The Virginia System: New Discoveries in 19th-Century Penology

Saturday, January 9, 2016
Galleria Exhibit Hall (Hilton Atlanta)
Hilary Coulson, University of California, San Diego

            This poster presentation provides a succinct overview of an understudied system of penology. The Virginia Penitentiary was commissioned in 1797 and opened for operation in 1800. This facility offers historians a new perspective on nineteenth century penology and predates the popular “Auburn System” (New York) established nearly two decades later. For years, historians, sociologists, and criminologists have studied the Auburn Prison as a competing model for the Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) and have left the role of the Virginia Penitentiary in the shadows. The Auburn System required prisoners to work all day in silence and confined each prisoner to their cell at night. In the past, this system was juxtaposed to the Eastern State Penitentiary system of total solitary confinement.

            This presentation will prove the existence of an “Auburn” style of penology nearly two decades prior to the opening of that facility. Indeed, the Virginia Penitentiary was constructed and in operation with strict rules in place concerning work, confinement, and daily rituals of the prisoners. Although this facility was rudimentary in comparison to the innovative and amenity-filled Eastern State Penitentiary, the institution was one of the oldest in the nation and has never been a subject for historians. The documents and artifacts that remain of the Virginia Penitentiary are sparse, yet rich. Examination of surviving penitentiary records from the first decade of the nineteenth century demonstrate the level of scrutiny and attention that was paid to this institution and everyone who lived and worked in it. The rhetoric surrounding prison reform and styles of incarceration are present in some of the earliest penitentiary documents as well as Governor correspondences and annual reports. These documents provide historians with an altered timeline that led to the birth of the modern prison system. Moreover, the Virginia System offers a look into the emergence of a designed class system within the walls.

            Although each of these components is important, my study focuses on the female inmates of the Virginia Penitentiary and shows the plans for women to be incorporated into the institution from its opening in 1800. In fact, the Virginia Penitentiary housed hundreds of women (and sometimes their children) during its operation in the 19th century and continued to do so well into the 20th century when a women’s prison was eventually built off site. The Virginia Penitentiary saw birth, childhood, and death within its walls, and finally this story can be shared with the academic community. This poster will display early architectural drawings of the penitentiary designed by Henry Latrobe and highlight the state’s insistence on special facilities and separation for female inmates. Early “board of visitor” logs discuss the existence and condition of women within the walls and share their progress in the workshops. The Virginia Penitentiary is an important piece of the puzzle when considering the implications of prison reform and mass construction in American history. This presentation will open the door for more research on this significant method of incarceration.

See more of: Poster Session # 1
See more of: AHA Sessions