Texas Prison Museum
Mon–Sat 10–5; Sun noon–5
$4; seniors, SHSU students, & active military $3; children 6–17 $2; 6 & under free
491 State Highway 75, Huntsville
As weird and culturally diverse as the Lone Star State may be, there are few museums as jarringly beautiful as the Texas Prison Museum.
It’s an institution dedicated to the history of the Texas state prison system, and you’ll find it just off I-45 in Huntsville, an otherwise sleepy city 35 miles north of The Woodlands that’s infamous worldwide for being home to the state’s much-trafficked death row. Inside the museum, you’ll find exhibits on the history of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the 55-year history of the now-defunct Texas Prison Rodeo, and memorabilia from notable inmates such as Clyde Barrow, Ignacio Cuevas, and Jack Purvis. You can check out Old Sparky, the electric chair that killed 392 inmates between 1924 and 1964, and there’s a collection of confiscated contraband ranging from shivs to cigarettes. You’ll also see a stunning series of photographs by Barbara Sloan, “Last Statement,” a compassionate look at the people left behind after an execution—both the inmate’s family and the family of his or her victims.
My favorite objects in the museum are the prisoners’ artworks. Many inmates spend their recreation hours crafting exquisite projects, scrapped together using absolutely whatever supplies they can lay their hands on, including soap, toilet paper, and even a tree stump. Over the years, inmates have produced beautiful drawings, sculptures, chess sets, and religious icons.
In the well-stocked gift shop you’ll find goods manufactured by inmates in the Huntsville Unit, including belt buckles, wallets, and purses. Riley, the gift shop supervisor, was happy to show me the items inside the glass display cases and to walk me through some of the history of this non-profit museum and the Texas prison system in general. The Huntsville prison has been in operation since 1849, and the museum itself is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. I take friends on a tour of this small mecca of a museum every chance I get.
The artifacts in the Texas Prison Museum remind us of the humanity of everyone involved in the penitentiary system. It’s an interesting place get a different perspective on that system, and a cultural oddity well worth a stop on your next trip to Dallas.