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One Man's Journey Through the Notorious History of the Virginia State Penitentiary

Many people today complain about conditions in Virginia prisons. Some are crowded and others get so hot in the summer that prisoners pass out. The state spends less than $5 a day to feed each inmate, and the Department of Corrections is under court order to improve medical care. Despite these problems, one historian reports conditions were much worse at the penitentiary, which opened in 1800.  Sandy Hausman spoke with the author or a new book on the pen nears its original location in Richmond.

It was Thomas Jefferson who came up with the idea for the Virginia State Penitentiary.

“Because he was in France, and he saw that the French were using penitence and rehabilitation for prisoners. It took him ten years to get it passed, but finally in 1796 Virginia did pass penal reform laws an started working on the penitentiary house.”

That’s Dale Brumfield, author of The Virginia State Penitentiary, a Notorious History. He spent months combing through the Library of Virginia – reviewing journals and records from the penitentiary. He found that its first occupant arrived in 1800 – a jilted lover who took revenge on the woman who spurned him and married another.

“He killed the husband on their wedding day, during their wedding ceremony. He actually had to wait a week for the penitentiary to open before they admitted him.”

The place was designed by Benjamin LaTrobe, the architect behind this country’s first White House and Capitol Building. He was gifted, but far from perfect.

“He severely underestimated Virginia winters. He thought the winters were mild here, so prisoners literally froze. The doors had no windows, so guards had to open them to check on the prisoners inside, leaving them vulnerable to ambush. The sewage situation was a disaster. They had buckets in the cells, and they built a trough down into a holding pond just below the penitentiary, and during the summer cholera and other diseases just started multiplying.”

To make matters worse, the pen – which served the entire state – was quickly overwhelmed.

“It was constantly overcrowded. At one point they had 3,000 prisoners in a penitentiary that was intended for like 900. They had prisoners six deep in hammocks in some cells.”

At first, days were spent reading the Bible, making nails, horse shoes and footwear for people, but from the mid-1800’s prisoners were forced to work on railroads and other public projects.

It was constantly overcrowded. At one point they had 3,000 prisoners in a penitentiary that was intended for like 900.

“Convict leasing became a big racket. They were handing these convicts over to these unscrupulous contractors who could treat them any way they, and they just literally worked them to death. It was a terrible situation. It was slavery under another name.”

On occasion, prisoners would escape, and once – as the Civil War wound to an end and jailers fled Richmond – inmates at the penitentiary also took off.

“The inmates rioted, set the place on fire and every single one escaped.  The penitentiary was a ghost town in April of 1864, but almost all of them were caught or many of them returned back on their own. They had nowhere to go.”

Ironically, Brumfield says, prison sentences were shorter than they are today.

“Rapists and murderers, of course, were put in for 25 years to life, but 3-5 years was the average for the first 150 years.”

But the inmates were often younger.

“We had children as young as 9 years old, and those young children were frequently leased out on the railroads, because they were short – the ideal height for working in tunnels.”

And on occasion the pen held celebrities including Vice President Aaron Burr who was locked up in 1807 as he waited to be tried for treason. In 1992, the old penitentiary was demolished and all but forgotten. Dale Brumfield thought we should remember that scene of suffering and sorrow – and this year, he persuaded the state to install a commemorative plaque at the corner of Belvidere and Spring.

Brumfield will share more from his book: The Virginia State Penitentiary, a Notorious History, at 4 o’clock on Sunday at Babes in Richmond.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief