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Freedmen's Bureau Report of an Inspection of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Walker County

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Texas
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865 - 1869
National Archives Microfilm Publication M821 Roll 32
"Miscellaneous Records Relating to Murders and Other Criminal Offenses Committed in Texas 1865 - 1868"

Freedmen's Bureau Report of an Inspection of the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Walker County.

Head Comr. B. R. F. and A. L. State of Texas Galveston Feb 26th 1867  

Lieut. J. F. Kirkman
AAA Genl.

I have the honor to submit the following as the result of an inspection of the Penitentiary of the State of Texas = situated at Huntsville, Walker Co. = for your information and consideration.

There are confined in the Prison in all including both white and black four hundred and eleven convicts. Of these two hundred and twenty five are freed people. Fourteen of the freed people are females and two hundred and eleven are males. There are no white female convicts (so considered) in the prison though two of the females that are classed as freed people are almost as white as any caucassian. They were however, before the war and until its close, slaves.

The Superintendent of the prison is Jas. Gillespie. By his permission I first examined the prison records. From these I could obtain nothing more definite than the general charge which is generally theft.

In order to ascertain the specific act for which they were sent to prison I had no other recourse than to go among them and take their statements.

With the consent of the Superintendent of this Jail-It was not my intention at first to examine every convict but the statement of the few whom I originally only intended to first examined so impressed me and convinced me of the injustice of the treatment these unfortunate creatures had received at the hands of Justice (?) that I felt if I performed the duty properly I must examine and record the statement of each particular case.

I am indebted to Cap. Jas. C. Devine Sub. Asst. Comr. At Huntsville for his assistance in enabling me to procure from the convicts the data on which the annexed report is based and also for his assistance in tabulating the same after we had made the personal examinations on which it is based. To their statements I respectfully invite your attention especially to the crimes committed or alleged and to the punishment inflicted.

I know the inclination of convicts to plead their innocence and assert the injustice of their imprisonment. I do not believe all the statements made to me and submitted in this report are correct and truthful. That the majority of them are I am fully convinced and any person listening to simple frank statements and looking into the black and apparently honest faces could not believe otherwise.

The crimes for which they are now undergoing punishment were in times of slavery punished with the lash and all these freed people have been convicted since the war closed. The trivial nature of the crime charged them and the severity of the punishment already inflicted upon them (even had they in every instance wilfully and maliciously committed the crime) should be and are of themselves sufficient arguments for their release and are most assuredly a strong appeal for our assistance in relieving them if such a thing be possible.

In many cases as you will observe the whole cause of the prosecution has for its foundation malice, and is followed up in a spirit of revenge by men embittered disappointed and foiled by the failure of their schemes. These convicts are the innocent and unfortunate victims of their wrath and disappointment. Guilty of little or no crime save that of having incurred the wrath of their former owners or employers their situation cannot but excite in the heart of any man who saw them as I did sympathy for their fate and a resolve to make the effort for their relief.

The convicts are well fed well clothed and kindly treated by the prison keepers. The severity of their sentences, the evidences of their innocence and their uniform good behavior secure them these. Many of them work outside the prison during the day and some of them without guards, though this is safe enough for a pack of trained dogs are kept for the purpose of catching runaways.

These freed people have on an average a little over 3 years to serve as their sentence. Many of them have been in prison over a year and when is added the fact that each of them before conviction was confined in a county jail for longer or shorter periods-in many instances six months - their fate is indeed hard and unjust =

Since these people have been sent to prison the law under which they were convicted has been modified and for such crimes as they are charged a lighter and more reasonable punishment is inflicted = is this not of itself an argument showing the injustice of their punishment and an appeal for pardon. Had they half the friends that many a greater rascal has they would not remain in prison one week. Unfortunately they have not -

I see by the report of the Asst. Comr. Of Alabama (a copy of which is hereunto annexed Maj. Genl. W. Swayne) that the penitentiary of that State became filled with freed people under almost the same circumstances as was this one and that the Gov. of the State upon having his attention called to the facts; and the circumstances under which they were arrested and convicted being properly presented to him issued an almost universal pardon. I believe that three fourths of the freed people now confined at Huntsville are proper subjects for the Executive Clemency of the Gov. of this State. I cannot think that he is aware of the actual condition of affairs else he would pardon them. This investigation has excited in their breasts hopes of pardon and release. That the matter may not end with this report is my earnest prayer for if ever people deserved the assistance of friends these do = Respectfully inviting your attention to the annexed report.

I Am Very Resp.
Your Obt. Servant
Wm. H. Sinclair
Inspector B. R. F. and A. L.

Extract from Report of Major General Wager Swayne Asst. Com. B. R. F. and A. L. for the State of Alabama bearing date Montgomery, Ala. October 31st , 1866

Major General O. O. Howard
Commissioner B. R. F. and A. L.
Washington D. C.

Another great difficulty which was met at the opening of the New Year grew out of the fact that during the jubilee occasioned by the coming of our troops various acts whether really criminal or being done in their aid only technically so, were committed by the freedmen under the impulse of the moment. Almost the first act of the restored civil courts was to treat these with great vigor crowding the jails with freedmen generally the victims of excitement and in many cases of a desire to help the struggle for the Union. To permit the latter class to suffer was intolerable yet there was no way to distinguish between the good and evil for want of testimony and from the prisoners very helplessness.

Finally upon suggesting to the Gov. that as a long step towards peace the amnesty extended by the Government be repeated by the State it was found that his own mind was already prompted in the same direction by the multitudinous indictments in the several counties of Union men on the ?nonsense according to political complexion. With entire singleness of purpose the freedmen were readily included in this plan of amnesty and on the 13th of February was announced the pardon of all offenses committed against the laws of this State-the crimes of rape and murder excepted - between the commencement of hostilities on the 13th of April 1861 and the restoration of his Excellency the Provisional Governor of Alabama on the 20th day of July 1865.

By this act it is considered that about eight hundred freedmen confined for penitentiary offences were restored to industry and freedom. Severe reprehension was at first visited upon the measure, but from no quarter has complaint of its operation been received and it is believed to be now universally approved. Individual cases which have arisen since have met the same considerate fairness.

List of Freedwomen and Men Confined in Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, Walker Co. giving name of convict and particulars in each case as stated by them