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Gurnade “Boss” Shanks 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 Cezanne 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. The penitentiary, first called the Imperial State Prison Farm, is one of the oldest in Texas, opened in 1908 after the state abandoned a postCivil 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 itselfan 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 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. 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 Revivalstyle 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:’ 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, and finally supervising the cotton gin. He and my grandmother lived midway between Two Camp 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 13, 2008