Dale Brumfield’s “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History”
by Charles McGuigan
Two-years in the making, Dale Brumfield’s latest book, “Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History”, is undoubtedly the most thorough work of its kind on this defunct Richmond institution that had occupied the same spot on Spring Street for almost 200 years. Dale is thorough in his research, digs deep for data, excavates through layers of ancient papers like an archaeologist. In the bibliography there are more than 300 sources cited.
But this is much more than a work of history.
“I see it, too, as a cautionary tale,” Dale tells me. “And notorious just begins to scratch the surface of what the penitentiary was.”
That’s an understatement.
Dale lays a strong, fact-based foundation of the penitentiary’s early years. The brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia State Penitentiary in its early years was considered an extremely progressive prison. Jefferson saw great need in reforming an antiquated penal system that still relied heavily on the barbaric laws created in Jamestown.
“You know, the stockades, and pinning, nailing ears to posts for business fraud, cutting your ears off, if you steal a farm animal,” says Dale. “Or, if you were a woman who had an affair or something, they cut a hole cut through your nose.”
Up north in Philly, Quakers had been experimenting with a number of alternatives to these ancient codes of justice. But they weren’t having much success.
“The Quakers actually, at one point, put you in solitary confinement and left you there for years with no contact with another living, breathing soul,” Dale says. “What happened was after two or three years they found the inmates would go insane or die. So, that didn’t work.”
Jefferson was impressed with penal reforms he had seen in France, and went to work devising a prison for the Commonwealth of Virginia that was ever more humane than those he’d seen in Europe . “So he came up with a winning combination of labor and confinement,” says Dale.
But not long after the penitentiary first opened its doors to inmates on April Fool’s Day 1800, Jefferson’s ideas were corrupted. “The penitentiary realized they could actually make money, that this was a money-making proposition, and the heck with rehabilitation,” Dale says. “They were all about filling the treasury so that’s when they drifted away from rehabilitation and penitence which were Jefferson’s original ideas and got into, ‘Let’s put these inmates to work six days a week.’”
In short order, the penitentiary became a factory of sorts, and the Commonwealth of Virginia was making money hand over fist. After all, the labor was free. Prisoners manufactured shoes, clothing, horse collars, iron nails, even wagons. “They made everything there,” Dale says. “It was enriching the Commonwealth.” In the late 1800s, private industry complained it could not compete with the goods produced at the penitentiary, and manufacturing came to an end there with the exception of goods made for Virginia or other state governments.
Americans seem repulsed by forced labor camps—Auschwitz, the Gulag Archipelago. But that’s pretty much how the Virginia State Penitentiary was run from just after the Civil War until the early years of the twentieth century.
“During Reconstruction, the South started on a railroad building binge and they needed cheap labor for the railroads so they turned to the penitentiaries,” says Dale. “And this wasn’t just particular to Virginia, this was across the entire South. The penitentiaries would strike a deal with the railroads and they would lease convicts to them.”
Much of the railroad construction in Virginia was done in the western part of the state and beyond. “Prisoners worked under the worst conditions imaginable because they were considered expendable,” Dale says. “I found a quote by an unnamed southern gentleman at a railroad conference, who said: ‘One dies, get another.’ They just didn’t care, it was an unlimited supply of cheap labor. So these convicts were going en masse into the Shenandoah Valley and points west to the Alleghenies and as far west as West Virginia.”
A lot of that railroad building required tunneling through mountains, and as Dale did his research he began noticing a trend—many of the inmates were contracting pneumonia. “And I noticed it wasn’t just in the winter that they were dying of pneumonia,” he says. “They were dying year round and I said, ‘What in the world would cause these inmates to die of pneumonia during August?’”
The answer was silicosis. “They would blow the tunnel with nitroglycerin and then send the inmates in with no respiratory protection at all to bring out the blast debris and they were breathing in sandstone dust and contracting silicosis and dying of pneumonia,” he says. As a matter of fact, one of the men who died after laboring in the tunnels was a black man from Prince George County by the name of John Henry, who may have been the Gandy dancer that inspired the time-worn ballad of man against machine.
Some of the inmates were sent to their deaths building railroad tunnels because of their stature, and this leads Dale to talk about one of the most heinous practices by Virginia’s penal justice system.
“Nine, ten, eleven year olds were sent to prison,” he says. “Many of these youngsters were sent to work on the railroads in West Virginia under the most squalid and horrific conditions, where sodomy was rampant in these barracks simply because they were the perfect height for working inside the sandstone tunnels.” he says.
Dale then mentions Tom Nolan, just a boy, who fell into a giant vat of boiling coffee in the penitentiary’s kitchen and was scaled to death. “He was serving four years for burning a tobacco barn at age nine.”
After the Civil War, all the way up until the current era, penitentiaries were used to continue the institution of slavery. “Pre-Civil War we had slavery, and then after slavery we had the convict leasing system,” says Dale. “We had these black men that were victims of the Black Codes.”
Black Codes were hideous laws enacted by the General Assembly just a few years after the surrender at Appomattox. “The Virginia legislature made unemployment a crime, knowing that young black men who were recently freed from slavery had no jobs,” Dale explains. “So they made unemployment a crime. They could catch a black man on someone else’s property, and arrest and charge them with grand larceny under the assumption that they were about to commit a crime. If you look at the admissions, one year, I believe it was 1869, they admitted 640 black men and 56 white men. So it was completely disproportionate.” And these black inmates, much like their forbears, would be used as free laborers—slaves—by the Commonwealth.
Up until 1908 the method of execution at the penitentiary was death by hanging. The electric chair changed all that. “They saw it as an awe-inspiring form of punishment and they thought this was the deterrent that would stop crime,” says Dale. “Well, it didn’t. No capital punishment is a deterrent. The electric chair wasn’t either. But looking at what some of these black men were executed for was absolutely terrifying.”
He mentions Winston Green, a mentally disabled seventeen-year old black man. Smith may, or may not, have flagged down a girl on Midlothian Turnpike. Again, he may have touched her shoulder and screamed at her. The girl’s father assembled two 25-man posses and hunted him down. When Winston was caught, the white men beat him senseless and then turned him over to the authorities. He was then tried without the benefit of legal counsel, found guilty and sentenced to death.
Black men were far more likely to receive the death penalty than their white counterparts in crime. Dale describes the Martinsville Seven, only one of whom raped a white woman. All seven died in the electric chair.
“That made me curious,” says Dale. He began investigating what kind of sentences white men received for raping black women.
“One case I found was that two white Richmond city policemen raped a black woman in the back of their squad car,” he says. “They got seven years a piece in the penitentiary. That was in 1949.”
That same year a farmer near Glasgow, Virginia, raped a “mentally enfeebled” black woman. He got off with a fine of just twenty dollars.
This book is truly a cautionary tale, particularly in light of what is going today with the privatization of prisons that need to meet quotas to satisfy shareholders, an attorney general of the United States who wants to mete out maximum prison terms, the execution this past summer of a severely mentally ill man, the largest prison population the world—exceeding that of Russia, China, Iraq and so on.
There are hundreds of stories in this volume that will astound the reader, and they are woven together in a seamless narrative, moving ever closer to the day in 1991 when the penitentiary finally closes. And on that day there is only one inmate left. But he will never leave the pen.
He will die in the electric chair down in the basement.
“The next day they had a closing ceremony,” says Dale Brumfield.
“Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History”
by Dale M. Brumfield
The History Press