Skip to main content

Full text of "The history of the District of Columbia jail."

See other formats



T.M. Hives, 


The material presented in this paper is intended 
only to provide the reader with a brief history of the de- 
velopement of a Washington Institution about which the average 
person has little information, The District Jail. The subject 
matter deals with the f-rowth of the Jail from a log building, 
built in 1778, to a large and modern penal institution. It 
is sincerely hoped that the reader lias never in the past and will 
never in the future become so interested in this establishment 
that he make a lasting visit. 


One of the most interesting and perhaps one of the 
least well known institutions in the District of Columbia is 
the Jail. Formerly known as the "fashington Asylum and Jail, 
it has passed through many stages before coming to its present 

In 1788, the Federal Government provided a log build- 
ing on the north side of C street, between John Marshal P3ace 
and 6th *St. This was used for a dozen years, both by the 
District and by Prince Georges County, Md, It was replaced 
around 1800 by a three room brick building, which operated 
under the authority of the old Levy Court. The records are 
vague and fail to show whether this one continued to function 
as a jail after the construction in Judiciary Square of the 
first circuit court Jail of "Washington county. This Yfas in 
1802. Eventually it became too small and in llaroh, 1839, 
Congress appropriated ,p31,000 for a new jail of three stories, 
erected at 4th and G Sts., N.W. This one was designed by 
Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument and 
the Treasury. The Jail was painted blue, and acquired the 
name, "The Blue Jug." This served the expanding capital for 
many years, all through the Civil War, and for several years 
after . 

~ 2 ~ 

During the War years there were several military 
Prisons also; the Old Capitol Prison on the present site of 
the Supreme Court Building, Forrest Hall Prison in Georgetown, 
and Carroll Prison on the present Library of Congress site. 

The "Blue Jug" was judged obsolete several years 
after the war and plans were started for a bigger and better 
jail. In 1872 Congress appropriated ;;300,000 for the con- 
struction of the Jail at 19th and C Sts., Southeast, where 
it still stands. Three years later $140,057 was set aside 
for completion and perfection of the structure. This Jail 
was originally intended to house 300 prisoners. Its cells 
were 5' x C x 9^' and were to be occupied by one prisoner. 
As the Jail population grew, 4.6 more cells were added at a 
cost of vpl2,000 and several prisoners were put in the same 
cell, even after this addition had been made. 

The Jail that seemed modern in 1872 seems imposs- 
ible to us today. There was no running water in the cells, 
and there were no proper plumbing facilities. The prisoners 
were fed from tin cans shoved through the liars of their cell 
doors . Gradually improvements were made and in 1910 at a 
cost of $37,000, modern plumbing was installed and changes 
were made in the Women's Department. 

Up to this time the jail had been in charge of a 
warden, but in 1911, the office of Warden was abolished and 
that of superintendent replaced it, the Superintendent to be 
appointed by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 

- 3 _ 

The Jail was designated, a short while after the 
Civil far, as the official execution place of the District. 
Capital punishment was by hanging until 1926, when an electric 
chair wpg installed. Death is still by that means. One of 
the extremely undersirable features up to the present year was the 
fact that electrocutions took nlace in the mess hall. Now, with 
the advent of the remodeling of the jail, they will be held in 
the Administration Building. This building is only one of the 
additions, other wings having been added, and the inside almost 
completely remodeled, although the old outside walls still stand. 
Modern maximum security cell blocks, new medical quarters, dorm- 
itories, and a women's department, have been built. 

The Jails population is made up of men and women 
awaiting trial, witnesses, persons held for immigration auth- 
orities or for police of other jurisdictions, short term prisoners, 
and those awaiting transfer to other institutions, and also for 
those awaiting execution. 85% of the jail commitments are mis- 
demeanants. About 64$ of the prisoners committed to the jail 
were charged with intoxication. Eventually this situation may 
be changed by the establishment of an institution for inebriates. 

The total admissions for the fiscal year ending June 
30, 194-1, was 18,556. The daily average population was 507- 
465 were male and 51 female. The daily average cost per prisoner 
was 92*8^, of which 19ยป4j^ or 21f, was spent for food, the rest 
going for salaries and general maintainance costs. 

- A 

Several years ago an Inmate Advisory Council was 
established by means of which a council of prisoners considers 
problems of the prisoners and recommends what action it con- 
siders should be taken. Another fcrward looking feature is 
the placing of social service internes in the jail. 

The purpose of a progressive penal institution is 
to protect society by teaching prisoners to be useful citizens 
instead of repeaters,* and toward this end the staff of the 
District Jail is continually working. 


#The Prison Problem in the District of Columbia 

a survey by "The Prison Industries Reorganization Administration. M 

Statistics and other records of the District of Columbia Jail,