on land that was part of the 97,400-acre tract granted by the Mexican government to Stephen F. Austin in 1823 for his services as impresario. Like most of the Anglo settlers he brought to what was then northern Mexico, Austin was a Southerner, and he saw Texas as fertile ground for creating the kind of cotton plantations that were flourishing across the South. In his recent book Seeds of Empire, University of North Texas historian Andrew Torget writes that “the rapid movement of U.S. expatriates into northern Mexico was—more than anything—a continuation of the endless search by Americans during those years for the best cotton lands along North America’s rich Gulf Coast.” Integral to cotton farming was slavery, which Austin encouraged by granting settlers 80 acres of extra land for each slave they brought with them.
Then came the Civil War. The South’s defeat and the abolition of slavery plunged the Texas economy into a depression. Deprived of their labor force, most of the sugar plantations on the Lower Brazos went bankrupt. One of the few that survived was the Williams plantation, which was purchased after the war by Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry A. Ellis, business partners and Confederate veterans.
Cunningham and Ellis survived the abolition of slavery by finding a new source of cheap labor: the Texas prison system. Although they weren’t the first growers to use convict labor, they were the biggest: in 1878 they signed a contract with the state to lease Texas’s entire prison population. This was perfectly legal, since the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, made one very consequential exception: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Italics added.)
In the years before the Civil War, Texas’s state prisons had held around two hundred inmates, all kept at a single facility, in Huntsville. After abolition, the prison population exploded, disproportionately with black men. Unable to house and feed all the new prisoners, the state began renting them out to private companies, who were grateful for the supply of cheap labor. ...
The working conditions in Cunningham and Ellis’s sugar fields were as bad or worse than they had been on the slave plantations. Mosquito-borne epidemics, frequent beatings, and a lack of medical care resulted in a 3 percent annual mortality rate. The plantation soon became notorious across the state as the “Hellhole on the Brazos.” ...
Between 1906 and 1908 the plantation and its sugar-processing operations were bought up by Isaac H. Kempner, of Galveston, and William T. Eldridge, of Eagle Lake, who formally incorporated as the Imperial Sugar Company. Although Eldridge had used convict labor on another farm, Kempner was opposed to the practice and began planning to transition to free labor. To attract a new labor force, the two men established a company town, Sugar Land, with worker housing, stores, and a modern hospital.
Texas’s experiment with convict leasing was coming to an end anyway. In 1910, following a series of newspaper investigations of the Texas prison system, the Legislature formally ended the practice; by 1914 all prisoners were back under the exclusive control of the state. From then on, the only entity that would benefit from the coerced labor of prisoners would be the Texas Department of Corrections.To be fair, this history hasn't been entirely forgotten, even if Hardy's protagonist finds himself fighting a lonely battle in Sugar Land, where city officials are clearly in denial, promoting some weird, Chamber of Commerce line that pretends that Texas history began post-Jim Crow. Indeed, that history was one of the reasons reformers targeted the Central Unit as the first one for closure. As Grits wrote when the facility shuttered:
For my part, the Central Unit's economic role in the prison system's ag business was one of the reasons I favored it as a prime target for closure. Not only was Central's historic role symbolic, breaking it up would end some of the last remaining physical vestiges of the old convict leasing system, replaced to a lesser and far-less brutal extent in the modern era by in-house agricultural operations on the agency's vast real estate holdings.Similarly, Grits has argued that the Jester Unit and several others clustered together near Richmond, in Fort Bend County, should be the next state facilities targeted for closure. They're surrounded by million-dollar homes, suburban schools, and not one but two country clubs. So the historic and systemic concerns raised in this article combine with NIMBYism and the irresistible logic of property values to make those facilities prime targets for closure if TDCJ's population continues to decline.