Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sugar Land, convict leasing, and the future of TX prison closures

At Texas Monthly, Michael Hardy has the story of a campaign by a former TDCJ prison guard named Reginald Moore to get the city of Sugar Land to acknowledge the history of slavery, convict leasing, and plantation culture on which the area's economy was founded. There's a bunch of good stuff here. For example, the Jester Unit(s) sit:
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.
This is important, little-discussed history about the political economy of the Texas prison system in the 19th and 20th centuries (for more, Robert Perkinson did a decent job with it in Texas Tough). Again, from Hardy:
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. 

After a $458 million budget hike last session, TDCJ has been ordered to cut $264 million from its budget for the 2018-19 biennium. That will require reducing incarceration levels and closing facilities. Recent history shows that cuts to core services like prisoner food and healthcare have limited real-world value. We've cut those costs to the bone, and then some. If the Lege wants prisons to cost less, they must choose to operate fewer of them, and change the law to incarcerate fewer people.

Grits isn't sure the groundwork has been sufficiently laid to close these Fort Bend facilities yet: They could become more vulnerable in 2019 and 2021 if inmate populations continue to decline. And in the near term, the state would save more money in the next budget cycle by declining to renew several private prison contracts which expire in August 2017. But over the next five years or so, the fate of those units around Richmond will likely come into play, and this history will inevitably become part of that dialogue. Perhaps then, these forgotten stories Mr. Moore is unearthing will end up playing a more prominent role in debates over the area's future than the blindered town fathers in Sugar Land can presently contemplate.


Anonymous said...

Interesting to note that "Plantation Dr." is a street immediately west of Jester III.

Skifool said...

Do not overlook

Penology for Profit
By the late Donald R. Walker
Published by A&M Press in 1988

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the tip, Skifool. Just ordered it.

the hawk said...

Origin of the song with the line, "Ain't no more cane on the Brazos," I assume.