Prison shut down is just a matter of time

Song lyrics to have memorialized it forever

By Elsa Maxey

Signs like this one were put up to alert motorists about a prison in the area. The Sugar Land Central Unit is just on one side of the road across from the New Territory subdivision. The central unit prison was established over a 100 years ago and it will be closing to make way for new development on the valuable acreage.

Established in April 1909, the over a 100 year old prison in Sugar Land known as the Sugar Land Central Unit operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is about to become a memory. So, what will you remember?

One of the prison’s claims to fame is the song memorializing it forever. “The Midnight Special” is actually a real train and it is best known as a song performed by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who reportedly was an inmate at the Central Unit. Creedence Clearwater Revival also popularized a version of the “Midnight Special.”

As the story goes, prisoners lying awake could hear the sound of a train going down the tracks, still in use today alongside U.S. 90A. If the ‘ever-lovin’ light’ from the engine’s headlight would shine through the barred prison windows and be cast on an inmate, legend has it that the man would soon go free. The light of the train has been likened to the light of salvation with the train representing what could take a prisoner away from incarceration.

Most recently, state legislators announced a prison budget that is in the state’s financing plan. In it is the closure of the Sugar Land central prison unit which will save the state $25 million a year, and it makes its elimination from this area the real deal. The central prison unit is located next to the Sugar Land Regional Airport. Talks among city officials for some time now have supported measures to use the land on which it sits, 326 acres, for economic development purposes.

Take a moment and visit our website at and share what you know and remember about the Sugar Land Central Unit, like the chain gangs, prison guards on mounted horses, and more.

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Posted by on Jun 1 2011. Filed under Breaking News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Comments for “Prison shut down is just a matter of time”

  1. grimmett

    My first real memory of living close to the prison came in 1977 when I was on my way to work and had to travel down Florence Rd to get to Hwy 6 and as I turned down Florence all I could see all the way down the road was armed guards with rifles every so many feet. It was a strange feeling driving by the guards as they were standing on the road while horses and dogs were in the woods looking for an escaped prisoner.

  2. farmgirl

    Ah “The Midnight Special” song is as old as the walls are in Sugar Land. It is as familiar to me as watching the trustee inmates using the old push mowers as they kept the prison grounds nice and neat. When I was a young child my dad worked in Gary Indiana. My Uncle, who was a Sherriff down in The Valley called my dad one day and told him that he had received an in-house memo from Texas Department of Corrections. He stated that they were hiring at the prison farm in Sugar Land Texas so Dad moved his family down, hired on with TDC and worked there until he retired in the early 80’s. Dad worked for Texas Department. of Correction back when the Jester units were known as Harlem I and Harlem II. They were adjacent to the Central Unit. It was the mid 50’s and I was 4 years old at the time, the family moved to Missouri City when I was 15. My dad passed away in 1999 and it saddens me to learn that another piece of Texas history will be lost as it gives way for developmental purposes. I have a thousand memories growing up out there. At the time, the farm was totally self contained and at daybreak, the inmates, flanked by 2 armed guards riding horseback, were led to a flatbed trailer that was pulled by a tractor they would climb on the trailer and were then transported to work in fields at 5pm they would be transported back to the unit and led inside. One of the armed guards was my dad, Back then everyone called him John Wayne because he not only looked like him but he had the same John Wayne stroll. We could pick him out from all of the other uniformed guards by the way his hat tilted from side to side as he walked. His horse was named Nellie. When my dad retired, Nellie had to be retired as well because she was very rebellious and would not let anyone near her except for Dad. Some of my childhood memories include; Eating a freshly cut piece of the wild sugar cane growing along the creek that ran by the Central Unit. The fields dotted with the white uniforms of the inmates working, year in and year out. The sound of the hounds hot on a trail. The red powder from the roads leading in and around the prison grounds that turned into red clay when it rained and stuck to the sides of our vehicles. And like your article states, I too remember laying in bed listening to the distant sound of the train as it went by. The best memories I have is when Dad would call the guard shack and announce that we were “gonna go shoot a rabbit” in the fields that night then he would add “so don‘t be alarmed when you hear gun fire.” He taught me how to shoot out there. (pretty cool, huh) But my favorite one I can still hear today, his spurs jingling on the floor when he came home from work.
    If a picture says a thousand words, this one speaks volumes. There is a huge framed, oil painting on canvas hanging in my parents home that a prisoner painted many many years ago. And by huge, I mean it is almost floor to ceiling and probably 8 to 10 feet wide. It is a scene depicting a typical day at the prison farm; The prison, the guard shack, the guards on horseback and prisoners on the flatbed trailers. This painting has survived a house fire and now I guess it will survive the House.

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