"Two-years in the making, Dale Brumfield's latest book, 'Virginia State Penitentiary: A Notorious History,' is undoubtedly the most thorough work of its kind on this defunct Richmond institution that had occupied the same spot on Spring Street for almost 200 years. Dale is thorough in his research, digs deep for data, excavates through layers of ancient papers like an archaeologist. In the bibliography there are more than 300 sources cited. But this is much more than a work of history."
Charles McGuigan, North of the James Magazine
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In the fall of 1785, while travelling overseas, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry regarding a new prison and a radical new theory of incarceration he had witnessed, in which he stated “… With respect to the plan of a prison … I had heard of 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.”
Jefferson's theories became law in 1795, architect Benjamin Latrobe was hired, and two years later, the cornerstone for a brand new "Penitentiary-House" was laid on a 12-acre parcel west of Richmond. On April 1, 1800, convict #1, a man named Thomas Merryman was admitted for murdering the husband of a former girlfriend at their wedding. He was joined that year by 20 others.
I read five books about penitentiaries prior to writing this one, and I found something terribly missing in all of them: personality and humanity. With one exception, they all focused on architecture, their impact on surrounding communities and internal policy, with only cursory mentions of famous or unforgettable inmates.
The one exception was "Blood in the Water," by Heather Ann Thompson. Of course, it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in History.
Therefore, I intentionally chose to focus in this book less on the buildings and grounds and more on the myriad of personalities whose lives passed in and out of this notorious facility. Sure, there were prisoners who deserved to be there - many for a long, long time - but there were also those who were unjustly incarcerated, yet maintained their humanity and dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. These were the people who deserved remembering -- who were frequently victims of the crime of punishment.
There are hundreds of horror stories from inside this prison. There are also stories of hope and salvation. I hope you like it and tell your friends.