Virginia Prisons as an Epicenter of Legal Racial Violence

Virginia took up a rather odd space during the early life of the nation. Acting as both the foundational ground of the American Government as well as a center of conflict during the schism that was the Civil War, the Commonwealth was torn between the responsibility to represent the nation and the obligation to maintain autonomy as a State. This meant attitudes about race, slavery, and abolition were incredibly complicated. Given this, it is imperative to investigate the manifestations of these attitudes in Virginian law, more specifically, in the Virginian prison system. From this analysis, the question of racial violence in Virginian legal punishment can be fully answered.  

Mapping Black Incarceration Story Map

Virginia State Penitentiary Architectural Drawings

An architectural drawing completed by Benjamin Latrobe, the man tasked with planning the layout of the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1797.

In as early as 1640, the Virginian court system had already begun to levy differing punishments between white indentured servants and African slaves. While this may seem obvious, what matters is that the white servants, Victor, a Dutchman, and James Gregory, a Scotsman, attempted to escape to Maryland with an African slave named John Punch, (Costa, 2023). Upon their capture, Victor and James were to be whipped and had four years added on to their indentures whilst John’s punishment was lifetime enslavement, (Costa, 2023). While the outcomes of this case are orthodox, they indicate a sort of genesis of legal racial violence in the Virginian court. In response to this, the Virginian General Assembly declared that the labor time of an escaped slave must be fulfilled by a white indentured servant, thus creating an impediment for White servants' freedom as well as a rift in Black-White cooperation, (Costa, 2023). Reactions to runaway servants and slaves, including the varying punishments levied against them as well as tactics to prevent escape, was the beginning of disparate sanctioning in the punishment of Black Virginians. From here, practices in the later centuries can be better analyzed.  

Virginia State Penitentiary Map

A map of the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary. 

Before the emancipation proclamation, the punishment of enslaved people bordered on paradoxical. The problem was this: jailing enslaved people for their crimes was problematic for their owners, who lost out on labor, (Adamson, 1983). On the other hand, simply killing slaves for any and all crimes was not feasible as, once again, it meant a loss in labor power, (Adamson, 1983). And so, post emancipation proclamation, crime and punishment for Black Virginians had already been shaped and influenced by centuries of slavery and dehumanization. This, along with the economic stall cause by abolition, adequately explains the establishment of both the prison industry system as well as the state prison farm, as Black inmates could be utilized to bring about a modern and legal form of slavery that virtually paid for itself, (Adamson, 1983). And so, the modern Virginian prison system was born, and it was fueled by racist ideologies about Black freed people. If Black freed people were considered dangerous and violent, then Virginian law would reflect this ideology through overcriminalization. Then, for a myriad of crimes- even the mere breaking of a sharecropping contract- Black Virginians could be imprisoned and provide cheap labor to fuel Virginian industry, (Adamson, 1983). It was, after all, Virginia’s long and violent history that fueled this violence.  

Virginia State Penitentiary Grounds

A colorized photo of the grounds of the Virginia State Penitentiary shortly before it was demolished. 

Adamson, Christopher. Punishment After Slavery: Southern State Penal Systems, 1865-1890. (1983, June). Thematic Issue on Justice. 30:5, 555-569. 

Costa, Tom. Runaway Enslaved People and Servants in Colonial Virginia. (2023, February 08). In Encyclopedia Virginia.

Isabelle Degraff

Prev Next