More from the Footnote Files: The Ohio Penitentiary as a Labor Force

I did a LOT of research before I began to write Fips, Bots, Doggeries, and More.  A lot of the interesting stuff I learned about the 1830s never made it into the book, and now, hooray! I have a blog on which to share.

Today’s essay is on prison reform, which was a hot topic in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Capitalizing on Rehabilitation:  The Ohio Penitentiary as a Labor Force in 1838


The concept of rehabilitating, rather than simply punishing, prison inmates came into vogue in the early 19th century.  The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, formed by Quakers after the Revolutionary War, originated the concept of a penitentiary, where inmates could reflect on their crimes and repent, and thus leave prison rehabilitated.  The Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, built in 1790, one of the first prisons to attempt to rehabilitate its inmates, provided a severe environment with plenty of time for self-evaluation.  Prisoners there were held in silent, solitary confinement for their entire sentences.

Auburn Prison


Auburn prisoners in lockstep position

Auburn Prison, located in Auburn, New York, opened in 1816.  All inmates were housed in solitary confinement, and by 1821, a number of inmates had had mental breakdowns or committed suicide. The prison officials decided to add work to the incarceration experience, and under what became known as the Auburn System, inmates worked side by side during the day and were housed in their separate cells at night.  The Auburn System became the dominant method of prison operation in the United States until about 1870.

Auburn Prison conducted tours for the curious; the average yearly income from tourists’ admission fees paid the salary of the deputy keeper, a clerk, a turnkey, the chaplain and a surgeon.  Prisoners spent their days performing skilled labor for local tradesmen, in complete silence and under guard.  At first, the items manufactured at the prison were sold or exchanged for provisions and raw materials, but beginning in the 1830’s, prisoners were paid for their labor.  Illiterate prisoners were required to attend night classes and all inmates took part in religious services each Sunday.  Reformers pushed for the establishment of prison libraries, and the reduction of whipping and beating as punishment for rule infractions.  Convict rehabilitation and humane treatment were considered beneficial, as “measured by the cooperation and morale of the prisoners”. Discipline was exceedingly strict, and contact between inmates was limited.  Yet all things considered, the 1830s might have been one of the best times in history (up to that time) to find oneself in the slammer.


 Early Sketch of Auburn Prison (NY)


The Ohio Penitentiary

Glowing accounts of prison reform in the 1830s, found in books like Henry Howe’s Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes (1904), made it seem like serving time in the good old days wasn’t all that bad.   Other historical accounts report that jails were squalid, disease-ridden places, and, considering the overall standards of hygiene at the time, this is probably true.  Life on the outside was also squalid and disease-ridden.  No one had indoor plumbing, and the concept of disease prevention through simple hygiene was unheard-of.

But really–how bad was it?  Let’s consider the Ohio Penitentiary, which opened in 1834 and served as Ohio’s maximum-security prison until 1972.

Convicts built the Ohio Penitentiary, formerly located at Spring and Neil Streets in downtown Columbus, between 1832-7 .  When construction began, convicts whose sentences would not end before the work was completed were promised pardons if they performed the tasks assigned to them and made no attempt to escape, and none of the convict workers violated the agreement.   The Ohio Penitentiary cost $93,370, not including the 1,113,462 days of free convict labor.

The reforms that stressed discipline and hard work  to raise the prisoners’ morale and positively influence their behavior were also a boon to the state government–in the form of  free construction crews.

Would honest citizens have been horrified by what they saw on a prison tour? Here’s a rare glimpse inside the walls of the Ohio Penitentiary:  my great-great-great grandfather, Henry Rogers, a 32-year old farmer from Cincinnati, toured the Penitentiary in Columbus on Saturday, August 25, 1838, with his wife, Maria, her parents, and his niece, Hannah Burge.   Henry recorded a detailed description of the prison’s daily activity in his journal:

 At about 4 o’clock, Father and Mother Hill, Maria and myself and Miss Hannah Burge started to visit the state prison and got caught in a shower of rain just as we got to the prison walls.  We passed through the large iron gate and there we received 5 blank tickets.  We were then told to go to the office where we paid 25 cents a piece for the men and 12 ½ cents a piece for the women.  There we received 5 more tickets with the word admit on it.  We then proceeded to the keeper of the iron door which is right in the center of the prison, between the east and west wings, with two other doors of the same as that of the first.  The keeper opened the first door and waited until we had gotten through, then we were let through the other door into the west wing, which is four stories high, with cells not more than 4 or 5 feet apart and a strong iron grate for every cell, through which light is communicated and no other.

After passing through the hall the next place was a room in which lace girting[1] and everything belonging to coaches, carriages, etc. was manufactured, together with stirrups, bridle bits and plated iron of every description, and that too of the neatest kind.  This department is conducted by Hayden & Co., who pays the state for the use of the prisoners.

The next place we visited was their dining room.  This place is so arranged that none of the prisoners sit facing each other.  There are 12 companies of prisoners and one guard for each company.  When dinner is ready, the bell rings and they all come in without any ceremony and take their seats.  When the bell rings (so we were informed for we did not see) they all at the same time pull off their hats, then another toll of the bell and they all fall to eating and then are dismissed the same way. 

The next was the saddle making which is carried on very extensively.  The next was the blacksmiths who were very diligently at work.  The next was the coopers.[2]  This department is carried on by a man by the name of Piney, and he also hires the prisoners from the state.  The establishment is very profitable.  The next was the stone cutters who was employed in cutting stone for a new court house and Hall.  The next was the shoemakers and tailors.  The tailors are also hired from the state by Hurdell & Co. Merchant Tailors.  I have missed one or two departments which was next to the lace department.  That was the washing and cooking and baking rooms, all of which is kept in the best kind of order and very clean.

The prisoners are called out by companies according to their number, and they form in single file, the tallest men in front as close as they can stand.  At the word, they all step off together—this is the manner in which they go to dinner, from dinner to their cells, or from them.

The discipline of the prisoners is such that not one of them are allowed to speak or look at one another.  If they do break over the rules of the prison they are sure to be caught, for there is a guard or two placed in every department of the prison.  They are informed on, are brought up and thrashed according to the crime without ever making any question, and then sent back to work. 

Ohio Penitentiary

 Source of Illustration: Howe, Henry Historical Collections of Ohio in Two Volumes

C.J. Krehbiel & Co., Printers.  Cincinnati, OH 1904.

 Rogers noted that convict labor was used for other government buildings:

The town of Columbus is beautifully situated on an elevated piece of ground near the center of Franklin County, Ohio on the Scioto River.  The town is not very compact, but very much detached, spreading over a large portion of the country and appears to be doing a considerable deal of improvement besides numerous dwellings and warehouses.  There are three asylums, one of which is finished for the deaf and dumb.  The other two are not finished.  The one for the lunatics is a most splendid building situated on the north east part of the town, as near as I was capable of judging.  It is about 350 ft. in length and four stories high.  There are two rows of rooms in each wing, there being an east and a west wing.  These rooms are about 10 ft. square, making about 80 rooms in each wing.  Then there is a large hall through each wing, running the whole length of the building.  Then there is another calculated for the blind, situated about an east course from the town.  This is not as large as the lunatic asylum.  I had not an opportunity of making any close discovery or examination.  The lunatic asylum is built almost entirely by the prisoners.  They have burned the brick, cut the stone and laid up the building, and do a considerable portion of the carpenter work.  There is a large picket fence running around the building and about 5 guards stationed to keep order. 


In Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe reported that

Piece work [is] given out to the convicts, who are thus stimulated to greater industry, and many of them, by increased application to their labors, often leave the prison upon the expiration of their sentences with sufficient money saved…to start them in useful callings.  During our visit mention was made of one prisoner who will shortly leave with $540 earned in that way.  The habits of industry thus acquired, with the consciousness of possessing the reward of faithful efforts, cannot fail to have a beneficial effect upon criminals and do much toward making them honest and industrious citizens…Prisoners who are experienced in any particular trade upon entering the prison are given work in their specialty; but the majority of the convicts have never learned trades when first imprisoned.

Since its implementation, the use of prison labor forces has been alternately praised and criticized.  Arguments for using convict labor are compelling.  If an inmate has an opportunity to learn a trade and to further their education, they may be less likely to return to crime when released from prison.  The companies who contracted with prisons had inexpensive skilled and unskilled labor at their disposal.

Critics argued that prison labor forces were merely slaves who worked against their will for a fraction of regular wages, that hiring prison workers took jobs away from individuals who were not criminals, and that attempts to rehabilitate inmates through work did not increase the odds that inmates would refrain from committing new crimes after they were released from prison.  The prison labor system was vulnerable to abuse and corruption.

Prison labor today is much more than making license plates.  In the article Inside Jobs — Convict Rehab or Corporate Slavery? Chris Levister asserts that “prison labor is poised to become one of America’s most important growth industries.”  Businesses who use prison labor don’t have to worry about strikes or worker benefits.  Workers are never late or absent because of traffic or family problems.  California Prison Watch, which monitors the state’s prisons, says labor programs are popular because prisoners have less idle time, earn spending money and learn job skills.

Prison labor is compulsory in at least three states, and a matter of concern for human rights and labor activists. The Quakers’ crusade to rehabilitate prisoners was born of a desire to help the downtrodden and the criminal.  In the nineteenth century, attempts to make prisons better may still have seemed harsh by our standards and sensibilities–but the real question should be–better than what? That question may still be asked today.


Read more: Walnut Street Prison


[1] Girting is iron or steel beams used as supports.

[2] Barrel makers.





  1. Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m
    absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

    1. Tracy Lawson says:

      Yes, I do use Twitter, though not as often as I should! You can follow me @TracySLawson. I had a busy week last week but will post again soon. Have you also seen my site for my book-in-progress, Counteract? you can visit at

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