Will The Reckoning Over Racist Names Include These Prisons?Historians in the News
tags: Jim Crow, Texas, prisons, Mass Incarceration, convict leasing
In some parts of the South, many prisons are former plantations. Unlike Darrington or Cummins, the vast majority at least bothered to change the name—but that isn’t always much of an improvement.
In Texas, for example, most of the state’s lock-ups are named after ex-prison officials and erstwhile state politicians, a group that predictably includes problematic figures. Arguably one of the worst is Thomas J. Goree, the former slave owner and Confederate captain who became one of the first superintendents of the state’s penitentiaries in the 1870s, when prison meant torture in stocks and dark 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 Robert Perkinson, a University of Hawaii associate professor who studies crime and punishment. “Even though he thought of himself as a kind of benevolent master, he doesn’t age well at all.”
In his book “Texas Tough,” Perkinson describes some of the horrors of the convict leasing practices of Goree’s era. Because the plantation owners and corporations that rented prisoners did not own them, they had no incentive to keep them alive. If you killed an enslaved person, it was a financial loss; if you killed a leased convict, the state would just replace him. For decades, Texas prison laborers were routinely whipped and beaten, and the leasing system in Goree’s day sparked several scandals, including one involving torture so terrible it was known as the “Mineola Horror.” Goree defended the system: “There are, of course, many men in the penitentiary who will not be managed by kindness.” Plus, he explained, prisoners in the South needed to be treated differently because they were different from those in the north: “There, the majority of men are white.”
The present-day Goree Unit is in Huntsville, an hour’s drive north of Houston, but his family’s former plantation in Lovelady—about 20 miles further north—has been turned into another prison: The Eastham Unit, named for the later landowners who used it for convict leasing.
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