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Fighting Crime And Doing Time

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Fighting Crime And Doing Time: Texas Prison Museum

Housing Some Of The Most Interesting Items And Artifacts From Throughout The Prison System's Interesting And Controversial History

Texas Prison Museum [Courtesy/Texas Prison Museum]

With over 100 prisons dating back to the 1800s, the Texas prison system is well known throughout the world. And some of the most interesting items and artifacts from throughout the prison system's interesting and controversial history are gathered at the Texas Prison Museum, a small building that opened in Huntsville in 1999.

The goal is to inform Texas residents – and the general public – about the prison system and its history. But these aren't your everyday artifacts. Electric chairs, artwork done by prisoners and even items used in attempted escapes allows the small museum to truly pack a punch and make a lasting impression on visitors.

So about that electric chair...

The Texas Prison Museum is home to the only electric chair used in Texas. Three-hundred sixty-one men died in the electric chair from 1924 to 1964. Like most items in the museum, the electric chair offers more history than what meets the eye.

“Prior to 1924, criminals were hung in Texas,” said Director Jim Willett. “The hangings were done by the county sheriffs wherever the crime occurred. They had a carnival atmosphere to them and the state decided to take it out of the hands of the counties and put it behind the prison wall. The chair was first used in February of 1924. On the first night they used it, they executed five men.”

Officer On The Phone [Courtesy/TDCJ]
Lining Up Inmates [Courtesy/TDCJ]
The "Old Sparky" Electric Chair [Courtesy/Texas Prison Museum]

The Texas prison system stopped using the electric chair when the Supreme Court ruled against the death penalty in the United States. When execution became legal again in 1992, Texas was the first state to use lethal injection.

Another popular exhibit at the museum are the items from the prison rodeo, which was held from 1931 to 1968. The “fast, action-packed rodeo” drew large crowds of up to 100,000 people a month. For the general public, it was getting to see “outlaws out in the public, riding these wild animals,” said Willett.

But for Willett, who has worked at the museum for the past 15 years, are three little pistols, carved out of wood and painted to look “really, really realistic.” He said: “If I pulled one of them on you I guarantee that you would raise your hands.” The guns were carved and painted by an inmate, who was planning to use them in an escape attempt in 1964. The guns were discovered before he could pull it off. The museum also features artwork and other crafts created by inmates, including a chess set made of soap.

Vintage Photo Of The Texas Prison [Courtesy/TDCJ]
The Infamous Clyde [Courtesy/Texas Prison Museum]
Purse Made Out Of Camel Cigarette Packages By Inmate [Courtesy/Texas Prison Museum]

But not every exhibit in the museum is fun and quirky. There is a display on a hostage situation in 1974 at the Huntsville Unit – nicknamed the Walls Unit – when three inmates had pistols smuggled in and held employees in the education department hostage for 11 days. On the eleventh night they tried to escape and there was a huge shoot-out, where two of the three inmates were killed and some of the employees were also killed and hurt.

The infamous and tragic event is more than just an exhibit for Willett, who was actually an officer at the Walls Unit during the incident. “That was a very tense time,” he recalled. “The first shots were fired at about one in the afternoon. I was in at 1:30. At that time I was still in college. I told myself, 'When I get my degree I'm going to find myself another line of work.' But I didn't. I ended up working in the prison system for 30 years.”

For Willett, who was used to thousands of prisoners and hundreds of co-workers, retiring wasn't for him. Working at the Texas Prison Museum was a great way to have people to talk to and share his vast wealth of experience and information. And he truly believes that the Texas Prison Museum is a must-see for travelers.

“They can get a really good picture of what the prison system is like in Texas,” he said. “We have so much here about how the prison system came about how it got and how it is today.”


Olivia Richman

A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.

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