This Is Huntsville

In 1837, a year after Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna, the young Congress of the Republic of Texas authorized sheriffs of several counties to lease or rent suitable houses for the keeping of their prisoners.A few years later, a movement for a central prison in Texas was underway, and by 1848, a three-member committee was appointed by the governor to select a suitable site for Texas’ first state prison.On June 26, 1848 the three members of the committee met in La Grange, Texas after surveying a number of possible locations across the state.About a month later, the governor at the time, George T. Wood, received a letter on their decision:”The undersigned commissioners appointed by youbeg leave to report that after a thorough examination of the best localities, they agreed on the selection of a site and selected the same on a beautiful eminence in the town of Huntsville, the county seat of the county of Walker.”One hundred acres of land was approved and purchased (most of it from Pleasant Gray) by the state legislature for the sum of $493. On that land the state’s first prison still stands today as the Huntsville “Walls” Unit.In the beginning however, the bricks that make up the “Walls” were still clay in the east Texas earth. Instead, log cabins with iron bars were used to store the first inmates brought to Huntsville.The system quickly grew, and by the time the Civil War broke out, a cotton and wool factory had been built within the penitentiary. In 1863, the state legislature authorized the distribution of prison-made clothing to the families of confederate soldiers. Demand was so high the prison was authorized to borrow convicts from Missouri, Louisiana and Arkansas in order to increase production.At the same time, prisoners of war were being brought in from the battlefields; including officers and crew from the Union ship Harriet Lane. Sam Houston would reportedly, “stride through the big gate, booming encouragement to the captured soldiers.”Following the Civil War, a lease system for convict labor was developed in 1871. The Huntsville unit inmates were leased out to farmers, tanners, bricklayers, and used to build railroads. Prisoner abuse became commonplace however, causing uproars from within the prison. An editorial from the May 7, 1875 issue of The Huntsville Item gives an idea of the feeling that ran through many town residents:”For a week past a feeling of unrest and excitements has existed among the convicts in the penitentiary. On Monday an irruption took place, which, by prompt and effective measures, was instantly quelled, but anything approaching concerted action on the part of the 600 convicts within the walls, would be beyond the power of the prison authorities to control. “Conceive, if it be possible, half a thousand devils turned loose in our community in the dead hour of night, our families and property at the mercy of their wills and lusts!” Three years later one of the most famous convicts, a Native American chieftain called Satanta heard the call of a wild goose in the deep purple sky at sunset. In a futile effort for winged freedom, Satanta leapt from a second story porch to his death.In 1923 hangings, he legal form of executions at the time, were done away with. They were replaced the following year by an electric chair, located at the first state penitentiary in Huntsville. The chair performed executions in Texas until the U.S. Supreme Court declared capital punishment as cruel and unusual punishment in 1972. Texas was one of the first states to issue a new capital punishment statute, which led the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty in 1976, with the executions now being conducted by lethal injectionToday the “Walls” houses about 1,500 inmates with a maximum capacity for 1,705. Although executions still take place in Huntsville, 652 having occurred since 1924, death row was moved from “Walls” to another unit in 1965.A textile mill is still in operation as well as a mechanical shop and educational programs, substance abuse and support groups for the inmates. The “Walls” is also the offender release point for the other prisons in the area, dishing out 75 to 100 fresh ex-cons every weekday, who are easily recognized by the white laundry bag draped over one shoulder and the broad smile across their face, happy to be leaving a place deep rooted in Texas history.

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