Presented at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences 2000 annual meeting, New Orleans, LA, March 2000. Appeared in The Angolite magazine, July/August 2000, as “Slaves of the State,” pp. 42-51.
A visitor out for a walk in downtown Baton Rouge might come across a curious historical marker. It stands in front of a long, two-story red brick building that faces Laurel Street north of the Federal Courthouse. The marker is titled, “The Warden’s House.” “The warden of what?” the visitor might ask. Then, taking a closer look, he would read on to see that this is “the only remaining building of the prison complex which existed from 1834 to 1917. It served as the prison store and clerk’s dwelling and later became the warden’s house.”
What the visitor has found is the last surviving structure that was part of the original Baton Rouge Penitentiary, an institution that has disappeared from the pages of history so completely that even many native Louisianians do not know that it ever existed. “The Baton Rouge Penitentiary?” they might say. “I thought the penitentiary had always been located at Angola. You mean there was a prison in Baton Rouge at one time?”
Indeed, there was, a prison very different–in design, in operation, and, at least at its origin, in philosophy–from the plantation prison that eventually replaced it as the central institution in Louisiana’s correctional system. If we had stayed with the Baton Rouge Penitentiary, instead of going with Angola as its replacement, the whole history of corrections in Louisiana might have taken a different turn.
The penitentiary ideal which gave birth to the Baton Rouge Penitentiary was a product of the eighteenth century trend of political and social thought commonly referred to today as the Age of Enlightenment. The penitentiary, which at first was an idea without physical form, was viewed as a humane, reformative alternative to other options in use at the time–capital punishment, corporal punishments, and local jails. Society was becoming too “civilized” to continue making abundant use of the physical punishments that had prevailed since ancient times (and besides, the early empirical scholars pointed out, hangings, beatings, all forms of physical punishment, seemed to have no real effect on the growing problem of crime in the city).
The sensibilities of both the public and officials of the legal system were changing. Although the law insisted that all offenders were equally deserving of punishment, judges were often reluctant to impose harsh physical punishments on youths, women, and many lesser or first-time offenders. Under the English common law in effect through the end of the 1700s, any felony offense was a capital crime, and judges had the authority to sentence any convicted felon to death. In practice, they did not. They used their wide discretion to punish many offenders with fines, with unofficial probation, with forms of what we would call today diversion, or by simply taking no action when they thought a defendant undeserving of punishment.
The legal reformers of the day proposed the penitentiary as not only a more humane alternative to the use of physical punishments, but also as a more certain deterrent alternative to the wide discretion then in use by judicial officials. Cesare Beccaria, in his Essay on Crime and Punishment (1764), argued that in deterring crime what was important was the swiftness and certainty of the punishment, not the severity.