Born in the Penitentiary: Women and Children Incarcerated in Louisiana, 1833–62

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:20 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Brett Josef Derbes, Auburn University
In the Antebellum South, incarcerated women and children endured confinement at ill-equipped facilities among majority male populations.  On March 16, 1832, the Louisiana state legislature passed an “Act to Establish a State Penitentiary.”  Officials selected a site in Baton Rouge, adopted the Auburn system of prison management, and emulated the penitentiary in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  Prison workshops operated with inmate labor were initially constructed to relieve overcrowded county jails, contribute to the rehabilitation of inmates, and make the penitentiaries self-sustaining enterprises.  The Louisiana State Penitentiary incarcerated more African-American women with life sentences than any other southern state during the Antebellum Era.  From 1835 to 1862 at least sixty-two women entered the prison.  Twenty-six enslaved women were serving life sentences, and at least ten gave birth while imprisoned.  On December 11, 1848, the legislature passed “An Act Providing for the disposal of such slaves as are or may be born in the Penitentiary, Providing for the disposal of such slaves as are or may be born in the Penitentiary, the issue of convicts.”  From 1849 to 1861, the county sheriff auctioned eleven children on the courthouse steps for a total of $7,591.  Records indicate that penitentiary employees purchased six of the eleven children.  The Union army occupied Baton Rouge and evacuated four children from the prison in April 1862.  General Benjamin F. Butler wrote, “I certainly cannot sanction any law of the State of Louisiana which enslaves any children of female convicts born in the State prison.  Their place of birth is certainly not their fault.” The Battle of Baton Rouge, and a devastating fire in November 1864 destroyed the penitentiary.  Yet, evidence of secret horrors suffered by women inmates survived the flames.