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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States: Institutional Records by Amy Johnson Crow, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Prisons and Jails
Brief History of Prisons and Jails
In 1632, the Massachusetts Bay Colony opened its first jail. Incarceration in the colonies was seen as punishment, not an opportunity for correction or rehabilitation. Throughout the colonial period, conditions in jails were similar to those in mental institutions. Men, women, and children were housed in the same areas; sanitary conditions were lacking; disease and violence among prisoners were rampant.
- “This Philadelphia jail [corner of Third and High] was a typical catch-all of miserable persons, criminals, lesser offenders, debtors and others. In this building, the young and old, the white and the colored, the depraved and the relatively innocent were indiscriminately herded. Liquor was freely sold at a bar, kept by one of the prison officers. Jail fees were required even of those who had been tried and acquitted. From the windows of the jail the inmates were wont to push out bags and baskets, imploring alms from the passers-by, and roundly reviling them if they refused to give.”
It wasn’t until 1790 at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia that prisoners were attempted to be reformed rather than just punished. This new system, called the Pennsylvania System, became the basis of other prisons in the early 1800s.
Most prisons had an industry, a farm, or both. Prisoners were expected to work as part of their punishment and rehabilitation. Prison officials of the time believed work to be good incentive for prisoners to correct their ways, as well as teaching them skills they could use in the outside world. The profits from these enterprises helped support the prison.
The late 1800s and early 1900s saw more attempts to reform prisoners (hence the use of the term “reformatory” in the name of many prisons of the time). Prisons offered more educational opportunities and occupational training. Later in the 20th century, prisons have made varying levels of attempts toward reform and rehabilitation.
Local and County Jails
Among the first necessities of a new community is somewhere to place criminals (and those suspected of being criminals). The local jail is one of the earliest institutions in any county.
The local jail was a “catch-all” for all types of offenders from suspects awaiting trail for the most heinous crimes to vagrants being held overnight in the “drunk tank” to debtors of even small amounts. Local jails were also warehouses for those deemed to be insane, much the same as county infirmaries were.
Finding an ancestor in the records of the county jail may or may not provide insight into the ancestor’s character, as admission into the jail was often without complete due process.
In New England and several mid-Atlantic states, people could be in county jails for debt. The amount owed was often less than $20. In 1829, 595 persons were imprisoned in local and county jails for owing between $1 and $5. By 1830, Kentucky and Ohio had laws against imprisonment for debt and many of the New England and mid-Atlantic states had set a minimum amount that the debt had to be before imprisonment.
Many of the people admitted into a county jail were not there to await a trail. Being intoxicated or fighting in public could result in a night in jail to “sober up” or “cool off.”
Jail registers are the most common record for local and county jails. Unlike the state and federal prison records you will learn about shortly, the record keeping in local jails was relatively basic. A register listed the name, offense, and date admitted.
Some registers give us additional information, such as the one in Figure 40 from the Belmont County, Ohio jail:
The biographical information in this record - age and birth place - is a valuable addition. Not to be overlooked, however, are the columns “By whom committed” and “How Discharged, Sentenced, etc.” Seeing how the person was committed can lead to other records. In the Belmont County example, Moses Edwards was admitted “by contempt of court” on 11 February 1867. Astute researchers will go to Belmont County court records and look for Moses Edwards as a party to an action as well as look at the minutes of the court for early February 1867. These records should give more information as to what Mr. Edwards did to be held in contempt and why he was in court to begin with.
Similarly, William Morgan was committed 16 January 1867 and discharged 5 March 1867 - “taken to penitentiary.” The Remarks column notes that he was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary.
With this information, you can do two things:
- look in Belmont County court records in late 1866 and early 1867 for records of Morgan’s trial, and
- follow up with state penitentiary records for Morgan’s incarceration there.
As you will see next, state and federal penitentiary records can be very detailed and well worth the search.
State and Federal State Penitentiaries
State and federal penitentiaries have more records than local jails. They are tremendously rich in biographical and genealogical information and leads for other research.
Like other records, more recent prisoner registers tend to be more detailed than earlier ones. However, even the early ones can contain significant information.
Prisoner registers record the prisoner’s name, age, court convicted in, crime, date of admittance, date of discharge, and (often) comments about the stay. Some give biographical information, such as age, birth place, occupation, physical description, names of family members, and level of education.
The document below shows the prison register record for Samuel Rogers, admitted to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, 20 June 1849.
Figure: Example Register from the County, County, Ohio Jail
Figure: Example Register from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus
Consider the information this record contains and the possibilities for research:
| Information in Record
|| Research Possibilities|
| Name: Samuel Rogers
| Term: 3 years
| Crime: grand larceny
| Number [prisoner number]: 1997
| County [convicted from]: Marion
| Date of Sentence: June term, 1849
|| Look in Marion County, Ohio court records for trial documents; look in Marion County newspapers for articles about the crime and the trial.|
| When Admitted: 20 June 1849
| Time Out: 20 June 1852
| When and How Discharged: “Discharged by expiration of sentence June 19/52”
|| He should appear on the 1850 census in the Ohio Penitentiary. This will help you differentiate between among the 28 Samuel Rogers and 19 Samuel Rodgers listed in the 1850 census index.|
| Age: 55
|| Born circa 1794; about 18 years old in 1812. Look for possible War of 1812 service.|
| Nativity: N. Jersey
|| Keep this in mind as a possible identifier in further research, especially when looking for other ROGERS families.|
| Occupation: farmer
|| Did he own land? Check Marion County, Ohio and Mercer County, Pennsylvania land records.|
| Height: 5-5 3/4
|| Eyes: Hazel|
| Hair: Black
| Complexion: Common
| General Appearance, Scars and Marks: “Has tolerable high forehead short full face rather think lips and good appearance. Scar on his chin and has upper front teeth out on left side.”
| Habits: Intemperate
|| Has he ever been in the Marion County jail or county home?|
| Residence of Relations and Families: “Three children living in Mercer Co, Pa. This man is active looks to be not more than 40 years old.”
|| Search for ROGERS families in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. Where is the wife? Look for cemetery and church records in Mercer County, Pennsylvania and Marion County, Ohio. |
- ↑ Lewis, Orlando F. The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845 (1922: reprint Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1967), 17.
- ↑ Lewis, The Development of American Prisons, 277.
- ↑ Lewis, The Development of American Prisons, 277.
- ↑ Ancestry.com, 1850 United States Federal Census everyname index, online. Index searched 30 March 2005.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Institutional Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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