Texas State Penitentiary, Board of Commissioners:
An Inventory of Penitentiary Board Outgoing Letters at the Texas State Archives, 1883-1889
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) manages offenders in state prisons, state jails and contracted private correctional facilities. The agency also provides funding and certain oversight of community supervision and is responsible for the supervision of offenders released from prison on parole or mandatory supervision. The Department of Criminal Justice came into being in 1848 when "An Act to Establish a State Penitentiary" was passed by the Second Texas Legislature. The act established a governing body of the penitentiary as a three-member Board of Directors, appointed by the Governor, with the approval of the Senate. The Board was responsible for creating and distributing a set of rules and bylaws for the administration of the penitentiary, overseeing the treatment of convicts, preparing an annual inventory of property, and making an annual report to the Governor. Over the years, the name and composition of the Board changed. While its basic functions were not greatly altered, some duties were added. These included acquiring land for the Huntsville and Rusk facilities, purchasing machinery, effecting repairs, leasing the penitentiaries, leasing convicts for outside labor, purchasing and/or leasing farms for the employment of convicts, and providing for the transfer of convicts from county jails to the penitentiary. During the 19th century the direct management of the prison was through the inspector, later known as the superintendent. Other officers included assistant superintendents, inspectors of outside camps, the financial agent, and physicians. The superintendent and financial agent had the most direct dealings with the Board and the Governor in the management of the prison system.
The Texas prison system began as a single institution, located in Huntsville, known as the Huntsville Penitentiary. Convicts were put to work in various shops and factories housed within the institution. In 1871, the legislature directed that the penitentiary be leased to private individuals (Chapter 21, 12th Legislature, 1st Called Session). These men, known as lessees, paid the state for the convict labor and use of facilities, and in turn, managed the system, including clothing and feeding the convicts and paying the guards. It was during this period that the outside camp system was firmly established as part of the prison system. In addition to the use of convicts in and around the prison, the convicts were hired out to large labor employers, mainly plantation owners and railroad companies. A second prison facility, Rusk Penitentiary, was built between 1877 and 1882. It began receiving convicts in January of 1883.
In 1881, the Legislature reorganized the prison system, abolishing the Board of Directors, and creating in its place a Penitentiary Board, consisting of the governor, the state treasurer, and the prison superintendent (Chapter 49, 17th Legislature, Regular Session). In April 1883, the administrative system was again reorganized, with the board comprised of the governor and two commissioners appointed by the governor (Chapter 114, 18th Legislature, Regular Session). In 1885, the board composition changed once more, now consisting of three commissioners appointed by the governor (House Bill 562, 19th Legislature, Regular Session). This board was succeeded by the Board of Prison Commissioners in 1910, which was composed of three commissioners appointed by the governor (Senate Bill 10, 31st Legislature, 4th Called Session). The legislation that created the new board also directed the prison system to begin operating again on state account, i.e., lessees no longer managed the prison system, effective in January 1911. Convicts, or inmates, were housed and worked in one of the two prisons or on one of several state prison farms. The shop industries slowed down while the prison farms expanded. This arrangement made it more difficult to provide education and other reform measures. Such measures were generally practiced at Huntsville, with some teaching extended to a couple of prison farms by the early 1900s.
The Texas Prison Board replaced the Board of Prison Commissioners as the governing body for the Texas Prison System in 1927, increasing in size to nine members (House Bill 59, 40th Legislature, Regular Session). The members of the board were appointed by the governor, with senate approval, to six year overlapping terms. The Board formulated the policies and the manager carried them out. During the Board's tenure, 1927-1957, the Board made changes in the system including more emphasis on prison reform, teaching, recreation--including the establishment of the Texas Prison Rodeo--and a new method of classifying inmates. The Texas Prison System became the Department of Corrections in 1957 (Senate Bill 42, 55th Legislature, Regular Session). This Department was governed by the Board of Corrections, composed of nine members appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate to six year overlapping terms.
In 1989, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the Board of Criminal Justice were created (House Bill 2335, 71st Legislature, Regular Session). The Board is composed of nine members appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the senate to six year overlapping terms. The governor may not appoint more than two members who reside in an area encompassed by the same administrative judicial region. This new agency absorbed the functions of three agencies: the Department of Corrections, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and the Texas Adult Probation Commission. The Department of Corrections, which was responsible for the operation of the prison system, is now the Institutional Division of the Department of Criminal Justice. This Division still manages the housing of inmates within the prison system. As of June 2007, approximately 151,960 offenders were housed in TDCJ units or state jails and 13,195 in private facilities.
(Sources include: Guide to Texas State Agencies, various editions, the website of the agency ( http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/index.htm), viewed on May 11, 2009, and the agency's records.)
The Texas State Penitentiary Board of Commissioners was responsible for overseeing the treatment of convicts, preparing an annual inventory of property, purchasing land for the penitentiaries, purchasing machinery, effecting repairs, leasing the penitentiaries, leasing convicts for outside labor, purchasing and/or leasing farms for the employment of convicts, and providing for the transfer of convicts from county jails to the penitentiary. Records are two letterpress books containing copies of outgoing letters of the Penitentiary Board, dating from April 1883 to April 1889. They reflect the activities of the board in the prison's management. Missing are incoming letters to the board. These letters document a wide range of penitentiary affairs including routine actions such as appointments, and special activities, such as the construction of the state capitol. The volumes contain acknowledgements, responses to requests, appointments, approval of reports and actions of prison officials, and financial transactions. The letters are signed by the secretary of the board and each volume has an index to correspondents. Subjects covered include transportation of convicts to the prison, contracting for convict labor, offers and purchase of land for state farms, and construction work done by convicts for the state capitol.
This series was removed from the overall TDJC finding aid due to the electronic file size limitations imposed by the online finding aid web site (TARO). If you are reading this electronically, click on the following link to access the overall finding aid, Texas Department of Criminal Justice records If you are reading this in paper in the Archives search room, this finding aid is found in a separate divider within the same binder.
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These letterpress volumes cannot be photocopied because of their fragile condition.
(Identify the item), Texas State Penitentiary, Board of Commissioners outgoing letters. Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Accession number: 1936/002
These records were transferred to the Archives and Information Services Division of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission by the Texas Governor's Office on October 8, 1936.
Processed by Laura K. Saegert, July 1988
Revised by Laura K. Saegert, October 1999
DACS compliance and series formatted into a separate finding by Laura K. Saegert, July 2009
Detailed Description of the Records