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Huntsville Prison

Texas State Penitentiary

By LIOPPublished 7 months ago 7 min read
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Photo by Jimmy Chan / Pexels

The Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville has a long history dating back to the start of the penitentiary system in the state. It was the only confederate prison left standing after the end of the Civil War. When the death penalty was adopted in Texas, it chosen by the state to perform executions and is still used for them today. The quality of life in the prison is humane but minimal. Inmates are allowed visitation on weekends, can make but not receive phone calls and have a variety of educational and recreational activities available to them. The conditions in the summer can become sweltering hot as most of the prison has heat but no air conditioning. Although inmates are not forced to work it is expected that they participate in one or a variety of labor-oriented work until their sentence is complete.

History of the Prison

A year after the state legislature created the penitentiary system in 1848, the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville was opened. The prison was the first in the state of Texas and quickly became known as the “Walls Unit” because of the 15-foot brick wall that runs the perimeter of the prison yard. The first inmate to be incarcerated at Huntsville was William G. Sansom in 1849 after being found guilty of cattle rustling. The first female to be held was Elizabeth Huffman who was found guilty of infanticide and began her sentence in 1854.

Prisoners of war were held in Huntsville Penitentiary during the Civil War. In 1863 Union soldiers were taken prisoner with the States Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane following defeat at Galveston Harbor in a naval battle. Legend states that Sam Houston visited the prisoners of war just days before his death in 1863. In eleven confederate states, the Huntsville Penitentiary was the only prison still standing at the end of the Civil War.

When the state took control of executions in 1924 the penitentiary began serving as the state’s official site for death row and executions. On February 8, 1924 the first 5 prisoners were executed by electrocution. The electric chair was continued to be used until 1964 to perform executions, until they were deemed unconstitutional due to racial discrepancies. A new method of lethal injection was adopted by the state of Texas in 1982 and executions were resumed.

With fellow inmates Ingnacio Cuevas and Rudolfo Dominguez, Fred Gomez Carrasco led the longest prison siege in Texas history. On July 24, 1974 the inmates ten employees and five fellow inmates’ hostage for eleven days. Carrasco kept the hostages within the education building, using a moving shield made from blackboards and law books from the library. Two hostages, Carrasco and Dominguez were killed when a gunfight erupted during an escape attempt. Cuevas was later executed for his participation in the eleven-day siege.

Quality of Life

Inmates at Huntsville are allowed visitors once per weekend. The visit period is approximately two hours and are held from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm every Saturday and Sunday. A maximum of two adults aged eighteen or older are allowed at each visit and children seventeen or younger are not counted towards the visitor number. This allows inmates with multiple children, younger siblings or even grand-children to visit with their entire families. Before an inmate is allowed to have a visitation, the visitors must get approval from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by filing an application.

Phone calls cannot be received by inmates at Huntsville Prison unless it is due to extenuating circumstances. In the event an inmate needs to be called there is an emergency process made available by the state of Texas, but there must be a valid reason for an inmate to receive a call. The inmates do have access to phones at certain times of day to call out of the prison and they are able to receive electronic messages through the JPAY service. The JPAY service is also one of several ways that an inmate can have money sent to them.

There are several programs offered at Huntsville Penitentiary for inmates to learn new skills. Literacy programs that will assist inmates to get a basic education or GED available. There are also several career and technology programs, apprenticeship programs and auto-mechanics vocational training. There are opportunities for inmates to get involved in community work projects which are services provided to the city, county and local organizations as well as volunteer initiatives such as substance abuse education, support groups and mentoring. A special treatment program called the Sex Offender Education Program (SOEP) is also offered and is a four-month program that is meant to assist sex offenders determined to pose a lower re-offense risk or who may be released into supervision for an extended period of time while they participate in the treatment.

Inmates at the prison have medical, dental and mental care provided to them using a managed health care system using the University of Texas Medical Branch. A full range of specialty consultations and hospital services are available when required. There is a possibility for medical visitation by family if an inmate is seriously or critically ill. The condition of an inmate is determined by the presiding doctor. The doctor or physician notifies the wardens office and then whomever is placed as the emergency contact on the intake paperwork provided by the inmate is then notified of the situation. Medical visitors are required to receive permission before they are allowed to visit an inmate in a hospital.

The prison offers inmates opportunities to participate in various recreation activities that are either programmatic or non-programmatic. There are facilities and equipment for these activities, provided by the prison and maintained by the staff assigned to recreation oversight. These recreation activities may include television viewing, dayroom games, team sports including basketball, softball, and volleyball, individual sports such as table tennis, handball, horseshoes, and weightlifting. Inmates may also be allowed basic in-cell craft activities. Recreation programs may include intramural games, tournaments and league play and craft shop participation. All recreation activities are based on availability and may not be available at all times.

The living conditions in the prison are humane but sparse. Although there is heat provided in cooler months, the inmates cells are not air conditioned. Recently there has been a push on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice by media and advocates to install cooling units in prisons, not just in Huntsville but throughout Texas. Although there have been advances made through legislation to get funding for the project, it will be years if not decades before the prison system in Texas can accommodate the needs of the inmates in summer months. A call has been made for Texas to report the temperature inside prison cells and inmates have filed lawsuits against the TDCJ for inhumane conditions.

Inmates are provided with the minimum required amenities for living. Clothes, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and three meals a day. Inmates can purchase additional amenities using money in their canteen fund that can be topped up by family or friends from outside the prison.

Historically Texas prisons run on the principle of work and Huntsville Penitentiary is no exclusion. Most able-bodied inmates are expected to work but can no longer be physically forced to do so. Inmates that participate in educational programs receive a reduced work schedule until they have completed their education. A variety of labor is performed by inmates including tending gardens, growing edible and field crops, the operation of livestock breeding, growing, and finishing operations. An inmate may also work in textile mills, machinery repair shops, a license plate factory, a garment factory, or other industrial operations in the area. Many inmates may end up assisting with the beautification and maintenance of the City of Huntsville working with city or county contractors.

Conclusion

The history of Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville dates back to the start of the penitentiary system in the state of Texas. At the end the Civil War, the penitentiary was the only confederate prison left standing. The prison served as death row and the place of execution when the death penalty was adopted in Texas and although no longer houses death row inmates it is continued to be used as the chosen place of execution by the state of Texas. Quality of life in the prison is marginally humane and the amenities are minimal. Visitators are allowed to see inmates on weekends and inmates can make but not receive phone calls. The prison offers a variety of educational and recreational activities when available and in summer months conditions become unbearable because most of the prison does not have air conditioning. Inmates are not forced to work, but it is expected that they participate in some form of labor-oriented work until their sentence is complete. The only exception is if they are unfit to work or if they are enrolled in an education program.

Sources

Neucere, Elizabeth. “Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, East Texas History”, accessed October 17, 2021, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/41.

Walker, Donald R. “Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Handbook of Texas Online”, accessed October 17, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-state-penitentiary-at-huntsville.

PrisonInsight.com. “Huntsville Unit”, accessed October 17, 2021, https://prisoninsight.com/correctional-facilities/state/texas/huntsville-unit/.

Texas Department of Corrections and Justice. “General Information Guide for Families of Offenders” (pp 25 – 28, 37-38), accessed October 17, 2021, https://www.tdcj.texas.gov/documents/General_Information_Guide_for_Families_of_Offenders.pdf.

McCullough, Jolie. “Texas may soon have to report the temperatures inside its uncooled prisons”, The Texas Tribune, accessed October 17, 2021, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/41.

Cover Image

Chan, Jimmy. “Hallway With Window · Free Stock Photo.” Pexels, 10 Aug. 2018, www.pexels.com/photo/hallway-with-window-1309902.

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