Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Sale of Imperial Sugar, Central Unit closure denote end of an era

Picture via 'Leadbelly: Life, Legend, Legacy'
Imperial Sugar is selling out to an international conglomerate the year after the Texas Legislature chose to close the Central Unit (formerly the Imperial unit) which was an early center of convict leasing that made Imperial a lucrative enterprise a century ago, with labor costs not much higher than a slave owner's. Grits finds it ironic that both institutions should dissolve so close to one another, as though their fates were somehow entwined.

In the book Texas Tough (pp. 205-206), historian Robert Perkinson said the Imperial unit's expansion and renaming as the Central Unit came in the face of calls for reform out of New York and "signaled that Texas's penal system would develop on its own terms, rooted in the Texas slavery belt and devoted, above all, to plantation production."

It was at the Imperial/Central unit that Texas Governor Pat Neff supposedly promised Leadbelly, the great murderer-minstrel (pictured), his pardon, famously delivered on the final day of his administration. Now the plantations are gone, the Central Unit has closed, and Imperial Sugar in all likelihood will no longer exist as a brand. For southeast Texas, the sale of Imperial Sugar in some ways provides a capstone for a confluence of events that, taken together, amount to the end of an era. Indeed, one hopes history may some day identify it as a signal point, a prelude to a new era.of deincarceration and even more prison closures. Perhaps it's crazy to imagine, but stranger things have happened, many of  them right there in Sugar Land.


Prison Doc said...

End of an era for sure. I can remeber as a child riding down Hwy 6 with the Imperial Sugar bldg on one side and the fields of the Central Unit on the other.

Good play on words Grits: Imperial Sugar "dissolving".

Ray Allen said...

Scott, I wish I had written your poignant post. It was both on target, and eloquent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks Ray, you of all people ought to know!

For those unaware, Ray Allen was the GOP House Corrections Committee chair who first got the ball rolling on Texas' probation/de-incarceration reforms back in 2003. He is not a too-often injured shooting guard for the Boston Celtics, and would never be mistaken for one. ;)

JohnT said...

My God, for all the times I drove past the Imperial Sugar plant in Sugar Land in the 60s, and NEVER knew this history!

Now you got me wondering about the rice plantations in Texas and Louisiana.

Thanks for filling me in.

DeathBreath said...

Soon, these fields will have a new source of manure, elitist homeowners who favor stale homogeneous existence enforced by homeowner's associations. Nice!

Scott in South Austin said...

Thanks Scott for the Texas history lesson. As a State, our voters and legislature has built a really big, obstinate prison/industrial complex.

john said...

At first I thought you meant the sugar plant, which had a big layoff some years back. That is all ironic, but now the prison is right there by WalMart & Schlumberger, so they probably want to develop the land for more cars.
However, sugar was shot in order to sell the 2 or 3 times genetically modified High Fructose Corn Syrup, instead. For those gov insiders and major chemical companies, it was all a sweeeet deal.
Oh, holy calories, it's CAPTCHA!!