Date of Award
The primary object of this paper is to present in a straight-forward manner the origin and early development of the Louisiana Penitentiary. Chief among reasons leading to the study was the frequently debated question as to why the state prison seldom, if ever pays Its own expenses. At present farming is the chief prison industry. A good farmer pays his upkeep, and usually rears a number of children. Why can not a farm conducted wholly by adult convicts, and their keepers, operate without cost to the state?
If that question is unanswered today, such was certainly the case In 1850, the end of the period considered here. Other motives for examination enter, however. ''The study of delinquent mankind is always an interesting and necessary one. Like the proverbial poor, the criminal class are always among us; for their good, and our own, we must seek their reformation."
Any study of prison conditions in early Louisiana would begin naturally with a review of French and Spanish influences, and follow closely the source materials. Most valuable among the early sources are the Orders of the Superior Council, preserved in the Cabildo Library, in New Orleans, and reprinted in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly by Mr. Henry F. Dart, along with L. Moreau Lislet and Henry Carleton’s translation of the parts of the Spanish code, Las Siete Partidas, which were enforced in Louisiana in 1820. For the territorial period, we find the Acts of the Territorial Legislature and Claiborne’s Letter Books; and for the main body of the paper, the Acts of the Legislature of Louisiana, the House Journal and Senate Journal, supplemented by newspapers of the period.
Early Louisianians were governed under French and Spanish codes, and imprisoned in medieval dungeons. Idleness, poor food, meager clothing, hunger, exposure, disease, death — all were accepted factors of prison life. Vengeance was the primary object of penal sentences. Justice moved slowly, penalties were very severe, and hopes of reform and pardon almost negligible. But one ray of hope penetrated the gloom: the public conscience resented the Incarnation of helpless debtors with hardened criminals. That feeling, coupled with the normal growth of the reform Idea, along with a mounting expense account, gave to Louisiana a penitentiary system which ranks favorably with the best.
Though time prevented treatment of little more than the origin of the institution, we find here all stages of prison administration, from the state use of parish prisons to state control, and the lease system. The first proved unsatisfactory. The parish prison in New Orleans became totally inadequate for the double function assigned to it. After several futile attempts, of which one made In 1822 deserves particular mention, the new plant, begun in 1832, was completed, only to prove as much a financial burden as the old system.
To correct this fault, the penitentiary was leased in 1844, after remaining twelve years under state control, the lessees contracting to incur all liabilities in return for the privilege of enjoying the profits. Due either to improved administration, or a change of Industrial policy, or both, the proceeds of prison labor rose above the cost of maintenance; so much so, In fact, that public demand for state participation in the profits led to an apportionment of twenty-five per cent to the state when the new lease was consummated in 1849.
Several minor topics enhance the interest of the study. Chief among them are Cabildo Prison, in New Orleans, the reform of penal sentences, detailed descriptions of prison conditions, and the controversy over competition of prison labor with the artisans of Baton Rouge. The information has been gathered largely from original and illuminating sources. Withall, it has been a task pursued with some pleasure and considerable enlightenment.
Stout, Leon, "Origin and Early History of the Louisiana Penitentiary" (1934). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 8273.