Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Slaves in the Alexandria Jail, 1861

The same atrocities are practiced under the same authority in the jail at Alexandria, which I lately inspected. The building is a wretched one, totally unfit for a public prison. It seems to have been built in the days when accused persons were considered as public enemies, and to be caged like wild beasts. The cells are narrow, dark, and damp, and the rings and staples fixed in some of the walls tell their own story. The internal arrangements are very bad; and the general condition of the house is filthy and noisome to the last degree. Such a jail would be presented by the grand jury in any Northern city as an intolerable nuisance. The system of administration is disgraceful to any State claiming to be Christian and civilized. The jail is rented out to an individual for $400 a year, who hires a turnkey and other assistants, and boards the prisoners for thirty-five cents a day.

In the case of negroes who are arrested for being without free papers or passes, the board is paid by the master when he comes for them. If no claimant appears, and the poor fellow cannot prove that he is free, he is kept until the fees amount to a sum, when he may be sold to satisfy the claims of injustice.


The above paragraphs are from an article, from the (Washington) National Republican of January 20, 1862, was taken from a letter addressed to Massachusetts’ anti-slavery Senator Henry Wilson. It expresses outrage at the poor conditions and inhumanity of treatment of slaves in the Alexandria Jail, even under federal occupation. It points out that the actions of the Union authorities at that date were actually propping up slavery. It also makes clear that the jail functioned much as a low-class dog pound would today—runaway slaves were captured and clapped in a cell until their owners appeared or, for a fee, owners could simply drop off slaves for safekeeping while out of town, etc. (source: Freedom Cemetery)

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