Welcome to Georgia College, home to a beautiful campus in Milledgeville, Georgia. Walking around, a visitor would have little notion of the area’s original use in the town. Milledgeville was the home of Georgia’s first penitentiary, which was located in the very square where the college is located.
In 1811, Georgia allocated funds for the penitentiary, which officially began accepting prisoners in 1817 and existed until the 1880s. Legend has it that Sherman burned the penitentiary on his March to the Sea, but according to records and firsthand accounts from November 23, 1864, it already was engulfed in flames by the time his soldiers arrived. After the war, Governor Joe Brown was convinced that inmates had set the fire in hopes that it would be pinned on the Union troops, and he fought vigorously against restoring the prison. In his mind, it was “a school for theft, lawlessness and villany” and “a den of thieves.” The citizens of Milledgeville, also, disliked having the penitentiary in the middle of town. However, despite its many detractors, it remained on one of the main squares in Milledgeville, being restored and expanded for even greater prisoner capacity.
After the Civil War, the population of the penitentiary tripled, and the population became three-fourths African-American. Prior to the Civil War, offenses by slaves were punished on plantations, but after the war, the state became responsible for penal functions for all citizens. In 1868, Georgia moved to a “convict lease” system, a predecessor of the notorious chain gangs of later decades. This leasing system incentivized localities and the state to have a “good supply” of prisoners (particularly new freedmen) at all times to ensure funds were raised to help pay for state and local services. By 1870, 85% of the prisoners at the penitentiary in Milledgeville were African-American and only seven were not “leased out” to companies. In 1897, Georgia created the position of state prison warden and established a prison farm two miles west of Milledgeville. Convict leasing officially ended in 1908, but as the prison farm could only accommodate 600 convicts, the chain gang system increased in usage.
By the late 1880s, the penitentiary in Milledgeville had been abandoned, but it had occupied prime real estate in the town. Julia Flisch, a journalist in Augusta, lobbied successfully for the creation of a two-year state college for women to be located in the now-available space. Originally known as Georgia Normal & Industrial College, classes revolved around teacher training and business skills. The original Main building was completed in 1891, and the institution was granted four-year status in 1917.
Why would we in Special Collections choose to honor the memory of the penitentiary? Georgia’s prison system has been the subject of many inquiries and funding fights throughout the decades, but otherwise forgotten are the memories of the mostly poor Georgians whose identities are entwined with the penitentiary, less than a quarter of whom were violent offenders. Most were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, mainly vagrancy, petty larceny, and burglary. The ones most remembered today are the hardened criminals who were convicted of sensational crimes, and the penitentiary at Milledgeville did house a few celebrity criminals during its existence. However, in naming the blog Dispatches from Penitentiary Square, we seek to remember the down-on-their-luck men and women who spent time in the same location that we occupy today for a much different reason.
Most of the items held in Special Collections today were acquired well after the penitentiary was gone. However, Special Collections is home to the papers of some “Milledgevillains,” though there are many more collections from upstanding citizens who have contributed to the college, the city, the state, and the nation. We hope to bring their stories to life on Dispatches from Penitentiary Square, as well as keep you in the loop with what we’re doing to improve preservation and access to these materials. We’re so glad you’ve joined us!
Bonner, James C., “The Georgia Penitentiary at Milledgeville 1817-1874,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (1971): 303-328.
McKelvey, Blake, American Prisons: A Study in American Social History Prior to 1915. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1936. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b3943777;view=1up;seq=9
Myers, Martha A. and James L. Massey, “Race, Labor, and Punishment in Postbellum Georgia,” Social Problems 38, no. 2 (1991): 267-286.
“Our heritage and history,” Georgia College, accessed September 19, 2016. http://www.gcsu.edu/about/history