The State Penitentiary in
South Carolina History and Memory
The South Carolina Penitentiary served as the state’s main prison facility for almost 130 years, from 1866 to 1994. Today, little more than photographs, documents, and memories remain.
The South Carolina Penitentiary was founded during the penal reform movement of the nineteenth century. Governor Arnoldus VanderHorst first proposed a state penitentiary in the 1790s. In later decades reformers repeatedly tried to establish a penitentiary without success. They argued that a penitentiary was needed to overhaul the state’s harsh criminal code, which in 1813 included 165 offenses punishable by death. A penitentiary, reformers argued, would allow for long-term prison sentences, which they regarded as a more humane form of punishment for minor offenses. Conditions in county jails also pointed to the need for a penitentiary. A Board of Public Works investigation in 1820 found that most county jails were poorly constructed and did not have adequate space for prisoners.
After decades of discussion, the General Assembly finally authorized the establishment of a penitentiary in 1866. Construction began the following year at a site in Columbia on the Congaree River. The penitentiary complex initially included two cell blocks and a structure for administrative offices. By the mid-1880s it was substantially complete and housed nearly 1,000 prisoners.
The penitentiary grew quickly. Overcrowding was a problem as early as the late 1880s. To generate revenue and reduce the prison population, officials began leasing convicts to outside contractors and adopted the chain gang system, which allowed prisoners serving short-term sentences to work on road maintenance crews in their home counties.
At the same time, industrial operations within the walls of the penitentiary also provided additional revenue and gave convicts a regular work schedule. As the inmate population grew and new industries were added, officials expanded the physical infrastructure of the institution with several buildings, including a hospital, a cell block for female prisoners, and a reformatory for juvenile offenders.
By the mid-twentieth century the penitentiary had become outdated. After more than a century of use, it was increasingly known for security problems and poor conditions. Officials began calling for CCI to be closed in the 1960s, but the Department of Corrections did not shut down the facility until 1994. The closing of the penitentiary after nearly 150 years of continual use was the final step in the process of decentralizing the state's system of penal institutions.
For a timeline and more photos
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