“Hell Hole on the Brazos”
An Introduction to Convict Labor
(Based on the Testimony of an Ex-Convict Who Served Time at Imperial Prison Farm in Sugar Land during the Convict Leasing Period)
The preponderance of the wealth of the antebellum South was derived from super-profits produced by slave labor. The economic exploitation continued throughout the post-war reconstruction period and into the 20th century under the convict leasing system across the American South. In his self-published memoir, 25 Years Behind Prison Bars, ex-convict Bill Mills provides graphic testimony about the way the system worked in Texas.
In 1910, at age seventeen, Mills was arrested and convicted in Hunt County for the theft of a horse and sentenced to two years in prison. As Texas Inmate #37538 he was sent to the Burleson and John Farm on the Brazos River. It was there that he was introduced to the brutal reality of forced labor. His first encounter was the use of the “bat”.
Mills was assigned to a cotton-picking squad and learned on his first day in the field that the work day on the farm extended from daylight to dark and the production quota was 300 pounds of cotton a day per man. On his second day he met the whip. An inmate who failed to meet quota was submitted to a strapping with the bat, a two-foot long leather strap mounted securely on a wooden handle. The entire squad was required to witness the punishment and several of the inmates, including Mills, were instructed to hold the man down.
Mills recounts the harrowing event:
“We laid him on his stomach, pulled his pants down to his knees, baring the skin, and his shirt was pulled up under his arms. Two men held each of his legs, one man on each arm and one astraddle his head, which happened to be I in the present instance, because it was the captain’s command. I think he wanted to put a scare into me, and he succeeded.” (p. 12)
According to Mills, the inmate received twenty lashes over an extended eight to twelve-minute time span in order to prolong his suffering.
The physical effects of the beating were vivid: “The first few licks caused very red spots but by the time the last lash was put on, it is a solid blister which looks bluish black.” (p. 14)
Then the captain made Mills, because he was new to the squad, smell the sweaty and bloody bat as a warning that he would be next if he failed to pick his quota of cotton.
Bill Mills picks up his chronicle of forced labor after he was convicted again and ended up at Imperial work farm in Fort Bend County, known by prisoners across the system as the “hell hole on the Brazos” because of the brutal working and living conditions.
“Hell Hole on the Brazos”
At Imperial Farm the punishment regime employed to maximize production had been perfected. In addition to the ubiquitous bat, the threat of the dark cell and chaining hung over the inmates.
The Dark Cell
Imperial Farm prisoners were confined in the dark cell (or “dungeon” as Mills puts it) for first time minor offenses. He describes its structure and function:
“A man was supposed to be in the dark cell thirty-six hours. Therefore, to keep the prisoners in the fields, they would punish as many as possible from Saturday night to Monday morning, with only one cup of water and one piece of corn bread Sunday at noon. The dark cell was a wooden room about eight feet long, six feet wide, and six feet high. It had no bedding or anything in it, so the prisoner was undressed and pushed in there without anything except a gown. They had to sleep on the floor unless there were too many to lie down. I have seen as many as eight men in a cell at one time for thirty-six hours.
“Many will remember—as I do although in the Oklahoma prison at the time—of reading in the newspaper that fourteen negro prisoners were put in the cell on the Harlem farm Near Richmond, Texas, and thirteen of them smothered to death. Of course, I did not see this, but talked with guards who claimed it was true.” (p.31-32)
Mills himself was confined in the dark cell for minor infractions several times during his prison career.
Mills continues his chronicle of punishment at Imperial Farm:
“For the second offense they would chain a man by his wrists. This was done by putting a small block and tackle in the ceiling of the building with a long rope running through it, extending from the picket office to the floor. At the end of this rope would be an iron rod about three feet long. At each end of the rod there would be an eighteen-inch chain extending downward. Another chain or piece of leather would extend from that to a man’s wrist. At the command of the picket guard, the building tender fastened this to a prisoner’s wrist, then the picket guard would pull the rope until he got the prisoner on tip toes. And it wasn’t unusual to swing him clear off the floor. According to the rules he was supposed to hang for three or four hours. But that depended on whether he became unconscious. For in that day the guards seemed to enjoy punishing the prisoner more than the law required.
“I’m here to tell you that brutality in Texas prisons was beyond bounds. For this I experienced. I believed then and I still believe that I tried to get along without punishment on the Imperial Farm.” (p. 29-30)
Bill Mills summarizes his years at Imperial Farm as:
“…Hell on Earth, for this was the worst prison life I ever spent in prison. I saw more cruelty and inhuman treatment in those five years in prison than I have seen in the other twenty years in prison. It would take a very large book to print all the tough details.” (p. 25)
In order to understand the full signifance of the brutality that Bill Mills and the other prisoners faced at Imperial Farm we must place his testimony in the context of the convict lease system in Texas.
The Convict Lease System
During the convict leasing period less than 20 percent of the inmates worked in shops inside the prison proper while more than 80 percent worked at outside camps, and the majority of those on sugar and cotton plantations.[i]
“In all essential details, the facilities and conditions at the Imperial state farm appeared typical of the outside camps. Long arduous workdays, poor quality food, and filthy, unsanitary conditions were standard. Unheated bathing water on most of the farms, even during the winter, represented the only noteworthy difference. Given the conditions under which they had to live on the farms, most prisoners preferred to serve their time in Huntsville or Rusk. In the words of a Huntsville inmate, ‘Well, gentlemen, put me twenty-five years solid; that before I take six months on the farm. Give me twenty solid here before I would get six months on the farm.’”[ii]
But either inside the walls or scattered across the east and central Texas countryside, the objective was the same—to procure the highest level of production at the lowest possible labor cost therefore maximizing the accumulation of capital that fueled post-Civil War economic recovery and provided the seed money for many businesses and institutions that have survived to present times.
* * *
Although we know the names of very few of the prisoners who labored under the convict lease system, we do have a general demographic profile of them from official records kept from 1880 through 1912, the end of the convict lease period.[iii]
Here is the rundown:
- By race/nationality (in 1912 when the lease system ended) they were 60 percent black, 29 percent white, 11 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent Indian. (There were very few women in prison during the period but records affirm that in one work camp there were 60 women and over 90 percent were black.)
- By age (throughout the period) the majority of the prisoners were between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age and had little education.
- The overwhelming majority of the prisoners were listed as having no trade or occupation at the time of their conviction.
- The majority of convicts were first-time offenders who had been convicted for crimes against property. As a rule, serious offenders, considered dangerous or a flight risk, were not sent to the outside work farms. Ironically, they were spared the worst the system had to offer.
- As a grim measure of how prisoners were treated, there were 2,998 deaths reported in Texas prisons and work camps during the 32-year period. Omitting the sharp decline in deaths after the legislative prison investigation of 1909-1910, the mortality rate among Texas prisoners was as average 3.3 percent annually—a remarkably high rate for a population whose age was in the twenties. No records were kept of the number of suicides.
- And, signaling resistance to the oppression of the system, there were 3,174 recorded escapes during the convict lease period. These escapes, averaged over 200 per year before the 1909-1910 investigation. Almost all of them from work farms despite the guards who shot to kill and packs of vicious hounds that were kept on hand to hunt down escapees.
The men and women who served time during the convict lease period are gone but their suffering and contributions to history should not be forgotten.
It’s never too late to demand justice!
Copyright © 2018 Richard D. Vogel
[i] Donald R. Walker. Penology for Profit: A History of the Texas Prison System 1867-1912 (Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 1988) p.52.
[ii] Walker. P. 135.
[iii] All statistics from Walker. pp 114-125.