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  • Walking George: The Life of George John Beto and the Rise of the Modern Texas Prison System
  • Mitchel P. Roth
Walking George: The Life of George John Beto and the Rise of the Modern Texas Prison System. By David M. Horton and George R. Nielson. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2005. Pp. 270. Acknowledgments, illustrations, appendices, notes, selected bibliography, index. ISBN 1574411993. $29.95, cloth.)

This is the first book-length biography of former Texas Department of Corrections director George J. Beto. An academician, theologian, and penologist, Beto, known to his charges as "Walking George" for his frequent and unannounced visits to the various prison units, began his career in corrections in 1953, when he was appointed to the Texas Prison Board. Born in Hysham, Montana, he made the transition from Midwesterner to Texan, but not without holding on to his Midwestern "social values" (p. 22). Wearing his trademark Stetson hat and occasionally a pair of cowboy boots, few would have guessed he was not a native Texan.

Corrections was not his first choice of vocation. After completing his theological studies at Concordia Seminary he accepted a teaching position at Concordia College in Austin in 1939, beginning a twenty-year affiliation with the school. The first quarter of Walking George is dominated by his career as a church administrator, teacher, and family man. As president of the college he not only expanded the small school [End Page 419] into a junior college, but also racially integrated it and made it co-educational. It is not until chapters three and four that the reader is introduced to the history of the Texas Prison System. Authors David M. Horton and George R. Nielson chronicle the development of one the nation's most storied and reviled prison systems with great aplomb. It is here that the book is at its best, offering insights into conditions that led one authority in 1944 to report that the Texas prison system was "among the worst in the United States, and the shame of the Lone Star State" (p. 51).

In 1961, after a stint as director of a seminary in Illinois that began in 1959, Beto was summoned by Texas officials to take over as prison director after the sudden death of director O. B. Ellis. His decision "had been especially agonizing because he had to choose between his two callings" (p. 107). After an initial refusal he accepted when he was assured he could also serve as chief chaplain. The book is best at describing Beto's relationship with inmates, life at the Director's Mansion across the street from the Walls Unit, and Beto's management style. He was probably most proud of hiring the state's first black correctional officers and increasing the educational level of inmates with a number of innovative teaching and rehabilitation programs.

Beto's career was not without its missteps. While the authors are clearly pro-Beto, one having been a former student of his, this book is not a hagiography. In the late 1960s, for example, Beto ignored press reports of rising crime rates and "failed to take advantage of the lull in prison population to construct even more facilities with individual cells than he did" (p. 128). More importantly was his continued utilization of the brutal Building Tender (BT) system, in which certain inmates were used to help control the prison, an unfortunate aspect of which was the use of violence by BT's against other inmates. The authors assert here that "it is difficult to reconcile his tolerance of the BT system with other aspects of his prison philosophy" (p. 142). As a result of the continued use of the BT system he became "the most sued man in Texas" (p. 146). During his ten years as prison director, Beto won acclaim for running an efficient prison system, cutting down on escapes, and increasing the productivity of the state's prison farms.

Less than two hundred pages long, this book is an important and overdue contribution to the study of corrections and will be of value to any student of Texas and American prison history. It offers short biographies of Texas prison officials...


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