This history of the Alabama penal system describes how the state responded to the national penal reform movement of the 19th century, documenting basic and important differences between penitentiary experiments in the antebellum South and the New South.
The political struggle to establish a state penitentiary in Wetumpka, near Alabama's geographic center, began in the late 1830s. Opened in the early 1840s, the prison housed white men and a few women; since slaves were considered property, punishment for most slave crimes was left to their owners. The facility manufactured such goods as boots and shoes, hats, wagons, clothes, and cigars and was expected to compete with civilian industry. Inexperience and faulty administration took their toll, and the prison soon showed large losses. Though the penitentiary was turned over to private leasees in 1846, both systems of management were inadequateunder each, prisoners frequently escaped, manufactured goods never competed successfully with private enterprise, and prisoners suffered high mortality rates from poor living conditions and disease.
The state resumed control during the Civil War and finally made a profit because of the heavy demand for manufactured products for Confederate troopsknapsacks, tents, and wagon covers. The prison closed at the end of the war, and in the postwar years the state operated the infamous convict leasing system that allowed private parties to "rent" and house state and county convicts under contracts. Subject to appalling abuses, the postwar convict lease system was a black mark on the state's history.
A modern study of prison reform, this work demonstrates that Alabama’s penitentiary system was established in direct response to the humanitarian prison reform movement that swept the country in the first half of the 19th century. In fact, Alabama's penitentiary was modeled on the state prison in New York, and many aspects of both northern and southern state penitentiary systems were adopted by Alabama. Based mainly on newspapers, legislative journals, and newly accessible prison records, the book opens the door to a reexamination and reinterpretation of southernand, in particular, Alabama'sprison systems.
Robert David Ward is professor emeritus of history at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. William Warren Rogers is professor emeritus of history at Florida State University in Tallahassee. They are coauthors of Alabama: The History of a Deep South State.