Texas Republican Representative Proposes Renaming Prisons With Names Honoring Enslavers, Oppressors and Convict Leasers
On January 24, 2021, Republican State Representative James White announced his intention to ask the Texas Board of Criminal Justice to rename several prisons because of the sordid history of the person whom they are named after. In an interview with the Texas Tribune, White—who is the chairman of the House Corrections Committee—specifically named three prisons: the Darrington, Eastham and Goree Units.
“We’ve got correctional officers who have lost their lives, we’ve got crime victims that have contributed immensely to good victim’s rights advocacy, board members that have served and promoted good policies,” said White. “I just think there are other Texans that we can probably associate a name with a unit.” Because lots of people want to have a prison named after them.
Indeed the three prisons are egregious examples have questionable namesakes. Thomas J. Goree owned slaves and was a captain in the Confederate Army before becoming one of the first superintendents of the state prison system. His tenure was notable for dark, dank cells, prisoners being tortured in stocks, and the leasing of convicts to labor under inhumane conditions.
“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,” according to University of Hawaii Associate Professor Robert Perkinson, an expert on crime and punishment who wrote the book, Texas Tough, An Unvarnished History of the Abusive Texas Prison System.
The Eastham Unit is named after the landowners who purchased Goree’s plantation after the Civil War. They leased convict laborers—mostly former slaves imprisoned on specious charges—from the prison system Goree ran. Plantation owners viewed using convict laborers as superior to owning slaves because the owner incurred a loss if a slave died of overworking, lack of nutrition or medical neglect, but a convict who was fatally abused would simply be replaced gratis by the prison system.
John Darrington owned slaves that he worked on the huge plantation he sold to the state after the Civil War. That plantation became the Darrington Unit, a 1,700-bed prison where unpaid prisoners are still forced to work in sweltering cotton fields.
There are at least eight Texas prisons whose names honor people with similar unsavory histories, so renaming three is just a start. Indeed, that beginning is not certain as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice issued a waffling comment on White’s request, saying that “a number of factors are taken into consideration when reviewing or renaming prison units.”
“It is wholly inappropriate in 2021 to have state facilities honor those that profited off of the racist horrors and atrocities of our state’s convict leasing program,” said Houston attorney Jay Jenkins of the Convict Leasing and Labor Program. “A full reconciliation of our state’s sins of convict leasing requires an end to unpaid prison labor in Texas and a discussion of reparations for the descendants of those who were unjustly imprisoned and forced to work on prison farms under threat of torture, maiming and death.” PLN agrees. And we can note that Texas prisoners are still forced to work at gunpoint for no wages at all. The state continues profiting from prison slavery and changing a few prison names will not change that reality.
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