Although Thomas Jefferson is remembered for ardently petitioning on behalf of man’s endowed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he likewise involved himself in the development of the carceral system and institutional punishment.
While serving as the Ambassador to France in 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Virginia Governor, Patrick Henry, about being asked by Virginia state officials to oversee the design of the Richmond Capitol Building and a prison. Jefferson detailed that his preliminary plan for the prison drew from “a benevolent society in England which had been indulged by the government in an experiment of the effect of labor in solitary confinement on some of their criminals, which experiment had succeeded beyond expectation.” Prior to the organization of this ‘experiment,’ most American prisons followed strict European models where individuals convicted of crimes remained in jail for the duration of their sentences. The concept of the penitentiary, where criminals could prepare for reentry into society through hard labor, gained popularity as an effective rehabilitative treatment as well as a way to productively put the imprisoned population to work. Jefferson considered his proposal as one of if not the first introduction of the notion of penitentiaries and solitary confinement as a basis for criminal justice into the American consciousness.
The same year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia legislature commissioned Jefferson to head a committee dedicated to revising the new state’s criminal laws. He wrote in his autobiography that “on the subject of criminal law, all were agreed that the punishment of death should be abolished, except for treason and murder; and that, for other felonies should be substituted hard labor in the public works.” The final bill, titled A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment in Cases Heretofore Capital (Bill 64), used language that alluded to a more rehabilitative purpose for prisons. This coincided with the publication of Cesare Beccaria’s publication, On Crimes and Punishments (1764), in which the Italian philosopher encouraged enlightenment philosophers to contemplate prison reform. Beccaria’s treatise proposed some of the first modern arguments against the death penalty, arguing that long term imprisonment would be a more effective deterrent due to the transience of execution. Jefferson said that Beccaria’s reflections “had satisfied the reasonable world of the unrightfulness and inefficacy of the punishment of crimes by death” with his arguments regarding the citizen’s duty to respect the social contract. In 1785, Jefferson’s Bill 64 faced the Virginia legislature but lost by a single vote because of hesitations with abolishing the death penalty as punishment for horse thievery (a common crime at the time). A year later, the state of Pennsylvania embarked on an experiment of a similar design to Jefferson’s plan of substituting hard labor for the death penalty with the construction of the Walnut Street Prison. The trial appeared unsuccessful in its efforts to reform prisoners with Jefferson himself writing that the embarrassment of public labor “plunged them into the most desperate & hardened depravity of morals and character.” The Philadelphia prison later implemented solitary confinement as a form of punishment and seemed to produce the desired result of a reduced crime rate. Once the second iteration of Bill 64 reached the legislature in 1796, Jefferson amended his original plan by substituting solitary confinement for hard labor as a result of the success of the Pennsylvania penitentiary and the conversations about prison reform taking place in Europe.
In addition to basing his reforms for criminal laws on European models, Jefferson also attributed his design for the Virginia State Penitentiary to the work of two French architects. In a letter to James Buchanan and William Hay, Jefferson attached a “plan of the prison proposed at Lyon which was sent by the architect, and to which we are indebted for the fundamental idea of ours.” The French architect of Lyon, Pierre-Gabriel Bugniet, published his original drawings in the July 1765 issue of French literary magazine, the Mercure de France. The prison accommodated for 900 cells or chambers which would be organized by types of prisoners to ensure that “there is no confusion in the internal policing of the prison; the honest man who is the unfortunate victim of fortune, or merely imprudent, is no longer intermingled with those whom the laws condemn or stigmatize and whom society casts out.” Jefferson also mentioned the significance of Charles-Louis Clerisseau’s architectural advice in the design process. Clerisseau mainly assisted Jefferson in his design for the Virginia State Capitol but he nonetheless gifted the architect with a silver coffee urn as a “present for Clerisseau for his trouble about the draughts & model of Capitol & prison.” A specially appointed committee eventually selected the designs of Benjamin Latrobe for the final structure of the penitentiary, which featured three stories of cell blocks facing an open common area and solitary confinement cells in the basement. Despite the fact that his exact drawings were not followed, Jefferson admitted that “it’s principle accordingly, but not its exact form was adopted by Latrobe, in carrying the plan to execution, by the erection of what is now called the Penitentiary, built under his direction.” Curiously enough, after the reconstruction of the penitentiary in 1928, a plaque allegedly placed on an exterior wall incorrectly stated, “The bricks used in the construction of these buildings were from the original penitentiary which was designed by Thomas Jefferson and erected on this site in the year 1797.”
After Latrobe began construction, Jefferson (then Vice President of the United States) continued to invest his time in the penitentiary. He specified in a letter to the Governor of Virginia, James Wood, that he would act to prevent “an affectation of ornament which would be entirely misplaced on a building of this character.” While Jefferson prided himself in his self-taught knowledge of classical architecture, he withheld from displaying any aesthetic frivolities in his design for the Virginia prison. This stipulation was strangely out of character for Jefferson who would later design the University of Virginia as a living architectural textbook and an institution that encouraged discipline in the humanities. His insistence that the exterior of the prison match the character of its function bears insight to what Jefferson may have thought of prisons and those who resided behind their walls. Not only would the threat of incarceration remain to deter crime but the experience of being imprisoned would engrain the purpose of recovery as a process through which the criminal must prove their worthiness to society.
Until the original penitentiary’s destruction in 1928, the facility housed a variety of notorious criminals, many of whom sat in solitary confinement. In the summer of 1800, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser organized a slave rebellion in Richmond that involved almost one thousand slaves. After the plans of the revolt reached the ears of Governor James Monroe, Prosser (the last name of his owner) and twenty-six other co-conspirators were arrested and taken to the penitentiary and Henrico jail. Gabriel was taken to the penitentiary and placed in solitary confinement until his execution on October 10. Governor Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson asking if he ought to hold more executions to deter future rebellions, to which Jefferson replied: “there is a strong sentiment that there has been hanging enough. The other states & the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge a principle of revenge, or go one step beyond absolute necessity.” While Jefferson disapproved of excessive displays of punishment, he did not reciprocally advocate for rehabilitative penitentiary sentencing. Jefferson instead suggested that the legislature pass a law for the exportation of black Americans to the African continent, an effort that later culminated in the establishment of the American Colonization Society (1816). The early supporters of the group included Jefferson, James Monroe, John Randolph, Henry Clay, and James Madison, who served as the Society’s president in the 1830s. In the Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson anticipated being asked, “why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?” In response to his own question Jefferson replied: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions by which nature has made; and many other circumstances… will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or other race.” Although Jefferson’s opinions on criminal justice certainly fell into the more radical camp of the time, his commitment to ‘reforming the criminal’ failed to extend to non-white individuals.
Gabriel’s time in the penitentiary stood in stark contrast to the treatment former Vice President Aaron Burr received during his time in the prison. In 1807, Aaron Burr occupied a special apartment in the penitentiary house composed of three rooms while undergoing court proceedings for the charges of “1, treason in levying war against the United States, 2, preparing an expedition against the colonies of Spain, a nation with whom the United
States was at peace.” In a letter to his daughter, Burr noted that “while I have been writing, different servants have arrived with messages, notes, and inquiries, bringing oranges, lemons, pineapples, raspberries, apricots, cream, butter, ice, and some ordinary articles.” Despite Jefferson’s own belief that treason and murder ought to be the only crimes punishable by death, Burr was spared while Gabriel, who neither fulfilled an act of treason nor committed murder, was hanged. The excessive consideration given to Burr, compared to the severe sentencing of less prestigious inmates, proved that the newer penitentiary system introduced by Jefferson still discriminated on the basis of race and moreover made exceptions for the supposed reformative purpose.
Jefferson’s contributions to the Virginia State Penitentiary distinguished him as an authority in what developed into the modern-day prison system. On June 24, 1823, Joseph Carrington Cabell wrote to Jefferson requesting help in designing the Nelson County prison because he heard that Jefferson drew up plans a month prior for the jail in Cumberland County. The aging Jefferson replied with a copy of the Cumberland County sketch equipped with a solitary confinement cell and holding cells separated by gender and race. Solitary confinement soon became a standard for prison sentencing and in 1833, the penitentiary issued new guidelines that required a prisoner to spend at least 1/12th of their term in solitary. That same year, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont published On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France which recounted their tour of American prisons and penitentiaries. In reflection of the implementation of solitary confinement, the two Frenchmen concluded that “in general it was ruinous to the public treasury” and “proofs were soon afforded that this system, fatal to the health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their reform.” After a trip to Virginia they also specifically described the Richmond penitentiary as “one of the bad prisons in the United States.” While the two did not specify the reason for categorizing the prison as “bad,” Tocqueville and Beaumont clearly articulated that the practices of American facilities should not be emulated in France despite the fact that Jefferson obtained his schemes from their home country.
Jefferson’s accommodation for racial discrimination in prisons further informed the enactment of penal laws, in his own time and up through present-day. In the years following the opening of the penitentiary, free black communities were increasingly seen as “a great problem” due to the notion that their condition corrupted both slaves and other prisoners. Virginia legislatures sought to solve this ‘problem’ by issuing a new penalty in 1825 that punished any free black convicted of a crime not with a penitentiary sentence but by being whipped, sold, and transported as a slave. Governor William Giles moved to repeal the law in 1828 but by then, thirty-five free people had already been sold. A later 1857 Virginia law authorized the employment of free blacks and slave convicts on state public works which provided the state with cheap labor while simultaneously reducing the problem of overcrowding in penitentiaries. The law implicitly encouraged courts to dole out longer sentences to African-Americans and with the stipulation in the Thirteenth Amendment that permitted slavery or involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime, African-Americans then and now continue to face disproportionate rates of policing and incarceration. Not only have Jefferson’s own writings supported the disenfranchisement of black Americans but acts of legislation following his precedent have set the foundation for the modern prison-industrial complex.
Whether Jefferson intended to shape the evolution of prison reform in the United States with his simple sketch remains unknown but his ideas have continued to impact contemporary applications of criminal justice, both in practice and theory. Solitary confinement has continued to serve as a legitimate form of punishment in the United States but since the 1990s, the U.N. Committee Against Torture has condemned its use as a form of torture. Approximately 80,000 individuals currently remain in solitary confinement, a condition that if endured for long periods of time may produce symptoms such as hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, increased risks of suicide, and PTSD. Furthermore, the significance of the simultaneous construction of the Virginia Capitol and the state penitentiary under Jefferson’s direction alludes to the establishment of an ideological precedent on matters of discipline. If the erection of the capitol symbolized democratic freedom, cultural achievement, and national dignity, more so did the penitentiary represent the consequences suffered by those who proved undeserving or unfit to enjoy the liberties endowed upon a citizen. More than one hundred years after Jefferson produced his original prison sketch, his innovative ideas have continued to shape notions of democracy and citizenry but have also given credence to the act of rescinding rights and branding of the non-citizen.
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