Monday, February 4, 2013

What to do with ornary cowboys...

I thought it might be fun to research the history of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.  The local jails were small and in some cases, just cages set out of doors. No privacy and very little hygiene to speak of. But in 1848, the Texas legistlature passed a bill providing for the building of a state prison that would house convicted felons. They built a temporary structure of logs and iron bars for inmates who arrived before construction of the main building was finished. It soon became evident that money had not been set aside to support the keeping of inmates so a cotton and woolen mill was built so the inmates could “earn” their keep and pay back society at the same time. The photo on the right is a jail used in an Oklahoma town. I can't even imagine.

Interestingly enough, the Huntsville Penitentiary was the only state prison left standing in the south after the Civil War.  The end of the war brought about a surge of lawlessness and a need to accommodate more prisoners with no way to financially support this increase. In 1867, the prison entered into lease agreements with individuals willing the hire convict labor.

Other changes came about shortly after that whereby the prison held worship services, bible studies and even classes that taught the basics of reading and writing.

In 1931, Marshall Lee Simons instituted the Texas Prison Rodeo as a way to provide recreation for the inmates and entertainment for staff and families. This was a very popular event for those residing nearby and I even had the opportunity to attend one before they had to quit due to structural problems with the stadium in 1986.
I did some of this research when writing Julia's Golden Eagle as the hero, Jake Nolan is accused of a murder he didn't commit and sentenced to time in the State Penitentiary. Please enjoy the scene where he's traveling by way of the prison wagon:
The prison wagon rumbled along the rough road, jostling its only occupant. Uncomfortable and bruised from the ride, Jake stared out the small, barred window. The stifling air made breathing difficult. Jake rubbed his chafed wrists where the manacles cut into the skin. His throat, dry from the dust and heat, yearned for water. People treated horses better than this, but he was accustomed to the cruelty observed by domineering prison guards. Alton had been hell. He expected no less from the pen.
His uncomfortable ride gave him time to plan. Julia Stanton had to pay. He wasn’t a vindictive man, but Julia pushed the limits of his restraint. He could find little forgiveness in his heart. He would relish his vengeful fantasies now and ask God for forgiveness later when his anger and frustration subsided. God help the woman if he ever got a chance to act any of them out.
Jake jumped when a shot rang out, and the wagon came to an abrupt stop.
“Find cover!”
Ping! Zing!
“Who’s firing?”
The wagon lurched as the prison guards jumped from their perch.
Jake crouched on the floor of the wagon, listening intently to the exchange outside. The shot had come from the left, so the guards used the right side of the wagon as a shield. He heard a rapid session of gunfire. One guard yelped in pain. Had he been hit?
More shots rang out, this time from the right. A shuffling noise came from under the wagon. The guards must be hiding beneath him. They fired off a few rounds, but the return fire kept them pinned. An eerie silence ensued.
After a few moments of inactivity, Jake crept to a window and peered out. Movement to the far right rustled the trees, but the guards remained strangely silent.
“Throw out your weapons.”
A thunk followed by another thud sounded on the damp ground.
The guards must have done as asked, for the bandits then instructed them to crawl from under the wagon with their hands on their heads.
Jake didn’t know whether to be happy or scared. He didn’t recognize the voices, nor could he see very well from his viewpoint.
The high tenor voice sounded almost feminine. He wrinkled his brow. What were their intentions?
A few minutes later, keys jangled outside the door. Metal scraped against metal, and a sharp click indicated the lock released. The door hinges groaned. He took a step back and shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight. He immediately came nose to nose with the barrel of a Winchester shotgun.


Ellen O'Connell said...

Hi Ciara - I did some research into Huntsville for my novel, Sing My Name, because the hero, Matt Slade, spends three years there. As it happened, during the years Matt was there, the leasing of convicts for labor wasn't in effect. Of course that didn't stop me from reading up on the whole thing, and everything I found about conditions, death rates, etc., was horrendous. Texas wasn't the only state that did this.

Jacquie Rogers said...

An outdoor cage! It would be awful to be confined in that thing.

Nice excerpt, Ciara.

Ciara Gold said...

Hey Ellen, I know what you mean. We've come a long way in prison reform. And Jacquie, while I took this picture when we toured Oklahoma (and can't remember exactly where but it's in my notes somewhere), I saw other images that I think would be far worse. Think of a 6 x 6 brick closet with only one small window for ventilation. Shivers.

Paty Jager said...

Fun information about the prisons in Texas and the system. Excellent excerpt.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ciara, tantalizing excerpt. Now I have to buy the book. ☺ Thanks for the info--can't imagine a jail with no privacy like the one in the photo. Ugh! Jail would be bad enough without everyone seeing you relieve yourself, sleep, etc. Maybe it served as both a warning and prevention to any would-be criminals.

Lyn Horner said...

Interesting and horrifying history of our prisons. Thanks for sharing your research, Ciara. And I love the excerpt!

Devon Matthews said...

Love your sample, Ciara! Very good info, very helpful. I have a wip with a hero who spent some time in prison and I stuck him in Huntsville (changed his backstory to set him in Texas so it seemed the logical place) because it has been around for so long. I went looking for places (like reform schools or farms) where they might have sent boys , but only came up with locations in the east. Thanks for the research!