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Prison and Jail records

Identifier: 1995-291


  • 1789-1980


Biographical / Historical

Dating back to the first third of the eighteenth century Rhode Island relied on a system of county jails to house individuals sentenced to spend time in confinement for various legal offenses. The Providence County Jail, however, came to serve as a principal location for the confinement of prisoners that other counties could not accommodate. (Public Laws 1822. "An Act to Reform the Penal Laws, sec. 62.) Discussion of the need for construction of a combined Providence County Jail and State Prison began to take place in the 1790s. After several false starts, a state prison was finally completed in the fall of 1838[1] and its first prisoners were admitted in November. The Providence County Jail was added as an adjoining structure in the spring of 1839. The State Prison was originally located on Gaspee Street, north of the Cove Basin. The prison was placed under the management of a Board of State Prison Inspectors. A warden of the state prison also served as the county jailer.[2]

It was not long before dissatisfaction with the two structures arose. Within a matter of a few years, prison Inspectors found numerous shortcomings in the physical facility and the system implemented to manage its' inmates. In 1852, the General Assembly authorized funds for the construction of a new wing to the existing complex, which was to serve as the new state prison. It was completed in 1852. Over the next several decades additions and modifications were continuously made both to the physical structure and to the program of incarceration, which sought to find an effective balance between punishment and rehabilitation, all with a minimum of expenditure. Eventually, the state agreed to the introduction of various workshops, religious instruction, and a library. By the 1860s, there was significant sentiment in favor of the establishment of separate facilities for the insane, and the poor, which eventually gave rise to the State Board of Charities and Corrections in 1869.

In 1874 a State Prison Commission was formed to take over the management of the state prison. The Commission also undertook construction of a new prison facility, which was finally located in the area in Cranston that became known as the "State Farm. In 1879, when work on the facility was nearing completion, the commission was dissolved and the prison turned over to the Board of State Charities and Corrections. In 1883 this area housed the following institutions: the State Workhouse and House of Correction, the State Asylum for the Incurable Insane, the State Almshouse, the State Prison (1878[3]), the Providence County Jail, the Oaklawn School for Girls (1884) and the Sockanosset School for Boys (1884)[4] The management of the State Institutions in Cranston was vested in the Board of State Charities and Corrections.

[1] Kings Pocketbook of Providence (1882) p. 83.
[2] Annals of Providence (1843) p. 182.
[3] Kings Pocketbook of Providence (1882) p. 82.
[4] Rhode Island Manual (1883-1884) p. 223


172.63 Linear Feet (134 containers)

Language of Materials