It’s spring, and when I was in high school, that meant taking field trips. When I was a senior in high school, my government teacher, Mr. Eccleston, took us on a trip to Richmond, Virginia. This was something he did every year, although I’m pretty sure our class was the last one to go to the Virginia State Penitentiary. That’s because they closed the “Pen” in 1991, and tore it down. Here’s a repost of my 2013 blog post about my experience visiting Virginia’s old state prison… Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about today’s fresh topic.
Most high school kids go off to some interesting or exotic place when they become seniors. I guess, in my case, the place my senior class went for the “senior trip” was exotic and interesting enough, though it wasn’t an overnight trip. My senior year of high school was actually full of interesting field trips, to include a trip to a local medical school, where my biology classmates and I saw cadavers. We also went caving, and visited the National Zoo in Washington, DC. I skipped at least three other field trips because I didn’t have the money to go. But probably the most interesting of all the trips we took was the one that took us to the State Penitentiary in Virginia.
The Virginia State Pen was a very old structure that had received its first prisoners in 1800. If you click the link, you can see some photos of the place, which was eventually demolished. It sat next to the James River in downtown Richmond, Virginia.
In the spring of 1990, when we had our field trip, the Pen was about to be closed down. There were still inmates there when we came to visit the place. I remember how my classmates and I were each frisked, then shown into this huge cell block that had several tiers of tiny cells. The place was painted light blue and there was a smell of human filth, sweat, and detergent in the air. The building was obviously very antiquated and unpleasant. It definitely needed to be torn down or renovated.
Gazing up, I could see the huge windows allowed birds to come in. They flew near the ceiling and probably mocked the inmates with their ability to come and go at will. On the floor, I spied a dead mouse that looked like it had been there for awhile. A heavily muscled guy with a mullet wore a wide leather belt with a set of handcuffs prominently displayed in a case as he led us through the facility. He didn’t wear a uniform, though he obviously worked at the prison.
The inmates were in a different part of the prison when we visited. I remember looking at the first big cell block, which was apparently vacated as inmates were transferred to other facilities. We also visited death row, which had also been vacated. Some inmates were in a yard nearby as we made our way to the death house. They shouted and jeered at us. I remember the death row cells were a whole lot larger than the ones in the cell block. They had bars all around them and a lone television set was mounted on a pole that would have allowed all of the inmates to watch it.
At the end of the hall was the electric chair, which Virginia used to execute a lot of men until lethal injection became the preferred way to put condemned people to death. Several of my classmates sat on the big oak chair, outfitted with heavy leather straps with big metal buckles. I remember one teacher actually pretended to strap a couple of students in. Back then, it was kind of a joke, but today, it seems kind of inappropriate and not that funny. Virginia is a notorious death penalty state. (ETA: Thanks to former Governor Ralph Northam, the death penalty was abolished in Virginia last year. I never thought I’d see the day.)
I remember after we saw the penitentiary, we went to Virginia Commonwealth University for lunch. Two of my sisters are VCU graduates, so I was somewhat familiar with the place. By then, I knew I was headed to Longwood for college.
It was an eerie day… and probably the day that I first started to have ambivalent feelings about the death penalty.
Edited to add in 2022: In his amazing talk in the above video, Dale Brumfield, talks about the kinds of crimes that would land people in the penitentiary. At one point, he talks about how Black men could be arrested and imprisoned for being caught on someone else’s property. They could get up to ten years for just appearing to LOOK like they were going to commit theft. As he was talking about that, I couldn’t help but think about the Ahmaud Arbery case, and how he was gunned down by three White men who thought he was a thief. It’s so sad that we haven’t evolved much since the early days of the Virginia Penitentiary’s history.