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First Available Cell

Desegregation of the Texas Prison System

By Chad R. Trulson and James W. Marquart

Publication Year: 2009

Decades after the U.S. Supreme Court and certain governmental actions struck down racial segregation in the larger society, American prison administrators still boldly adhered to discriminatory practices. Not until 1975 did legislation prohibit racial segregation and discrimination in Texas prisons. However, vestiges of this practice endured behind prison walls. Charting the transformation from segregation to desegregation in Texas prisons—which resulted in Texas prisons becoming one of the most desegregated places in America—First Available Cell chronicles the pivotal steps in the process, including prison director George J. Beto’s 1965 decision to allow inmates of different races to co-exist in the same prison setting, defying Southern norms. The authors also clarify the significant impetus for change that emerged in 1972, when a Texas inmate filed a lawsuit alleging racial segregation and discrimination in the Texas Department of Corrections. Perhaps surprisingly, a multiracial group of prisoners sided with the TDC, fearing that desegregated housing would unleash racial violence. Members of the security staff also feared and predicted severe racial violence. Nearly two decades after the 1972 lawsuit, one vestige of segregation remained in place: the double cell. Revealing the aftermath of racial desegregation within that 9 x 5 foot space, First Available Cell tells the story of one of the greatest social experiments with racial desegregation in American history.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. Cover-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-iii

Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iv-vi


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pp. vii-viiii

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pp. ix-xi

Institutionalized sanctions of serious criminal offenders mirror the society in which they are applied. Punishment rationales and practices reflect prevailing values. In turn, citizens whose behavior and lifestyles least reflect those values are invariably those most often subject to criminal sanctions. And, as society changes, so too do institutions ...

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pp. xii-xiii

No undertaking of this magnitude can be accomplished without assistance and support from numerous individuals. We would first like to thank those Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) officials who opened the door for us when we first began this project. For nearly a decade, TDC administrators, officers, and staff have been extremely open and inviting to us, despite our constant pestering. Sherman Bell ...

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pp. xiv-xv

It was Sunday, April 23, 1939, and it was a day of rest for the men clad in white in Otey, Texas. This was not going to be like any other Sunday at the Ramsey State Prison Farm, however. On this day a visitor drove up to the prison and had special clearance to talk to the black men. He also had permission to listen to and record the convicts sing their work songs. ...

From Segregation to Desegregation in Texas Prisons: A Timeline

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pp. xvii-xxvi

Part I

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Chapter 1 Broken Barriers

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pp. 3-14

Looking up into the ultra-blue sky, members of the crowd strained their eyes to locate the small plane. A large fireball then appeared and the object shot vertical and continued its climb for nearly three minutes. Then the show was over. But something dramatic, history-making, had just occurred and only a few people were privy to the event. The date was September 7, 1956. On this day, famed test pilot Iven Kincheloe ...

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Chapter 2 An Institutional Fault Line

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pp. 15-41

When the first settlers slogged across the Sabine and Red Rivers and made their way into Texas, they felt at home among the timberlands and piney woods and river bottoms of East Texas. The great southern forests extended from the Carolinas, west of the Mississippi, and beyond Louisiana and into Texas. The land they encountered was also blessed with abundant rain. Most of the first settlers in Texas came from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the ...

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Chapter 3 18,000 Days

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pp. 42-58

In May 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Brown v. Board of Education to end racial discrimination in public educational facilities as well as put an end to the ...

Part II The Inside

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Chapter 4 The Color Line Persists

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pp. 61-88

One of the persistent and enduring issues in prisoner management is maintaining control and order. Keeping the peace is critical when confining criminals. Inmate classification is the key to keeping order, and sorting and splitting the inmate population into similar groups enhances order, safety, and predictability. Even inmates like predictability. In early American prisons, particularly among ...

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Chapter 5 Cracks in the Color Line

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pp. 89-110

In 1970, Dr. George Beto was nearly at the end of his tenure as director of the Texas prison system. At that time, he oversaw a prison system with roughly 15,000 prisoners, housed in roughly a dozen prison units scattered throughout East Texas. The ...

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Chapter 6 Full Assault on the Color Line

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pp. 111-133

In October 1972 the Eight Hoe Squad was disbanded, and in the same month, Lamar filed his pro se (without the assistance of counsel) segregation and discrimination complaint with the court. On September 25, 1973, Lamar and the black ...

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Chapter 7 The Color Line Breaks

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pp. 134-162

As the lawsuit meandered through the legal system and facilitated animosities between the prison system and the Department of Justice (DOJ), life for Allen Lamar went on. It has been said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Based on this assumption, any street corner fortuneteller would have had no problem reading ...

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Chapter 8 7,000 Days Later

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pp. 163-175

In the first chapter we discussed the zones of desegregation and how desegregation efforts often move from the outer fringes or zones inward - from the least to most contentious areas. We also showed, in Chapter 3, how U.S. military units were desegregated by way of social clubs, recreational areas, base transportation, and divisions first ...

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Chapter 9 Life in the First Available Cell

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pp. 176-200

Typically, most inmates begin their prison careers housed in cell blocks and living in cells, nine-by-six-foot compartments arranged in rows (or runs) along two and three story tiers. Most runs have between twenty and twenty-five cells, or "houses," as the inmates call them. Texas prison cells house two offenders, and two steel bunks (one over the other) are attached to the wall. Each cell has an open commode. Personal belongings are limited and life in the cell is cramped, noisy, and virtually devoid of any personal ...

Part III A Colorless Society?

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Chapter 10 The Most Unlikely Place

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pp. 203-224

Between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island was the primary immigrant processing station in the United States. Over 12 million immigrants came through here during this period, from a multitude of lands and speaking a multitude of languages. They were tested and examined for medical problems and other concerns, then let out the "back door" and dispersed throughout the country. In one sense, America was indeed a great melting pot, where people ...


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pp. 225-264

Select Bibliography

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pp. 265-268


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pp. 269-277

Image Plates

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pp. 278-301

E-ISBN-13: 9780292793354
E-ISBN-10: 0292793359
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292719835
Print-ISBN-10: 0292719833

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 37 b&w photos, 8 figures, 12 tables
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 501182938
MUSE Marc Record: Download for First Available Cell

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Segregation -- Texas -- History.
  • Prisoners -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Texas -- History.
  • Prisons -- Texas -- History.
  • Prison administration -- Texas -- History.
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