By the turn of the 19th century in Savannah, Georgia, twice-widowed plantation owner Mary Wylly was in financial distress. Despite her ties to wealthy slaveholding families, Wylly found herself in steep debt and was forced to slowly sell off property, including her former husband’s land and a number of the enslaved people they had owned.
In 1813, one of those sales would include her former slave Ned, who was to be sold to Isaiah Davenport, another Savannah plantation owner. Seventeen days before the sale, Mary committed Ned to the Savannah county jail for “safe-keeping,” to prevent him from running away while his auction was being finalized. That wouldn’t be the last time Wylly would use the county jail in support of controlling the people she enslaved: between 1812 and 1815, Wylly incarcerated at least eight of her other slaves—Peter, Caesar, Lary, Rachael, Sarah, Linder, Sampson, and Beaufort—for offenses ranging from running away to theft.
Wylly’s use of the county jail speaks to how in antebellum American life, slavery and incarceration were interlocking institutions, with jails being used to punish and further confine free and enslaved Black people in southern and “free” northern states alike. This reality complicates the narrative suggested by recent research on the expansion of prisons in the years immediately following slavery’s abolition, which posits that the use of incarceration as a mechanism of racial control began in the 1860s, particularly with the establishment of Black Codes throughout the South. Similarly, major cultural touchstones such as Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th have emphasized how features of slavery are preserved within current systems of incarceration. This framing has helped the public see the carceral system and the apparatuses that comprise it—jails, prisons, and policing—as a modern day evolution of slavery. However, while this frame illustrates how these two institutions have worked towards similar ends, it doesn’t necessarily convey that the two existed at the same time.
In the midst of the current uprising around police violence, sustained protest and organizing has been deepened by broader public education about the history of policing and an exploration into how it originated during the antebellum period in the form of slave patrols. In similar ways, jails are not just newly manifested forms of bondage but rather sites that existed during slavery and helped perpetuate the institution in more ways than one. Today, as calls for prison abolition become more widespread, understanding the ways slavery and incarceration interacted and existed simultaneously—not just sequentially—can deepen our understanding of the core functions of the very systems that communities are currently seeking to dismantle.
Punishment, profit, and safe keeping
“The antebellum prison system—like all political-economic institutions invested in American racial slavery at that time—played a role in reinforcing local legal-cultural customs designed to control enslaved, indigenous, and fugitive communities,” wrote DeAnza Cook, a History Ph.D. candidate at Harvard in an email to Prism.
Perhaps one of the most common and controversial uses of the jail system during the antebellum period was the detention of enslaved people who had run away. Particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, formerly enslaved people were detained until their enslaver was identified and contacted. Newspaper ads in both the North and South that called for the return of runaway slaves frequently requested that anyone who found the enslaved person detain them in a nearby jail until they could be retrieved.
For example, between 1837 and 1857 alone, nearly 500 slaves were imprisoned in Baltimore jails. Jail conditions were harsh, including poor ventilation, vermin, inadequate food, and unsanitary conditions. Effectively functioning as a form of torture, the conditions were exploited by jailers to incentivize formerly enslaved people to identify their enslavers just in order to be released.
Historians also suggest that image-conscious slaveholders used incarceration as a means of keeping their own hands “clean” while ensuring punishment was still inflicted on enslaved people. Particularly in urban areas where whippings or other forms of violence were more taboo, jails served as spaces where enslaved people could be subjected to physical and psychological harm outside of public purview. Jails like the one in Chowan County, North Carolina, the site of scenes from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, featured stocks and whipping posts that were used to mete out punishment on detainees, often disproportionately those who were Black.
“I would submit,” writes historian Keith Michael Green in his 2015 book Bound to Respect, “structures like the Chowan County Jail helped propertied Southern men to punish their bonds people, while maintaining an image of themselves as efficient, compassionate, and sophisticated owners.”
While jails were employed as sites of physical violence—and sexual violence for enslaved women— they were also places where the surveillance and confinement that defined plantation life could continue while slaveholders were out of town. Enslavers could deposit their bonds people in jails to be detained for “safe keeping” while the family traveled or, as was the case for Ned, while the enslaved person was pending sale, all to reduce the risk that those enslaved would run away. It’s estimated that some two million slaves were transported from the upper South to the lower South within the domestic slave trade and Green argues that public jails were “a crucial part of this infrastructure.”
The practice of “safe keeping” also created new profit streams for jails. In Savannah, jailers could receive $5 from plantation owners for any enslaved person captured and incarcerated in their facility. Slave owners who wished to detain their bonds people for safekeeping in Washington, D.C.’s Yellow House, a privately owned slave jail, would pay 25 cents per day. Further, jails could also freely employ the labor of the enslaved people detained within.
“While most enslaved Blacks experienced prison and plantation as one in the same,” wrote Cook, “local jails and regional penitentiaries also functioned as brutal warehouses and exploitative workhouses for the benefit of slaveholding planters, railroad companies, and auxiliary state authorities.”
Of course, antebellum jails weren’t just for detaining enslaved people. In Bound to Respect, Green notes that jails still operated outside of their relationship with slavery as “a part of each town’s established strategy for managing disobedient subjects, a system into which African American subjects unfortunately and frequently fell.” By allying slavery with an institution that used punishment as a response to disobedience, enslavers and their allies gave the practice a seemingly moral underpinning, justifying the violence waged against enslaved people by conflating them with criminals who were thought to “deserve” such punishment.
The same justification echoes in the present day, when carceral, punitive measures taken against largely Black communities are kept out of public view and passively accepted because they are rendered as appropriate responses to disobedience and criminality.
Free them all
The role of jails during slavery illustrates how the spectre of bondage and confinement loomed over Black Americans, placing the liberty of those who were enslaved and those who were nominally free in a perpetual state of precarity. However, the use of incarceration was not without critique and it even sparked contemporary public protest, placing current calls to “free them all” into a historical lineage that stretches back well into the 19th century.
In 1833, Detroit’s African American community erupted in unrest when Thomas and Lucille Blackburn, a formerly enslaved couple, were arrested and detained in a Detroit county jail. The Blackburns had fled from Kentucky two years prior and were living in Detroit using forged freedom papers when slave catchers employed by their former “masters” found them. When the city’s Black community learned of their incarceration they stormed the jail, demanding their release and ultimately smuggling both Thomas and Lucille to a boat where they sailed to freedom in Canada.
Similar unrest emerged in Wisconsin in 1854, when a mob of abolitionists stormed the Milwaukee jail demanding the release of Joshua Glover, a formerly enslaved man who had been captured and detained as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act. Overpowering the police and eventually knocking down the jail door, the mob helped Glover escape to Waukesha, Wisconsin, before he too ultimately made his way to Canada. “I rejoice,” said Sherman Booth, the newspaper editor who led the mob of abolitionists, “that the first attempt to convert our jail into a slave pen and our citizens into slave catchers has signally failed.”
In addition to physical force and intervention by Black citizens, the legislatures of northern states like Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts also pushed back against the use of incarceration and fugitive slave laws by enacting personal liberty laws, which in part prevented the use of state jails and prisons for the detention of runaway slaves.
Modern abolition in context
Recognizing that incarceration is not just a modern extension of slavery but also was a contemporaneous tool for its maintenance offers a new lens through which to frame current debates around the meaning of abolition and the limits of reform.
That lens casts a uniquely dark shade on places like the Union County Jail in New Jersey, which detained runaway slaves after its founding in 1811, and where today Black people currently make up half of those incarcerated despite comprising just 20% of the county population.
It also exposes the potential futility of current efforts that begin and end with making jails more humane, or simply renaming facilities. Since 2015, advocates have been campaigning to rename Rikers Island, which bears the name of Richard Riker, an early 19th century New York judge and district attorney who notoriously sent Black Americans back into bondage without giving them the opportunity to prove they were actually free. What is the value of removing the name of someone who supported slavery without shuttering the site that is itself a vestige of the actual institution? Even movements toward replacing jails like Rikers with newer and more “humane jails” beg a similar question: How can one make an institution borne out of racial and class control humane?
Public discourse about the 13th Amendment clause that abolished slavery in some but not all forms has given way to broader recognition of how incarceration has preserved key features of slavery and why it serves as its modern day counterpart. However, to forget that enslaved people like Ned, Joshua Glover, and Thomas and Lucille Blackburn experienced both slavery and incarceration in their lifetimes would be to neglect the full weight of how jails functioned in the past while ignoring the significance of our society’s continued reliance on them in the present.