To say Texas loves its prisons is a little bit of an understatement. At the end of 1999, a full five percent of Texas’s population was being held in prison, or was on parole or probation. One town, more than any other, is associated with the prison system – Huntsville. Three out of four residents of this small town are prisoners. Most of the remaining residents are employees of prisons. The city is home to not one, but seven separate prisons, as well as one of the most unusual museums in the entire country – the Texas Prison Museum. We had a chance to travel to Huntsville, where museum director Jim Willett took us on a tour of the Texas Prison Museum.
What he showed us, primarily, were dozens of displays on forms of punishment, weapons, and torture devices dating back to the 1800s. “The real ball and chain,” he said, “That would be something you would use for someone you were going to put to work outside a prison compound. Maybe he had displayed a little rabbit in him, as they call it.”
“This thing was called a bat. As you can see, it’s on a wooden handle and very thick leather,” Jim said thoughtfully, “That was actually a legal means of punishment up until the 1940s in Texas.”
But the crown jewel of the Texas Prison Museum is definitely one of the most feared punishment devices in American history. Jim’s tone reflected borderline reverence as he took us into a room where a small, well-crafted chair stood. “This is the Texas electric chair,” he said quietly, “Inmates dubbed it Old Sparky.” The state of Texas first used Old Sparky on February 8, 1924 and executed Charles Reynolds. The chair produced 2,000 volts and eight amps, or enough electricity to light 800 household light bulbs. Many accounts reported that this chair’s ability to produce so much power had the nasty side effect of popping the eyeballs of prisoners out of their sockets, where they would rest against their cheeks.
Huntsville, Texas is the most prison-centric town in the most prison-centric state in the United States. If you’re a fan of incarceration, there’s no better destination than the Texas Prison Museum – it’s the closest you’ll get to prison itself without actually being behind bars.