Way back in August of 1848, a self-taught architect named Abner Cook took on the job of designing the Lone Star state's first prison in Huntsville, Texas.

As the hometown of the legendary founding father of Texas, Sam Houston, Huntsville seemed like a fitting place for the State's first penitentiary.

The Man Who Built The First Prison in Texas

At the time, Cook was one of the only experienced builders in the entire state. His resume included many beautiful homes in the Austin area and even the Texas Governor's mansion.

Not only did Cook design the prison, he would come to be the first superintendent (called a 'warden' today) of Huntsville.

"The Walls" and The Wings

First, Cook dug a well. Then came the construction of what would come to be known as "The Walls".

Mark Britain
Mark Britain


The Walls are a 300 sq ft site closed off by walls three-foot thick and 15 foot tall. The original Texas prison had only three wings, all of which were made of brick and two-foot thick. The east wing included 88 cells, two of which were dark cells intended for the most harsh punishment (isolation). The south wing consisted of 144 cells. Then the west wing had 36 cells and was designed specifically for female inmates.

The majority of the cells for 5 foot by 7 foot, except for the women's cells, which were slightly larger than the men's. There was an infirmary, kitchen/pantry, several workshops, a storehouse, and some small rooms for guards and officers as well as an apartment and office for the superintendent (Abner Cook) to use, located in the central building.

The Very First Prisoner of Texas

So, who was the first lucky inmate to experience the throes of prison life in Huntsville?

William Sansom did a nine-month sentence in Huntsville for "cattle rustling", which according to Wikipedia, is the "act of stealing live cattle, often several or many at once." He was housed in a temporary log jail because, at the time, Texas juries were still reluctant to send a prisoner to "The Walls", which is a far cry from the way they seem to feel about it today.

Hearts have clearly hardened over the years...

In 1850, there were only 3 guards standing watch over a mere 10 prisoners. The first female prisoner, 23-year-old Elizabeth Hofman, made her way to Huntsville in 1854 for infanticide, where she served only one year. The prison population continued to grow and by 1855, there were 75 inmates. 5 years later in 1860, 182 prisoners called Huntsville home.

Today, in 2024, there are currently more than 13,690 inmates incarcerated in Huntsville.

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