What is the History of Convict Leasing in Sugar Land?
Shortly following the end of the Civil War, Cunningham’s purchase of what used to be “Oakland Plantations” shaped much of what Sugar Land has become today. He invested more than $1 million into the property, developing a sugar mill and a sugar refinery, and then a town began to develop around it. At the time, much of the work force was made up of convicts that were leased from prison farms. After slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment (which included a loophole that allowed for the involuntary servitude of a convicted criminal), blacks in America were incarcerated at far higher rates than their white contemporaries, which is a racial gap that continued up to modern times. These men and women were commonly leased to work on plantations such as Cunningham’s. After Cunningham’s plantation changed hands and became the home of the Imperial Sugar Company, the leasing of convicts continued.
The state of Texas opened the Imperial State Prison Farm, one of the first penal institutions it owned, in 1909 on land that had previously belonged to Imperial Sugar. It was renamed the Central State Prison Farm in 1930, and construction on additional units funded by the Texas state legislature soon followed. By the 1950’s, over 1,000 inmates resided in the prison. Over the years, land was transferred/sold to other parties to aid in Sugar Land’s rapid development. The 5,200-acre prison farm was reduced to about 330 acres by February 2011, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice officially announced the closing of the Central State Prison Farm in August of the same year. The remaining inmates were spread throughout the state, with quite a few landing in the nearby Jester State prison farm units.