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The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that the records of the Virginia Penitentiary (Accession 41558) are now available to researchers.  The collection contains 289 bound volumes and 698 boxes of paper records spanning nearly 200 years (1796-1991; bulk 1906-1970). Included are administrative records such as annual reports, correspondence, office and subject files, minute books, photographs, and blueprints, as well as specific records related to the State Convict Road Force and State Convict Lime Grinding Board. Also included are financial records such as account books, cash books, ledgers, payrolls, and receipt books. The prisoner-related records include: prisoner registers, 1865-1980; photographs and negatives, 1906-1914, 1934-1961 and 1965-1966; medical records; commitment orders; punishment records; escape reports; index cards; and execution files. The records of the Virginia Penitentiary document the institution’s operational history, prisoners, and the evolution of corrections in Virginia.

The Virginia Penitentiary collection came to the Library in multiple accessions over several decades. In many cases, the original order of the material had been disturbed or was unidentifiable.  The bulk of this collection has never been accessible.  Researchers are strongly urged to read the Virginia Penitentiary finding aid.  The guide describes the contents of the collection in detail.  It also notes the significant gaps in the collection as well as cross-references to other collections at the Library of Virginia containing Penitentiary material.

Aerial view of the Virginia Penitentiary, 24 January 1954

Adolph B. Rice Studio, Rice collection 257B, Special Collections, Library of Virginia

I found many interesting stories while processing this collection including: Susan Smith, #7956, writing Superintendent J.B. Wood regarding parole; an influenza outbreak in a State Convict Road Force camp in 1918; the shooting of Ballard Campbell, #20559, during an escape attempt from the State Farm in 1932; the injury of James Bell, #24204, who lost his eye while working on the State Convict Road Force in 1933; a report of the successful escape of Arthur Owens, #32265, from State Convict Road Force Camp 16 on 10 December 1934; and the unsuccessful escape attempt of Robert H. Wilson, #19440, from State Convict Road Force Camp 27 on 29 April 1935.

One blog post cannot do justice to the wealth of information found in this collection. Over the next several weeks and months, Out of the Box will highlight these stories in a new series of posts:  Mug Shot Monday;  Great (or not so great) Escapes;  and Prisoner Letters.

-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivist

Roger Christman

Senior State Records Archivist


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