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The Penitentiary at Richmond: Slavery, State Building, and Labor in the South's First State Prison


This dissertation explores the genesis of the United States’ penal system through the lens of one of America’s first prisons, the Virginia Penitentiary. The penitentiary in Richmond was built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1797 and opened for operation in 1800. Because the institution was founded and operated in a slave society, bondage directly impacted the function of the prison system in ways not yet explored by historians.

Legislators never intended the institution to be used for the confinement of slaves, but as the judicial system expanded, citizens demanded the apprehension of convict slaves due to growing fears of revolt. For the first several decades of operation, the penitentiary was a pillar for the growing state government and the imbedded slave system. When the penitentiary first opened, the immense Virginia countryside spread westward toward modern day Ohio. There were no railroads, only sparsely useable routes on horseback, and just a small number of people lived sporadically across the largely undeveloped land. The transport of prisoners required infrastructure and the penitentiary system was one state entity that encouraged growth and organization.

By apprehending free citizens as well as slaves, residents began to depend on the penitentiary to dispense justice to offenders. The penitentiary became a staple in the state government, and when slaves were convicted of a crime, the state worked with slave owners to compensate them for their loss of property. The state then took ownership of convict slaves and sold them in states further south in the cotton empire.

Most literature on American prisons focuses on moral reform institutions found in Northern facilities, but historians have yet to analyze the importance of the Southern penitentiary model, founded in Virginia. While both regions implemented forced labor for convicts, attitudes toward labor differed in each region and transformed the goals of each system. While moral reform efforts prevailed in Northern penitentiaries, the Virginia system remained punitive. Despite the monetary difficulties of running the penitentiary, the state prison system worked in conjunction with the deeply rooted channels of slave society in order to expand and gain power. Eventually, the penitentiary acted as a pillar for the propagation of slavery in Virginia.

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