I’ve been reading some of the letters published in the book “Marshalling Justice: The Early Civil Rights Letters of Thurgood Marshall” by Michael G. Long. Long (2011) writes that: “Marshall dealt with prison abuse claims frequently in his early years at the NAACP (p.27).”
One example from the book is below:
On July 2, 1937, an inmate in the Texas state prison system sent the NAACP an anonymous letter requesting assistance for combating cruel prison conditions: “Please hear our cries…These officials are sure cruel to us, we have in each building two prisoner as building tenders they is allowed to kill you if they see fit. They have whips with iron handles and dirka knives. Each one of these buildings tenders are first grade student and they will do what the captains and guards tell them.”
Below is a letter of protest that Marshall wrote to the governor of Kentucky about these complaints:
July 31, 1937
Dear Governor Allred:
We have received complaints concerning the treatment of Negro prisoners on the Ramsey State Farm, Camp #1, near Houston, Texas. We are informed that the Negro prisoners are beaten and, in many cases, killed for trivial reasons.
We are informed that on July 28th of last year, one Booker Smith, in charge of prisoners, killed a prisoner and claimed it was in self-defense. We are also informed that Captain Shaw chained a prisoner with a quarter-inch chain around his neck and fastened it to his feet so that his neck was pulled down to his knees and that the same Booker Smith whipped this prisoner, whose name was James Brown, to death.
We cannot too strongly urge upon you the seriousness of such offenses which, even though committed by persons in charge of a prison, are, nevertheless, brutal murders. These are only a few examples of the intolerable conditions reported to us in the prison camps in Texas, and we urge you to immediately cause an investigation to be made.
Very sincerely yours,
In reply, Governor Allred simply asked for more information and added: “I am sure that neither the Manager of the State Prison System nor the members of the Prison Board, as well as myself, will tolerate any brutality if they can find evidence that it exists anywhere in the System.”