GATESVILLE — For 90 years, generations of obstreperous Texas boys were warned they would be “headed to Gatesville” if they did not mend their wayward ways.
Today, the town once synonymous with the boys’ reform school is home to six adult correctional units housing more than 8,500 inmates — 5,552 women and 2,958 men — and providing state paychecks to about 2,600 employees, most of whom live in Coryell County, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Gatesville Chamber of Commerce.
The State School for Boys opened northeast of town in 1889 to house 68 boys who had previously been incarcerated with adult felons in the state prison at Huntsville. Built on the highest spot on the rolling prairie, the school was called Hilltop.
In 1962, the state opened Mountain View School for Boys nearby as a maximum-security unit for the more troublesome boy offenders from Hilltop.
By 1970, the inmate population at Hilltop had grown to 1,830 boys and the campus had expanded to include Riverside, Valley, Hackberry and Terrace schools.
Boys to men (and women)
As the result of a class-action suit filed in federal court in 1971, Judge William Wayne Justice ordered Mountain View School closed in 1975, and the boys were sent to other facilities. The Texas prison system bought the land and buildings and reopened Mountain View as a women’s prison in July 1975.
Mountain View is the female death row in Texas, where nine women currently await their execution date.
Hilltop and its satellite boys’ schools were closed in 1979, but soon reopened as adult prisons.
The Riverside, Valley and Terrace schools became the Gatesville (now Crain) Unit for female inmates in 1980.
The Hilltop and Hackberry schools became the Hilltop Unit for male felons in 1981, but that unit was soon changed to a female prison, and the historic buildings are at the hub of a corrections complex that sprawls along either side of State School Road.
Gatesville was a growing prison town, and not just for women.
An industry of punishment
In 1990, the Texas prison system opened the Hughes Unit north of town for male inmates. Five years later, the Lane Murray Unit, a new women’s prison, opened adjacent to Hilltop. In 1997, Woodman State Jail for women was added to the complex.
The six Texas Department of Criminal Justice units in Gatesville occupy 1,770 acres of land and house more than half of the town’s population of just under 16,000, according to the 2010 census.
Each unit offers educational programs to eligible inmates through the Windham School District, which has a faculty and staff of 66 in the Gatesville area. Classes offered vary from unit to unit and range from basic literacy and job skills to college academic courses in cooperation with Central Texas College and Texas A&M University-Central Texas, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Correctional officers in gray uniforms have been a common sight in the town’s businesses for years, and the job of a “prison boss” is a highly regarded career choice in Gatesville. The monthly salary for correctional officers ranges from $2,319 for a “new boot” correctional officer-1 with less than two months on the job to $3,086 for a correctional officer-5 with more than 91 months. A sergeant is paid $3,240 a month; a lieutenant gets $3,402; a captain $3,573; and a major draws $3,831, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The annual Prison Boss Cookoff in Gatesville is a barbecue competition to raise money for the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation. Started in 2000, the cookoff has become a family gathering of prison workers. A retired warden at the cookoff can sit and swap stories with a group of veteran officers, majors, sergeants and wide-eyed “new boots” and be talking only to kinfolks — parents, siblings, children, grandchildren — all wearing or having worn the gray uniform of a Texas prison boss.