Prisons in Virginia

Incarcerating a prisoner was not a simple challenge in colonial Virginia. The initial structures built by the English were "earth fast," meaning the frame was placed directly on the ground without a stone foundation, and wood in moist soil rotted within a few years. A brick jail with a stone foundation was the obvious alternative, but Virginia colonists could not afford to build many brick buildings until a century after landing at Jamestown.

In addition, feeding a prisoner while prohibiting him from working was a high burden to impose on the rest of the colonial Virginians who paid taxes to finance government operations. The lower the cost of government operations, the lower the taxes. It made more sense to impose a fine or a whipping, rather than to impose a jail sentence to punish criminal behavior. A common crime was for indentured servants to run away before serving their time, and the typical punishment was to extend the term of service. By using a financial or physical punishment rather than imprisonment, the community was not burdened by the costs of jails or jailors.

The opportunity to extract value from slave labor was not wasted by imprisonment. Punishment for slaves convicted of crimes included cropping ears and whipping backs. Local county courts were authorized to condemn a slave to death, though white convicts accused of a capital crime had to be sent to Williamsburg for trial by the General Court.

If a slave was executed for committing a capital crime in pre-Civil War Virginia, the slaveowner was reimbursed the value of the slave. The rationale? Unless slaveowners were reimbursed, they would hide their slaves from execution, protecting their personal economic investment but exposing the community to the risk of future criminal behavior.

During the pre-Civil War era, fears of slave insurrections were always present. The number of actual armed rebellions were few, but individual resistance was common. In cases where the slave was convicted of a crime and expected to remain a troublemaker, the slave might be shipped to a more-southern colony or to the West Indies where conditions were more brutal.

County governments in Virginia were established starting in 1634. Local courts handled civil and almost all criminal cases, along with legislative issues and executive management of the county; there was no separation of powers until the 1770's. Starting in the 1600's, local jails were built next to local courthouses to hold prisoners until the members of the court would assemble each month. When debtors were imprisoned to try to "encourage" them to repay their obligations, the debtors themselves (or the creditors demanding to be paid) were required to pay for the room and board at the county jail.

Criminal justice was usually very swift, though civil issues often involved delays until witnesses were gathered and evidence submitted. If a case was a capital crime (meaning a verdict of guilty would be followed by execution), the local court would meet and direct that the defendant be transferred to Williamsburg for trial by the colonial General Court, which met every three months.

Shortly after the capital of Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699, a sturdy brick "gaol" (jail) was constructed in Williamsburg next to the colonial Capitol building. The whole jail was 20x30 feet - the size of a modern living room in today's McMansions. In the first version of that tiny jail, there were two even tinier 10x10 foot cells.

The sanitary and jail crowding standards of that time were far different than today. In 1779, seven prisoners were incarcerated in just one cell... and that space included the toilet. One wrote "In one corner of this snug mansion was fixed a kind of Throne which had been of use to such miscreants as us for 60 years past and in certain points of wind rendered the air truly Mephytic. Opposite the door and nearly adjoining the throne was a little Skuttle 5 or 6 inches wide, thro which our Victual was thrust to us."1

First Prison in Colonial Virginia

"State Pen" and "Death Row" in Virginia

Modern Prisons in Virginia

Counting Prisoners in Virginia



1. Henry Hamilton, quoted at Colonial Williamsburg - "Public Gaol," (last checked February 25, 2006)

Crime and Punishment in Virginia
Population of Virginia
Virginia Places