MOST PEOPLE CAN'T WAIT TO get out of prison. But developers in Houston just can't wait to get in—in, that is, on land that once comprised Texas' sprawling Central State Prison farm system.

Most recently, a partnership led by Dallas developer Paul Cheng agreed to pay $47 million for a 2,046-acre parcel, outbidding five others for the site just west of the town of Sugar Land in Fort Bend County, which is southwest of the city.

When the land finally sold, the price was a record $22,972 an acre, 40 percent more than the $32.8 million minimum asking price, and considerably more than the other tenders received by the Texas General Land Office, according to land development manager Jeff Boudreaux. Because the sale is not scheduled to close until late July, Boudreaux would not reveal the names of the other bidders or their offers. But he did say the next-highest bid was $42 million by an “unknown” buyer represented by local brokers. And three other offers came from “regional community developers” who all bid in the $35 million range.

The sale came on the heels of the official groundbreaking at a 2,018-acre property in the heart of Sugar Land by San Diego-based Newland Communities. Newland paid $38 million—or $18,830 an acre—three years ago for the site, outbidding several other builders.

Checkered Past In the 1800s, much of the ground now being scooped by developers was vast plantation land where sugarcane, cotton, and corn were grown. Unable to find continuing cheap labor, two plantation owners got an idea.

They wanted to lease convicts from the state to work their crops. And so the prison farm system—a system predicated on the notion that inmates should be used to fund its operation—was born.

By the 1870s, nearly a third of the 800 inmates were rented out to work 12 of the state's 18 remaining sugar plantations.

At one time, the state instituted a plan to lease the entire system, including its ground, machinery, and labor, to a single private contractor who would be permitted to sublet prisoners to others at a profit. But when people began asking why prisoners could not be leased directly to farmers for the benefit of the public coffers rather than to enrich the pocketbooks of middlemen, the state tried its hand at sharecropping arrangements.

That plan failed, so officials decided they could gain better control over inmates by owning the farms the crews were working.

The state bought its first tract in 1883. And as the prison population swelled—perhaps the best-known inmate was Walter Lloyd Ledbetter, also known as singer-songwriter “Leadbelly,” who did 30 years for murder—so did its holdings. As recently as 1972, the system owned more than 100,000 acres of prime farmland on scattered sites, according to loan historians.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Houston, TX.