I thought to write a historical blog about the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia. Many people in Richmond don’t know that the state pen used to be right here, near downtown Richmond. Quite frankly, in knowing the history of it, it’s not really something most Richmonders would want to boldly hold up as a standard. Still, we shouldn’t forget or sweep our history under the rug.
A detailed history, including all the dates and names of the people involved, including the correspondences, can be found at the Library of Virginia’s records of the Penitentiary of Virginia. What won’t be found there are the incidents of the alleged abuses.
The site of the prison was along the Spring Street, where it intersects with South 2nd Street. Afton Chemical Corp now resides at the location. It was opened in 1800, four years after the General Assembly authorized the construction of it on twelve acres overlooking the James River.
As far as the initial construction and operations, it proved to be a flawed design, apparently not well thought-out. The then-Governor James Wood (1796-1799) selected Benjamin Henry Latrobe as the architect. The horseshoe design may have been architecturally sound, but there were some functional shortcomings. One of which was that the cell doors had no windows to see inside the cells. So while several prisoners could be housed in the cell, the guards had to open the door to see what was going on, thus making overseeing the prisoners very difficult. Also, the cells had no heat or plumbing and poor ventilation. To make matters worse, there was no dining hall, so the prisoners had to eat in the cells as well.
It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine what a terrible existence it must have been to be a prisoner in the Virginia State Prison. No heat, no windows, no plumbing. Several inmates to a cell, using a bucket as a toilet and being force to deal with the cold and heat. That should be enough, but there are numerous stories of other types of abuse of prisoners. These range from beating and whippings to starvation.
Prison labor was a big part of the Virginia State Penitentiary. In the early twentieth century, convicts from the Pen worked on road crews for the State Highway Commission.
As for executions, the State of Virginia mandated that the State Penitentiary in Richmond perform all executions in the electric chair. Before that, death sentences were performed by local sheriffs by public hangings. So beginning in 1908, thru 1991, all executions were done in the State Penitentiary in Richmond.
The State Penitentiary closed it’s door and was torn down in 1991.
A special thanks goes to Ray Bonis and Selden Richardson of the The Shockoe Examiner. Thanks guys; cool website.