, Texas was chosen. The first inmates moved into temporary cells in October of 1849 while permanent structures were being built. By 1853, the Texas Governor, Peter Bell, had discovered just how costly it could be to run a prison. To defray that cost, he built a cotton and wool mill on the prison property, to be manned by the inmates. This served two purposes. The first was to bring in revenue from the sale of the cloth created in the mill. The second was to teach the inmates a skill and the disciplined work ethic they would need to reintegrate into society. By the end of the 1850’s, the inmates were able to process 500 bales of cotton and 6000 pounds of wool per year into finished cloth.
Interestingly, the cotton and wool mill served another purpose during the early half of the 1860’s. It supplied the Confederate Army with cloth for uniforms during the Civil War. The army (along with some of the civilian population) purchased so much inmate-made cloth that the gross earnings exceeded $1 million.
|Postcard depicting the South View of the Texas State Penitentiary
However, after the Civil War’s end, things changed in the West. Many soldiers from both the North and the South left their respective homes and traveled west to the frontier. Lawlessness increased, and as the only prison left standing in the Confederate states at the end of the war, this prison’s population exploded. The Texas government was nearly bankrupt, and the population of the state wouldn’t agree to a tax increase to pay for more prisons, so a creative solution had to be found. This ushered in the “convict lease system.”
The new system would have come about at exactly the time when my hero, Lucky, would have been at the Texas State Penitentiary—the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. So what was the convict lease system? It was a program that allowed private citizens to “lease” manual labor from the inmates of the prison. They could be hired to build the railroad, work private farms, or dig rocks in nearby quarries. Businesses which were hired to build out new prison cell blocks and remodel the existing buildings used inmates for the physical labor. Those inmates who weren’t leased to private individuals or businesses remained at the penitentiary to work the various mills and workshops like the cotton and wool mill located on the prison grounds. The goods made in those facilities were then sold on the open market for revenue to run the prison.
|The view from within the prison walls, circa 1870.
So that was the snapshot of Lucky’s prison life that I needed. He would’ve been put to work, possibly outside the prison walls. That fact lent itself nicely to the fact that, during the course of my story, Lucky was a hard worker, trying with all his might to reform himself from his wayward youth and remake himself into an upstanding citizen. I’ll let you, the reader, decide if I accomplished the task of making Lucky’s transformation believable.
It’s Your Turn: Would you have been brave enough to hire prison inmates to work on your private farm or business had you had such an opportunity? Why or why not? Make sure to leave your email address along with your answer, and I’ll select one reader to receive an autographed copy of The Secret Admirer Romance Collection (drawing to be held on May 30).