Population Pressures or Fear? Increases in Prison Capacity in Texas, 1849-2003
New Prisons Chart.
long description of chart

Texas today has 112 state prison facilities. Not since before the Civil War when the first state prison in Texas was still new has Texas had the prison space to lock away such a large proportion of its citizens. The first prison opened in 1849 with space for 1,705, enough capacity to serve the state's needs for years to come. By 1883, when the state's second prison opened, population growth had eroded the state's capacity to lock up its citizens to an historical low. From that point until the 1970s Texas took a chutes and ladders approach to prison construction. Population growth would fuel a burst of prison construction. Prison capacity relative to population would then slide with continued population growth until policy makers felt it prudent to build yet more prisons. But as the 1970s turned into the 1980s this time-tested population-driven approach to managing criminals changed. Public fear of crime and the political dynamics of fear, not merely population growth, increasingly spurred prison construction. The result was that between 1980 and 2000, Texas policy makers went on a two-decade prison building binge giving Texas more prison space relative to population than at any time in its history. Our fragile sense of collective security against crime has stabilized, but may slide again in the future. If so, we might expect more prison building binges to allay our fears.

Source: Criminal Justice Policy Council; Census Bureau. (full source)