Records Relating to Prisons in the National Register of Historic Places

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

California – Alcatraz Island (National Archives Identifier 23935533)

This month marks the 90th anniversary that the prison that was located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was designated as a federal penitentiary.  In 1976, Alcatraz was entered into the National Register.  Within the records of the National Register of Historic Places (National Archives Identifier 20812721), there are more than 1000 records with the search term “prison,” including California SP Alcatraz (National Archives Identifier 123861025).  There are more than 3500 records with the search term “jail.”

Alcatraz is a large rock in San Francisco Bay, originally barren and covered with white pelican droppings. It is about a half mile long, 525 feet wide and 140 feet high. Subsequent to American acquisition in 1848, it was turned into a fortress beginning in 1853 . . . As the island’s importance as a prison eclipsed its importance as a fortification, a complex of newer prison and support buildings was erected during the early part of the 20th Century . . . The original iron-barred cells of the 1909 army prison building were later partially replaced with tempered tool-resistant steel cells by the US Bureau of Prisons. This main prison building, of steel-reinforced concrete, and the remains of the Citadel, are in fair condition today. At the southeast end of the island, during the early 1970s the General Services Administration demolished three guard apartment buildings, a duplex residence, and four small cottages, leaving piles of rubble which are there today . . . The 1940 building is the only surviving building erected by the Bureau of Prisons while Alcatraz was a Federal Penitentiary; all other buildings on the island date from the military period.”

“Alcatraz had served unofficially as a military prison since 1859 due to the difficulty of escaping from the island, Although, located only a little over a mile from the San Francisco shore, strong currents and tidal action together with the cold temperature of Bay waters renders this a difficult swim even for the most accomplished and fit swimmers. Consequently, although Alcatraz’s importance as a fortress declined rapidly after the Civil War due to the inability of its type of fortifications to withstand modem rifled artillery fire as demonstrated at Fort Pulaski and elsewhere during the war, the island’s importance as a prison gradually grew . . . It was not until 1934 that Alcatraz’s role as a military prison ended and it became a civil penitentiary, operated from then until its closure. in 1963 as the maximum security, minimum privilege facility of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, Title to Alcatraz was formally transferred to the U.S. Department of Justice in 1938. During the 29 years that it served as a civilian federal penitentiary, less than 1,600 men were confined there. Convicts normally were not sentenced directly to Alcatraz, but transferred there from other prisons when officials decided they were causing too much trouble. Thus Alcatraz housed the worst, most unmanageable convicts convicted of Federal crimes . . . Among the infamous criminals imprisoned on Alcatraz were Robert Stroud, “Birdman” of Alcatraz, Alfonse Capone, and “Machine Gun” Kelly.”

Andersonville Civil War Prisoners
Photograph of Union Prisoners Drawing Rations in Andersonville Prison (National Archives Identifier 533034)

Some of the properties are specific to Civil War prisons such as Johnson’s Island in Ohio and Andersonville in Georgia, seen above. “Andersonville, Georgia was chosen as the location for a Confederate prison site because of its easy access to the railroad, its rural locale, sparse population, marginal agricultural worth, and its good water supply. The area was also far enough from the major theaters of the war to insure protection from Union attack. It was not until Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in September, 1864 that it became necessary to move most of the prisoners to other areas. Andersonville continued to operate with only disabled and otherwise displaced prisoners, never exceeding 8,000 in number until the end of the war in April 1865. Between February 1864 and April 1865, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned at Andersonville’s Confederate prison camp. Of the 45,000 approximately 12,000 died of disease and starvation. This startling death rate resulted from a variety of causes. There was an absence of medicine and medical supplies. The meager diet of the prisoners contributed to scurvy and other diseases. The water supply, soon polluted was also a major cause of death. The prison was originally designed for 10,000 to 12,000 prisoners and at its peak there were 33,000 imprisoned in the 22 acre area.”

Leavenworth Prison
United States Penitentiary – Leavenworth, Kansas: Birdseye View of Penitentiary (National Archives Identifier 99904437)

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is the Eastern State Penitentiary (National Archives Identifier 71994379) “the prime exponent of the Pennsylvania system of imprisonment, a system which was of limited influence in the United States, but was studied and applied widely in Europe and South America. This system, developed primarily by the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1787, was grounded in the Quaker concept of reflection in solitude as well as an abhorrence of the 18th century practice in Philadelphia of sentencing all offenders to public hard labor. In 1821, the state legislature appointed a building commission to oversee the construction of a 250-cell prison, based on the principle of solitary confinement.”

“The commission responsible for constructing the prison realized that the philosophy behind its erection, solitary confinement, demanded a new design. A competition was held, and John Haviland, already a successful architect, won the $100 premium when his design was selected on May 24, 1822. Perhaps the plan for the prison’s exterior stimulated the commission to choose Haviland’s design, for the architect’s drawing of the exterior certainly reflected the commission’s requirement that The exterior of a solitary prison should exhibit as much as possible great strength and convey to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery that awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls.” It was within the interior, however, that Haviland’s design achieved real significance. He provided for a central rotunda from which radiated seven cell blocks, each block containing solitary confinement cells. Even if Haviland had been influenced by some radial prison designs in Europe, the English-born architect gave that concept its fullest and best realization. Furthermore, in his design, Haviland provided notable improvements in light, heat, ventilation, and space in the cells. All in all, Haviland’s design represents an excellent example of the architectural application of a philosophical point of view and it is not strange that his prison was to be widely copied, especially, as it was far in advance of the usual prison of his time.

Libby Prison
Libby prison, 1865 (National Archives Identifier 524538)

Near the County Courthouse in Accomack, Virginia, sits the site of the Accomack Debtor’s Prison (National Archives Identifier 41679225), , which is the “oldest public structure in the county, it was erected in 1783 as a jailer’s house and converted to use as a debtors’ prison in the early nineteenth century.” “The county court of Accomack in 1775 ordered a committee to “plan and lay off a Draught for a new prison for this County.” An inspection committee in 1782 approved of the building, but suggested “that a suitable wall made of Brick around the Gaol at a convenient distance is absolutely necessary and that there ought to be a small house built at the public expense in one corner and adjoining the said wall for the residence of the jailor, without which we are of opinion that the prisoners cannot be kept in perfect security.” . . . A committee pointed out to the county court in 1824 that the law did not require that they provide a jailer’s house and that furthermore “there are few if any Counties in the State in which houses are provided at the public expense.” It seemed to them that “the Jailor’s house might be appropriated to the purpose of a Jail for the confinement of debtors without injury to the public.” Reversing their predecessor’s judgement, the new committee thought that “the contiguity of the Jailor’s House to the Jail furnished no security for the safe keeping of the prisoners.” Further study suggested “that iron bars to the windows of inch iron and oak Batton doors to be hung outside, is all that is necessary to be done to the said house, to answer the purposes intended, because it is believed that debtors have no inducement to brake prison, the Law authorizes them with little trouble to discharge themselves whenever they wish so to do.” The work was accomplished promptly, and the jailer’s house served its new function until the abolition of imprisonment for debt in Virginia.”

The Capitol Prison, Washington DC
District Columbia, Washington. The Capitol Prison (National Archives Identifier 533363)

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee people built a prison within a complex of government buildings as part of an extensive network of organized system of laws and rules for their nation.  “The Cherokees built their National Prison in 1874 of hand-cut sandstone. Originally a three-story affair, or, more properly, a two-story-and-basement affair, it measured 60 feet east-west, 50 feet north-south. It had two 9 x 12-foot porches, one on the north front and the other at the back (on the south) . . . The Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed to Indian Territory from its ancient homeland in the Southeast in the fall and winter of 1838- 1839 . . . The Cherokee Nation of Indians had, in 1822 adopted a republican form of government patterned on that of the then relatively new United States of America. Included was a national judicial system, at the head of which stood a National Supreme Court. The word “civilized” in the so-called Five Civilized Tribes that eventually comprised Indian Territory was not an idle one. Thanks to the genius of Sequoyah, the Tribe by 1828 was publishing a newspaper in two languages – English and Cherokee. It was the only native American Indian tribe with a written language of its own – a language that stands as one of the great literary “inventions” of history. The Cherokees, then, were not a band of savages being uprooted by a dominant society, but a nation largely of new Christians, ably led by visionary and dedicated leaders, being transplanted in a new and undeveloped homeland . . . Significantly, the first permanent structure erected at the new capital site was a plain two-story brick building to house the Supreme Court . . . For a time following the trauma of the war years law and order in the Cherokee Nation had pretty much broken down. Robbery, assault, and murder became commonplace. Outlaws, Indian and white, roamed the area. Then gradually some semblance of order was at last re-established. The court system began again to function and it soon became obvious that if government under law was to survive, a secure facility was needed to house major offenders prior to trial and, if convicted, to hold them while they served out their sentences. Thus in 1874 the Cherokee National Prison was added to the growing list of permanent buildings erected to house government functions in the capital. A gallows was erected adjacent to the sandstone jail. Both remained in use by the Cherokee Nation until 1904, when the property was sold to Cherokee County. The building still serves as a jail. That it has survived a century of use, in the capacity for which it was erected, is a significant commentary on the quality of workmanship achieved by the Cherokees as they managed their full- fledged nation-within-a-nation.”

US Naval Prison, Portsmouth, NH
U.S. Naval Prison, Navy Yard, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (National Archives Identifier 38329857)

On the island of Puerto Rico is the Puerto Rico SP Island Penitentiary (National Archives Identifier 131518716), “commonly known today as the “Penitenciaria Estatal (State Penitentiary) or “Oso Blanco” (White Bear) is a monumental rectangular, four story concrete building with a large enclosed central court in an Art Deco style with Neo Moorish details. The property is located in a prominent five acre plot on a promontory in the Monacillos ward of the Rio Piedras area of San Juan facing road PR#18 on the northwest, which connects San Juan to the southern part of the island (Figure #1, floor plan), road PR#21 to the north and road PR#1 to the east.”

“In 1833 the Spanish Colonial Government built “La Princesa”, the first penitentiary of the Puerto Rico, in the Puntilla district south of the city of San Juan. Due to its location and because of the rapid development that occurred in the Puntilla district later in that century the space for expansion of facilities was limited. Although old penitentiary in the Puntilla were expanded in 1879 to accommodate more inmates, by in the 1890s the facilities were overcrowded’. Aware of need of new facilities to replace the old penitentiary the American civilian government, approved in its first year (May 1, 1900 to May 1, 1901) an act that called for the creation of a modem penitentiary in Puerto Rico. However, at that time no funds were approved for the construction of new facilities.

“In 1907 the Puerto Rican legislature approved the sum of $120,000 “for the purpose of erecting a model penitentiary”. The new penitentiary, which would house 1,000 prisoners, was to be built in the Puerta de Tierra area, east of the city of San Juan “just north of the military road and west of land now reserved for the marine hospital.” That next year a competition between nine architects for the design of the new penitentiary was conducted and a design was selected. Although a design was selected, the project was not made because the Government of Puerto Rico considered the budget insufficient to construct a “building as the law required”. An attempt was made to for additional funding but these failed along with the rest of the appropriations.

“Governor Horace M. Towner (1923-1929) in his first speech (June 23, 1923) to Puerto Rican Legislature revived Interest in a new penitentiary. Towner called for the construction of a state penitentiary among other public works of great magnitude. The Legislature responded, in a special session, approving Act. No. 13 “To authorize the issuance of bonds of the People of Porto Rico in the amount of $6,000,000.00 for the construction of Public Improvements, to provide funds for the payment of said bonds and for other purposes.”

Located at the west facade, the building’s entrance is emphasized by a portico symmetrical in design and sequence, and of monumental character (Figures 2 and 3). The articulated facades are a mixture of massive concrete austerity and a restrained intent of embellishment using glazed ceramic tiles and terracotta in selected areas. Except for the first floor level of the south interior wall, which is closed, all of the courtyard’s surrounding walls are open arcades on the first level and open galleries on the remaining upper floors.”

“The new prison displayed a novel architectural expression that was used effectively to represent the beginning of a new period in the penal history of Puerto Rico as well as the United States. In his speech for the inauguration. Commissioner of the Interior Francisco Pons describe it as a “modem” building in which unnecessary ornament is suppressed and structural lines are employed in every possible way in order to achieve an gracious whole. The austere fortress-type building emphasizing punishment and confinement, is softened by the use of highly decorative architectural elements such as, terra cotta tiles and relieves, glazed ceramic tiles and open interior spaces, expressing the concern for the body and mind rehabilitation. It is precisely by means of contrasts that Roldan achieves to make the new prison building representative of the change in philosophy of the new penal system. The building, is an early example of the Art Deco style, popularized in the Exposition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris, France in 1925, creatively combined with Neo Moorish elements, typical in Roldan’s work. It was a completely fresh and modem type of building and construction in Puerto Rico at that time in the outskirts of the urban area of San Juan.”

Atlanta GA Prison Gateway
United States Penitentiary – Atlanta, Georgia: Prison Gateway (not completed) (National Archives Identifier 99904391)

In Maryland, sits the Baltimore County Jail (National Archives Identifier 106776238), “constructed in 1855, a 2-story Italianate style stone building that was used as a correctional facility until 2006. It is located on the northwest comer of Bosley Ave. and Towsontown Blvd. in Towson, MD. The building consists of a 5-bay wide warden’s quarters with a central 3-story entry tower and a rear cellblock that houses 3 levels of jail cells. Connected to the south side of the warden’s house is a 1-story garage of stone construction, built in 1940, to transfer prisoners to and from police and department of correction vehicles. Over its history, the Baltimore County Jail has remained largely unaltered except for the replacement of the original cells in 1905. The building is structurally sound and the exterior is in excellent condition. The interior of the warden’s quarters, which retains most of its historic fabric, is in deteriorating condition. The interior of the cellblock is in excellent condition.” “The building still shows the layout and operation of a county jail, retaining its original rooms for administration and warden’s quarters, and three levels of cells. Its construction of massive load bearing stone walls and timber framing characterize prison architecture of the era. It is also an outstanding example of governmental architecture designed in the Italianate style in the region. Its massing, proportion, fenestration, detailing, and tower are all important architectural features that exemplify this style which was popular before and after the Civil War. The design of the building is a restrained handling of the Italianate without the usual ornate detailing, giving the jail an imposing fortress-like presence. The interior features a pyramidal skylight in the central two-story hall, and a curving stair and balcony with all of its detailing intact. The building exhibits the local craftsmanship of fieldstone masonry of the period. The jail is the work of the well-known mid-19th-century Baltimore architectural firm Dixon & Dixon, whose other projects include the Baltimore County Courthouse, Lutherville Seminary, St. Agnes Church in Baltimore County, and the Baltimore City Jail.”

Barack Obama visits a replica prison cell in Selma AL
President Barack Obama inspects the replica of a prison cell at the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015 (National Archives Identifier 284851627)

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

One thought on “Records Relating to Prisons in the National Register of Historic Places

  1. This comprehensive article sheds light on the historical significance of prisons in the United States, offering insights into various prison facilities and their roles in different periods of American history. Through detailed descriptions and historical context, the article provides a deeper understanding of the evolution of prison systems and their impact on society. It highlights the importance of archival records in preserving this aspect of our history and emphasizes the need to study and learn from the past to shape a better future. Overall, this article has greatly enriched my knowledge and appreciation of the complex history of prisons in the United States.

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