Austin MacCormick: A Champion for Texas Prisoners

Elkins, Susan
Kim, Dianna
Shotwell, Trent
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Journal of South Texas

Austin Harbutt MacCormick (1893-1979) spent much of his professional career serving as a proponent of prison reform. Beginning with his 1915 college graduation essay focused on the subject and continuing throughout the majority of his life, he arduously fought for improvements in prison conditions and the education of incarcerated Americans. His impact on Texas prisons is still felt today. MacCormick investigated 110 of 114 prisons throughout the United States and in 1944 was asked to visit and evaluate the Texas prison system. He was appalled by the conditions he observed. Prisoner dormitories, called “tanks” were reminiscent of slave ships. In rebellion from either being forced to work from sunrise to sundown or from the dismal quality of life in the tanks, prisoners frequently (nearly 100 incidences per year) mutilated themselves by slicing through their Achilles tendons or by threading their arms through their cell bars to break their bones with a twist. MacCormick met teenage boys who had cut off most of their fingers in despair. Others cut holes in their skin and poured lye into the wounds. Sometimes prisoners did the mutilating themselves; other times they forced fellow prisoners at knifepoint to do the deed. The self-mutilation taking place in Texas was like nothing McCormick had ever seen in any other prison system.

MacCormick’s assessment of the Texas State Prison resulted in the issuance of an internal report identifying countless problems: ineffectual administration, inadequately-trained personnel, terrible living conditions, outmoded farming techniques, vicious discipline, poor medical services, lack of industry and a complete void of rehabilitative procedures. The situation was so grave that MacCormick rated the Texas prison system as one of the worst in the United States. Although he revisited the Walls on several occasions hoping to observe improvements, it soon became apparent that without public outcry Texas would do nothing to change their miserable circumstances. Finally, in 1947 when 45 prisoners escaped from the Walls within one month (more escapees than the Federal Prisons had experienced in a year), MacCormick wired Governor Beauford Jester in anger.

The result? With widespread support from both the press and public, Jester lobbied for reform and received the backing of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. Texas prisons then initiated comprehensive reforms which made Texas one of the top prison systems in the country. The reforms set into motion by MacCormick had a massive impact on the Texas prison system. He truly was a champion for Texas prisoners.

Given as a presentation at the East Texas Historical Association in 2019 and later published in the Journal of South Texas.
Prison Reforms, prison conditions, Austin MacCormick, Texas
Elkins, Susan, Dianna Kim, and Trent Shotwell. “Austin MacCormick: A Champion for Texas Prisoners.” Journal of South Texas 34, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 38–49.