From Chain Gangs to Chain Stores

Sugar Land's storied prison farm gives way to suburban sprawl.


During the time my grandfather supervised the cotton gin at Central State Farm, the prison property extended on both sides of U.S. 90A as far as the eye could see, the only interruptions on the low, level terrain being the prison’s “New Unit” for white convicts to the north of the highway, a hulking red brick building known as “Two Camp” to the south where black convicts were confined, and the Imperial Sugar Co. refinery two miles away in Sugar Land proper.

In those days of slow cars and two-lane highways, the 20 miles between Sugar Land and Houston were mostly open fields. Today it’s almost impossible to tell where Houston ends and Sugar Land begins, and therein lies the story of how the historic prison once considered the pride of the Texas penal system came to find itself in the middle of one of the fastest growing communities in the nation.

In the late 1990s, after the state had already begun selling off the valuable land, the prison grounds were still vast enough, at 4,500 acres, that when the warden and I rode horseback across the land, we could see the lights of encroaching development, yet in the quiet dark, it felt like we were back in the Old West.

Since then the land south of U.S. 90A has been sold and parceled into lots for a master-planned community of $250,000 to $1 million homes by a developer who has used the prison as a selling point. The Two Camp building, billed as the community’s centerpiece, will open next year as a satellite of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and a convict cemetery that sat in the fields half a mile from my grandparents’ house will become the focal point of a 50-acre regional park. Still more land has been sold by neighboring landowners north of the highway so that homes named after the likes of Cézanne and Monet are literally closing in.

All that remains of what is now called the Central Unit prison are the New Unit building, a collection of dormitories and outbuildings, and 326 acres for growing vegetables to feed 900-plus inmates. Even those may soon disappear, depending on the outcome of a study approved last year by the Texas Legislature to explore the feasibility of closing the prison. Both the building and the cemetery have been declared state historic landmarks, but with Sugar Land eyeing the land for an industrial park and airport expansion, it’s unclear how much weight that designation will ultimately carry. Owners of such landmarks must give the Texas Historical Commission 60 to 90 days’ notice before altering or demolishing historic structures so preservationists can rally. After that, owners can proceed without consequence. At the very least, interiors could be converted for other uses, and for the first time in 100 years the prison would cease to exist.

Imperial Cemetery Gate

The penitentiary, first called the Imperial State Prison Farm, is one of the oldest in Texas, opened in 1908 after the state abandoned a post-Civil War policy that allowed private citizens to lease convict workers for $3 a month. The initial 5,235 acres were part of the Sartartia plantation, where entrepreneurs Littleberry A. Ellis and Edward Cunningham kept their leased convicts busy tending sugarcane. The land had been purchased in 1907 by the proprietors of the newly formed Imperial Sugar Co., which continued to use convicts to work its fields. A year later, needing to raise capital, the company sold the Sartartia property to the state, along with an option to acquire the company itself-an option the state never exercised.

In its early days the prison consisted of three wooden buildings left over from the convict-leasing era. The antiquated structures had raised a public outcry after a legislative investigation exposed deplorable conditions under private contractors. (One witness declared them “hardly fit for the stabling of hogs, much less for men.”) Nevertheless, the three camps remained in use until the early 1930s, when the newly formed Texas Prison Board chose Imperial as the site for the state’s first modern penitentiary.

The plan called for a centralized industrial unit to supply the needs of the state’s 11 prisons, satisfying Gov. Dan Moody‘s mandate that the penal system support itself and thus spare future governors “the embarrassment” of having to ask the Legislature for money on the prisons’ behalf. The industrial approach was also seen as part of a more progressive solution to the classification and treatment of convicts, providing rehabilitation through job training rather than punitive measures.

Cotton Gin

The Austin architectural firm of Giesecke & Harris was hired to draw up plans for a 12-acre compound to include a cannery, a packinghouse, a power plant, a warehouse, a water tower, and buildings for inmate housing and administrative offices.

The firm used reinforced concrete in the American Moderne style popular for courthouses of the day. The Main Building, known for years as “the New Unit,” consisted of a three-story structure for offices connected by a set of corridors to a four-story dormitory wing. The first two floors of the dormitory radiated from a central rotunda like four spokes of a wheel to provide maximum light and ventilation.

The opening of the complex in late 1932 marked the beginning of the Texas prison system’s evolution beyond the days of plantations and primitive camps. Seven years later, the two holdover wooden camps were replaced by a Greek Revival-style building eventually nicknamed “Two Camp.” Soon Central became known as the showplace of the entire state system. One journalist compared the new complex with its employee cottages to a college campus. Another described it as “near to being a model prison as anything Texas has been able to develop.”

Field Squad

My grandfather arrived at what was still known as Imperial in 1926, having already worked for five years at one or another of the nine penitentiaries that then lined Oyster Creek and the Brazos River south and west of Houston. While many of his generation came to prison work out of necessity, with the man I called Popo it was a matter of temperament. He thrived on adventure, and by that time had done assorted stints with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and an Alabama lumber company for which he tracked down moonshiners. His full name was Gurnade Mason Shanks, but most folks at Central knew him as Boss Shanks, the form of address used for most prison personnel except the warden and the assistant warden, who went by “Big Captain” and “Little Captain.” He worked mostly in agricultural capacities, overseeing the warden’s yard squad, practicing veterinary medicine (though he had no training), and finally supervising the cotton gin.

He and my grandmother lived midway between Two Camp and the New Unit in a big white house that came with the job. It sat amid fields, next door to the prison post office and across the road from the warden’s more impressive two-story colonial. For the first 11 years of my life this was where I spent many summer vacations, just as my two older sisters and cousin Florence had. It never struck me as odd that my grandparents lived on a prison farm, or that my parents would send me there for visits. Nor did it bother me that the stories told at the supper table involved guards shooting at escapees under Mama and Popo’s house, or a convict being shot dead after taking a slice out of the Little Captain’s stomach.

It was then, and would be for a long time, a little like being out on the frontier. Mama cooked on a cast-iron stove; the only refrigeration was an icebox on the back porch. Like most folks at the prison, Popo got around on a horse delivered to his back door each morning by a trusty. Flatbed wagons were a common sight. Until the late 1940s, the land was farmed by men and mules, and it was said by some that the mules were treated better than the convicts, because the state had paid money for the mules.

Most mornings I would awaken to the grunts and hollers of convicts working cotton or beans. The fields would be full of them-some in prison whites, others in bad-men stripes-with guards on horseback scattered among them, rifles at the ready. The convicts sometimes traveled two or three miles to and from the fields, doing what they called “the turnrow walk.” They and the guards worked “from can see to can’t see” with only a rare day off.

Sometimes my grandfather would lift me onto his horse and we would ride to Two Camp for lunch in the Officers Dining Room. A convict would pass plates of steaming food through a barred window that separated the eating area from the kitchen, and in those moments I could glimpse the men sweating over steaming pots, a sought-after job in a world where the alternative was a procession of 16-hour days working the fields. The guards would make a fuss over Boss Shanks’ little granddaughter, and I would come away thrilled with the nickel or two the men would give me, never suspecting that they, or even my grandfather, might harbor a darker side.

Mr and Mrs Shanks

At least three convicts were buried in the old Imperial Cemetery during the years I visited Central, though I don’t recall knowing about them, or that a cemetery even existed. It was first brought to my attention during a 1996 visit by an employee who was compiling the prison’s history. Following advice from the Texas Historical Commission, the employee and a crew of convicts were restoring the tombstones and erecting a 12-foot cross. The employee’s interest had been triggered by an inquiry from someone trying to confirm a family story about a relative who, along with another convict, was said to have been struck by lightning while working in the fields. When the employee checked the cemetery, he found that the relative and a second convict had indeed both died on August 5, 1922. Huntsville records confirmed they had been killed by lightning.

Thirty-three convicts were buried in the cemetery between 1912 and 1944, and their deaths bear witness to harsh conditions and rough treatment. At least six died while attempting to escape, most drowning in the nearby Brazos River. Richard Coleman, age 20, was shot standing outside the prison cannery after he refused to drop a piece of pipe. Jesse Davis was clubbed to death by another convict over a roll of dimes. His killer was electrocuted by the state a year and a half later. Will Steward, serving three years for burglary, succumbed to “acute indigestion.”

For decades, Texas prison time was considered some of the harshest in the country. Convicts who failed to pick their quota of cotton or who acted out in any way could expect heavy-handed punishment, some of it sanctioned by law, some of it not: whipping (until an instrument called the bat was outlawed in 1941); standing on a barrel or crate (two hours on, one hour off-if you fell off, your time started over); handcuffs tightened to the point of cutting off circulation. The ultimate punishment was confinement in a dark, solitary cell on a diet of bread and water until, as the old-timers used to say, “their hearts got right.”

The retired warden of a neighboring prison recalled with some relish how my own grandfather once made an escapee ride back to the compound in freezing weather on the fender of his pickup. I never learned if he was capable of worse.

The Flanagan House

The warden throughout my grandfather’s 23 years at Central was R.J. “Buck” Flanagan, a tall, solidly built man who enjoyed extraordinary popularity in both the prison system and the community at large. When Huntsville higher-ups wanted to court the governor, they invited him to Central, where Flanagan’s wife, Emma, and her houseboy would prepare a feast, and convicts would sometimes entertain. Over the course of Flanagan’s 30 years as warden, 10 governors made the visit, as did scores of state legislators, some of them returning for multiple helpings of prison hospitality even after leaving office.

On the evening Gov. Pat Neff came to dinner, legendary blues singer Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter was escorted to the Flanagans’ back porch. Leadbelly was serving 30 years for murder and assault, but had apparently impressed Captain Flanagan, who allowed him to sing for the other convicts on Sundays. The potential benefits of impressing Neff did not escape the cunning Leadbelly, and he ended the evening’s performance with a song composed for the occasion, pleading with the governor to set him free so he could return to his woman friend Mary. Before the night ended, Neff had promised to pardon Leadbelly, which he did on his final day in office.

Flanagan and the wardens of his day were referred to as “farm managers” because they often came to the job knowing more about agriculture than about managing convicts. Flanagan was 17 and out riding horseback when he encountered an East Texas warden who offered him a job, hoping to persuade the teenager to sell his horse. That was 1897, and aside from five years at a North Dakota prison and a brief stint as a farm supervisor for Imperial Sugar, Flanagan spent the rest of his life with the state’s penitentiaries, eventually becoming known as the “Grand Old Man” of the Texas prison system.

His was a time when wardens were, as an old-time assistant warden once told me, “kingpins of their little farms,” with a good deal of authority and seemingly little interference from Huntsville or the courts. Flanagan could, for instance, assign a trusty to drive Miss Emma into Houston, grant furloughs to select inmates (a practice known as getting “out on the man”), and buy, sell, and barter agricultural goods within the community without bids.

That autonomy ended in the late 1940s when a general farm manager was hired to oversee the agricultural operation for the entire system, but for as long as Flanagan
as at Central, he was in charge, and it was widely agreed that he ran the best prison in the s

The press often praised the relative absence of inmate trouble, which is not to say that Central didn’t experience its share of fights. Even escapes were not uncommon, especially when the old wooden camps were still in use. Once, 21 inmates broke out in a single day by sawing through the floor. Another five escaped over the next month and a half.

Nevertheless, Flanagan liked to say you could find good in every man, including convicts, if you took the time to look. At the end of his career he took pride in the fact he had never killed a convict and shot only one, when he returned fire at an escapee who had shot Flanagan’s horse out from under him. At Christmas and on his birthday he would receive dozens of cards from men who had served time at Central, and many returned to visit. When he retired in 1949, the houseboy who had helped Miss Emma prepare her famous meals asked the governor for a conditional pardon so he could continue working for the couple at their new home in Richmond. The governor complied, a testimonial to the respect Flanagan enjoyed at every level.

Two Camp Building

The move to close or relocate Central, along with the prison system’s nearby Harlem Farm, goes back to Flanagan’s time. After an entire field squad escaped in 1928, killing the dog sergeant and wounding three others, area residents staged a months-long campaign of meetings at the Fort Bend County Courthouse and in Huntsville. The Houston and Richmond papers published editorials calling on the governor to rid the county of “the evils of the prison farms and perhaps hasten the establishment of a more modern and efficient penal system.” The modern prison should, of course, be located somewhere else. The move, the editorials noted, would free up 16,000 acres of rich farmland.

The prisons survived those efforts, as they did others over the years. In the late 1960s there was talk by the Texas Department of Corrections of selling the land south of U.S. 90A after the New Unit was integrated and Two Camp closed. At the time, prison Director George Beto acknowledged that the land was the “hottest piece of property on Houston’s southwest flank.” But, he told the press, the agency was in no hurry to dispose of it, and so it didn’t, then or in the early 1980s when rumors of a move again surfaced.

Still, the state gradually sold off property once owned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to private developers and other agencies, and by the time I returned in 1996 Sugar Land’s population had grown from 1,500 to almost 80,000, and city fathers were eyeing Central.

The prison had long enjoyed cordial ties with Sugar Land, including Imperial Sugar’s early use of convict labor. For years a trusty would make daily trips into town for the mail (first by wagon, later in a pickup truck). Meat and produce that weren’t delivered by wagon to the prison employees’ back doors were usually purchased in Sugar Land at Imperial Mercantile, where you could buy everything from a pound of flour to a casket.

The mercantile was actually a company store, owing to the fact that Sugar Land was in those days a company town. The houses, the school, all the business establishments-even the hospital and the mortuary-were owned by either Imperial Sugar or Sugarland Industries Inc., a company set up to manage the town’s assorted enterprises. Many Sugar Land residents had been employed by the prison at one time or another, just as many prison employees held jobs at the sugar refinery before settling into prison work. Warden Flanagan, who had worked briefly for the sugar company, shared prison-grown produce with the townspeople, and for a time assigned convicts to gather grapes for a neighboring farmer whose hobby it was to make wine-a generosity that today would be considered scandalous. That same farmer, whose land separated Central and Harlem Farm, agreed to allow convicts and prison personnel to travel between the two units via his turnrow, an arrangement that continues today between the Department of Criminal Justice and the farmer’s son.

Early efforts to close Central often followed escapes and focused on the land’s agricultural value, but as Sugar Land expanded beyond its company-town origins, developers and civic leaders began to see the potential for more than raising cotton and beans, and one by one the developers arrived. Today, the Sugar Land-Fort Bend area is home to what some say is the largest number of master-planned communities in the country: First Colony, New Territory, Greatwood, Riverstone, Orchard Lake, and Chelsea Harbour, among others.

Boss Shanks

None of these developments alarmed those who prize Central’s history as much as the sale five years ago of the 2,018-acre tract south of U.S. 90A, and with it Imperial Cemetery and the building known as Two Camp. The latter, used as storage for more than 30 years, had seen little activity aside from the filming in the late 1990s of scenes for the movie Powder. Nevertheless, the old brick building was a familiar landmark on what remained of the open prairie, and with the prospect of yet another upscale planned community, preservationists and prison employees feared the worst for the structure and the graves of the 33 felons, some of them dead for almost 100 years.

With Travis Stone and Newland Communities, however, preservationists lucked out. Stone, a native Texan, is a believer in making use of existing structures of significance and says he immediately saw the potential for turning Two Camp into a cultural center and focal point for the planned community Newland envisioned. The firm has already spent $1.2 million on new windows, a roof, and masonry repairs, so that the building looks much like it did when my grandfather and I went there to eat. Both the building and Imperial Cemetery have since been deeded to Sugar Land. The graves, Stone says, will be preserved in perpetuity.

A Sam’s Club and a Wal-Mart Supercenter now occupy the southeast corner of U.S. 90A and Texas 6, where the prison’s lumbering combines once harvested corn. On the land where my grandparents and the Flanagans lived, a 200-room Hilton Gardens Inn is going up.

The only remaining open land in the area is a 311-acre tract once owned and farmed by Central. Last year, after Academy Development Inc. had contracted to buy the property from the Texas General Land Office, Sugar Land rezoned it “light industrial” to prevent Academy from expanding its adjoining Chelsea Harbour subdivision onto property the city prefers to see used as an industrial park.

All this transpired around the same time Sugar Land was negotiating a two-year, $180,000 contract with the Austin lobbying firm Hillco Partners to push for legislation aimed at relocating Central, paving the way for the city to acquire the prison’s remaining 326 acres for an industrial park and airport expansion. The result was a bill signed into law last June calling for a feasibility study to determine Central’s future. Earlier this year Sugar Land’s City Council authorized $40,000 to participate in the study.

Central Prison Tower

Current warden Ernest Guterrez Jr. says he has no idea what the future holds for Central. When people ask, he tells them it’s business as usual. That’s not entirely true. The rush of activity is not what it used to be since the prison’s major agricultural operations were transferred five years ago to an 11,000-acre ranch in Burleson County. Even the searcher’s desk, where inmate movement was monitored, often sits unmanned because of staffing shortages, and while the routine inmate counts are still conducted eight times a day, the familiar siren was silenced after neighbors complained. The prison’s proximity to residential areas has also meant the end for tracking dogs and daily mock manhunts.

Otherwise, life at Central goes on. A bus from Huntsville still arrives each morning, as it always has, to drop off one batch of convicts and pick up another, and in the early morning dark, field bosses still saddle up their horses and lead the line force out to work the remaining fields, much as they did in my grandfather’s day.

A native Texan, Patsy Sims is the author of The Klan and Can Somebody Shout Amen! She lives in Washington, D.C.