Some Prisons Bear Names of Enslavers, Oppressors, Racists and Segregationists
Texas has several prisons named after slaver owners, the most egregious of which is the prison named after Thomas J. Goree. Goree owned slaves and held the rank of captain in the rebellious Confederate army. After the Civil War, he became one of the first superintendents of the state’s prison system, which was renowned for torturing prisoners in stocks and dark, dank cells.
“Goree was a central figure in the convict leasing system that killed thousands of people and he presided over the formal segregation of the prison system,” said Associate Professor Robert Perkinson of the University of Hawaii, who researches crime and punishment. “Even though he thought of himself as a kind of benevolent master, he doesn’t age well at all.”
Perkinson’s book, Texas Tough, depicts the horrors of the Texas convict leasing program during Goree’s tenure. Plantation owners viewed the system more favorably than chattel slavery because working an enslaved person to death caused a financial loss, whereas a leased convict worked to death would be replaced by another convict—frequently a former enslaved person—gratis. That is why the convict laborers were often whipped, beaten and overworked while being denied adequate nutrition or any medical care.
The Eastham Unit is named after landowners who used leased convicts to work the land where the prison is currently located. The Ferguson Unit is named after a Texas governor in the 1910s, James E. Ferguson, an avowed anti-Semite who encouraged the Texas Rangers to wage a bloody campaign against the Mexicans, telling them he would pardon any of them charged with murder, according to historian Monica Muñoz Martinez, who wrote The Injustice Never Leaves You. Another Texas prison was named after a staunch segregationist, William P. Hobby, who defended the beating of an NAACP official visiting the state to discuss anti-lynching legislation.
The Daniel Unit was named after a mid-20th-century Texas governor, Price Daniel, who opposed integration. The Wallace Pack and Billy Moore Units were named after a Texas warden and major who died in 1981 while trying to murder a Black prisoner.
Texas is not alone in its indiscretions. A New York City jail complex honors the Riker family. Richard Riker, a criminal court judge and member of the “Kidnapping Club,” abused the Fugitive Slave Act to send free Blacks into slavery.
Alabama has a prison named after Hamp Draper, a former state prison director and interim leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Georgia named a prison after Henry Lee III, the slave-owning father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina is named after the general. Florida’s Jackson Correctional Institution honors Andrew Jackson, who was the seventh president, as well as a slave owner and oppressor of native people. Both Florida and Georgia have prisons named after John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s rabidly pro-slavery vice president.
The prisons named after Calhoun, Jackson, and Lee all are located in counties named for the same questionable historic figures. Forrest City, Arkansas, is named after Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, a Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan who controlled leased convicts in Mississippi. Forrest City is the home of two federal prisons bearing that name.
“At the end of the day the mentality in these prisons is still, ‘This is my plantation and you are my slaves,’” said exoneree Anthony Graves, a Texas man who spent 12 years on death row for a wrongful capital murder conviction. “To change that we have to start somewhere and maybe if we change the name, we can start to change the culture.”
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