by Matt Clarke
The first prison ever closed in Texas was the Central Unit in Sugar Land, which had originally been a leased convict labor camp known as the Imperial Sugar Company State Prison Farm. When the facility was established in 1867, the state leased its prisoners to the Imperial Sugar Company as virtual slaves, and the company worked them under conditions so harsh many did not survive.
Most Americans have heard of the Nazi death camps of World War II. Their names, such as Auschwitz, are enshrined in our culture as the ultimate evil a government can inflict on its own citizens. Less known is that the death camps were a small part of a larger system of work camps designed to house and economically exploit people the Nazis found undesirable, such as Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Communists, Social Democrats and criminals. In the work camps, underfed prisoners were forced to labor under harsh conditions until they died or were executed. The work continued unabated because there were always more prisoners. A similar situation existed at the Imperial Sugar Company State Prison Farm.
When Texas closed the Central Unit in 2011, it gave the land to the Fort Bend Independent School District for the construction of the James Reese Career and Technical Center. During excavation in February 2018, a worker noticed human bones. An investigation turned up a total of 95 African-American bodies buried in plywood coffins in five-foot deep rectangular holes. Chains, hoes and other artifacts uncovered with the bodies indicated they were leased convict laborers.
The prisoners were worked hard, beyond their capacity, as evidenced by the recovered remains. Their skeletons showed muscles ripped from the bone by excessive strain, bone infections, healed broken bones and skeletal distortion caused by heavy labor. Researchers believe they were buried between 1878 and 1911, during the heyday of the convict leasing system in Texas.
On February 12, 2019, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court recommended the remains stay in place and a memorial be constructed and maintained by the county.
“Hopefully we can close the deals to be able to get the people interred correctly, get a memorial and a museum” for the graves, said Reginald Moore, with the Convict Leasing and Labor Project.
More than 3,500 prisoners died between the inception of the convict lease system in 1866 and when it was abolished by the legislature in 1912, based on historian Robert Perkinson’s book, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. His calculations indicated that more blacks died in the virtual slavery of convict leasing than by lynchings.
According to a New York Times editorial, citing a 2004 study by historian Amy Dase, “the state began leasing inmates to private enterprises outside of prisons in 1867 for construction of the roadbed along rail lines. Subsequent contracts hired out prisoners to chop and mill wood, mine coal and quarry stone. By the 1880s, more than a third of Texas’ inmates were engaged in 12 of the state’s 18 sugar plantations through a contract with two prominent businessmen who needed ‘a cheap labor supply that could be coerced much as slaves had been’ to make sugar production profitable.”
The Imperial Sugar Company State Prison Farm was one of several convict leasing prisons located in the swampy flood plain of the Brazos River. Prisoners called the region the “Hell Hole on the Brazos” – an appellation that continues to this day because Texas prisoners are still forced to work the same fields as convict laborers during the late 1800s.
“The convict lease system is the clearest bridge from slavery to the system of mass incarceration that we have today,” noted Jay Jenkins, with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Although prison conditions have improved, toiling in the fields – including picking cotton and grubbing potatoes – continues to be the backbreaking work it was over 100 years ago. The prisoners also see little difference between working for a private company or for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. A slave is a slave, regardless of who serves as master.
As a 28-year veteran of the Hell Hole on the Brazos, this writer can say that the land is still inhospitable, the work still causes injuries that result in permanent disability, and the field workers continue to be abused just as slaves were. The practice of convict leasing still exists, but now prisoners work in industry programs for a tiny fraction of the value of their labor.
Sources: nytimes.com, texasobserver.org, chron,com, washingtonpost.com, abc13.com, houstonpublicmedia.org, theguardian.com
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