In Windsor Prison

PrintPrintEmailEmail
 

The official name for the various high school teams was the Yellowjackets, and their home backers called them the Jacks. Not so fans attending away games. At any Vermont gym or field but their own the players were referred to as the Prisontowners.

 

The official name for the various high school teams was the Yellowjackets, and their home backers called them the Jacks. Not so fans attending away games. At any Vermont gym or field but their own the players were referred to as the Prisontowners.

That defined Windsor despite the Goodyear plant and the big automatic machine-tools place and the town’s historical background, which had seen early officials write the state constitution there. Montpelier was the state capital, Windsor the site of the state penitentiary. It was decided in 1807.

The citizens of the day were delighted when it was ruled that they could have the prison. In addition to paying along with other Vermonters the one-cent-per-acre special construction levy on all privately owned land, Windsor’s people were happy to provide the raw materials for the projected prison. They quarried five thousand tons of granite from Mount Ascutney, some three miles from the village, and brought it by oxcart to the wooded area where the prison would be. In the spring of 1808 the cornerstone was drawn from the mountain’s base and, records an early chronicler, was taken with “utmost splendor” to the construction site. A crowd of hundreds, if not to say thousands, followed a procession attended by martial music. The cornerstone was laid to the crash of cannon.

 
Visiting the institution became a tourist attraction for Windsor; open to the public on Thursdays, the prison sometimes drew a thousand sightseers a week.
 
 

In the following year, 1809, the prison opened for business. There were twenty-four inmates, whose crimes included manslaughter, theft, rape, horse stealing, and, in more than half the cases, counterfeiting. Their massive new stone residence—castlelike, eightyfive feet by thirty-six, three stories tall—included a yard surrounded by walls three feet thick and fourteen feet high, with foot-long iron spikes on top. “A view of the prison from the adjacent hills strikes the beholder with awe and carries the contemplative mind back to the rude and gothic ages of the world when barons bold surrounded with vassals waged war with each other,” writes the ea.rly chronicler, who was John Russell, Jr., and whose An Authentic History of the Vermont State Prison , published in 1812, was written, he tells us in the introduction, so that he could raise enough money to go to college. The would-be undergraduate, unfortunately “without parental assistance and without any pecuniary aid,” apparently saw the inmates as not entirely unlike his own future scholarly self, for they also were being educated. The prison, Russell writes, was “a school in which they have such lessons of industry, economy, and sober habits as will be of infinite service to them the remainder of their lives.”

This very concept was something decidedly novel, modern, and progressive in the early days of the nineteenth century. No such penological uplift theories had ever existed anywhere prior to 1790, when Philadelphia’s Walnut Street prison opened. Before then there were no penitentiaries anywhere, as we understand the word. There were dungeons where people were held for trial, or convict hulks, decommissioned ships swinging at anchor, yes; but after trial and conviction a felon did not sit around eating at the cost of the taxpayer and having his or her character improved. The crime was taken out of his purse, if he had anything in that purse, or, far more likely, his skin. The whipping post, the sweatbox, the ducking stool, breaking on the rack, branding with irons heated over coals, slicing off ears, hanging, and burning at the stake were the recommended fashions of dealing with serious malefactors in all parts of the United States and elsewhere. Minor disturbances, such as bringing in hay on the Sabbath, meant standing a certain number of hours in the pillory. A 1779 law held that every Vermont town had to make and maintain a good pair of stocks.

In order to return prisoners to society as good citizens, the bylaws of the new prison decreed, it was necessary that they be treated humanely. The keeper was enjoined carefully to “guard himself against any impulse of personal resentment” and informed that even as “it cannot be necessary for him to strike his prisoners (unless in self defense), much less can it answer any good purpose to give his orders in a violent tone, or attended with oaths.”