Academic journal article International Journal of Punishment and Sentencing

Who Rules the Joint Revisited: Organizational Change and the Importance of Prison Leadership

Academic journal article International Journal of Punishment and Sentencing

Who Rules the Joint Revisited: Organizational Change and the Importance of Prison Leadership

Article excerpt

Abstract: In 1972, a black Texas prison inmate filed a lawsuit claiming systematic racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination across numerous aspects of Texas prison operation. In 1977, this lawsuit was dealt with by consent decree. As the consent decree process unfolded, the most contentious aspect to emerge was the requirement that Texas prison administrators desegregate two-person cells. Despite predictions of extreme racial violence, from both inmates and staff, Texas prison administrators accomplished racial desegregation within cells absent the violence predicted by many. This essay explores the road to in-cell desegregation in Texas prisons and the specific tactics prison administrators utilized to desegregate cells while ensuring the safety and security of inmates, staff, and institutions. Beyond specific tactics, however, this essay ends with a perspective on prison leadership during times of externally forced and controversial change to the prison environment.


In 1972, the Texas prison system held approximately 15,000 convicts in a dozen prison farms scattered throughout the piney woods of East Texas. The system's operating budget was roughly $18 million dollars and only a pittance went to legal affairs of any sort. Order and predictability were the norm, and idleness, riots, escapes, gangs, and other serious issues were virtually non-existent. By most accounts, the place simply known as "TDC" (Texas Department of Corrections) to officers, inmates, and citizens of the remote East Texas prison towns was a model of justice. As inmates from the county jails poured into Huntsville for processing, they were all issued prison garb (no free world clothing was allowed), shoes, and given a nice short haircut to strip away any baggage or street personality they might drag into the paternalistic prison setting. Once classified, inmates were sent to their long-term prison farm to endure a highly regimented routine of work and schooling until their release--with an emphasis on work. Back then, all convicts had a job on the farms and all were required to attend school to earn a diploma or GED. (1)

For the most part, life for inmates in the 1970s was the same as it had been since the 1940s when O.B. Ellis took over the helm and transformed Texas prison farms from a source of "extreme embarrassment" to a "place of respectability among penal institutions.: (2) Following his death in 1961, Ellis was succeeded by Dr. George J. Beto and he carefully honed Ellis's method of prison management and carded on the tradition of respectability in the field of penology. Characteristic of Ellis's and Beto's tenure, when the work bell rang, convict "hoe squads" hit the back gate, were counted, and ran to the waiting trailers to pick cotton or peas or corn and "feed the bags". (3) Litigation activity by inmates was sporadic and fundamentally a nuisance. In fact, the notion of inmate complaints affecting system operation was absurd. As long as convicts were isolated and contained, Texas prison farms operated largely on the fancy of prison administrators with little outside interference.

Change was in the offing for the Texas prison system, however. By the 1960s, the Arkansas prison system was already embroiled in a massive storm of institutional litigation where nearly every aspect of that system's operation came under federal court scrutiny. (4) In short order, similar complaints regarding unconstitutional conditions of confinement were being received by federal judges in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Texas and most other parts of the south. (5) As it turned out, prison systems in the south with their uniquely southern mix of camps, tanks, farms, hoe squads, and chain gangs felt most of the pressure applied by federal courts. Perhaps no state prison system felt as much pressure as TDC.

In October 1972, a black Texas prisoner by the name of Allen L. Lamar filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging systematic racial segregation and discrimination in nearly every aspect of TDC operation. …

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