Illinois State Penitentiary

City: Alton

County: Madison

State: Illinois

In 1827, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law naming commissioners to select and purchase land on which to establish a state penitentiary. The commissioners selected Alton as the site for the facility and William Russell donated ten acres for the purpose to the state. Construction of the facility was funded by the sale of state-owned saline lands in Gallatin and Vermilion counties. The Illinois State Penitentiary opened at Alton in 1833, with twenty-four cells. The General Assembly assigned administrative power to a warden elected by the legislature and three inspectors chosen by the governor. In 1831, the state legislature amended the criminal code by substituting confinement and hard labor for whipping, stocks, and other modes of physical punishment. The Illinois State Penitentiary at Alton roughly followed the "Auburn Plan," popularized by the prison at Auburn, NY, wherein prisoners labored in silence during the day and were confined in cells at night. The penitentiary also followed the "state-use system," in which prisoners manufactured many of the items that were used by the inmates.

Marmaduke S. Davenport served as the first warden from February 1831 to November 1832. Upon his resignation, the governor appointed John Ewing to fill the position. Ewing served until December 1832, when the legislature elected Samuel C. Pierce. In February 1835 the General Assembly elected Stinson H. Anderson as warden; Abraham Lincoln did not vote in favor of Anderson. In 1836 Anderson resigned and the governor appointed Jacob C. Bruner to fill the position until 1837, when the legislature elected Benjamin S. Enloe. The legislature voted three times, and Lincoln voted against Enloe each time. In July 1837, the General Assembly abolished the position of elected warden and vested all the authority in the inspectors of the penitentiary, who were given the task of appointing a warden to superintend and manage the daily affairs of the penitentiary and its inmates. At the same time, the legislature authorized the state to lease out the running of the penitentiary to private individuals.

In 1846, reformer Dorothea L. Dix visited the penitentiary at Alton and presented her findings to the General Assembly. Dix criticized the size and location of the facility; the size and condition of the majority of the buildings; unhealthy and unsanitary conditions; poor clothing, care, and diet of the inmates; lack of rules of behavior of officers; and lack of accountability to the General Assembly. At the same time, the General Assembly appointed a select committee to visit the prison; their findings were more positive.

Nevertheless, by 1857 the legislature found the accommodations at Alton inadequate. They ordered the increase of the capacity of the penitentiary to 256 cells and also ordered construction to begin on a new prison in Joliet. The penitentiary at Alton closed in July 1860 after the last of its prisoners moved to Joliet. In February 1862, the Union government reopened the prison to house Confederate prisoners of war and relieve overcrowding in St. Louis prisons. The prison housed over 11,000 Confederate prisoners during the last three years of the war. Conditions were often harsh; outbreaks of disease were common, and over 1,400 Confederate prisoners and Union military personnel and civilians perished in the prison. After the close of the war, the prison again closed and was later demolished.

"An Act concerning the Saline Reserves, a Penitentiary, and the Improvement of Certain Navigable Streams," 15 February 1827, Revised Code of Laws of Illinois (1827), 353-60; "An Act to Amend an Act Entitled, 'An Act relative to Criminal Jurisprudence,' Approved January 6, 1827, and to Provide for the Regulation and Government of the Penitentiary," 15 February 1831, Laws of Illinois (1831), 103-13; "An Act to Regulate the Penitentiary," 19 February 1833, Revised Laws of Illinois (1833), 477-79; John Moses, Illinois Historical and Statistical(Chicago: Fergus, 1895), 2:1013-14; W. T. Norton, Centennial History of Madison County Illinois and its People, 1812-1912(Chicago and New York: Lewis, 1912), 1:240-44, 269, 472; Orlando F. Lewis, The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845 (Albany: Prison Association of New York, 1922), 145; Blake McKelvey, American Prisons: A Study in American Social History Prior to 1915 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), 31-32; Illinois House Journal. 1831. 7th G. A., 1st sess., 551; Illinois Senate Journal. 1833. 8th G. A., 1st sess., 57; Illinois House Journal. 1833. 8th G. A., 1st sess., 232-33; Illinois House Journal. 1835. 9th G. A., 1st sess., 524-25; Illinois House Journal. 1836. 10th G. A., 1st sess., 276-79; An Act in relation to the Penitentiary; People ex rel. Enloe v. Auditor of Public Accounts, 2 Ill. (1 Scammon) (1838) 536-38; Dorothea L. Dix to Illinois General Assembly, 3 February 1847, and Report of Select Committee regarding the Penitentiary at Alton, 3 February 1847, both in Reports Made to the Senate and House of Representatives, of the State of Illinois 15th G.A. (1846), 97-120; An Act in relation to the Penitentiary; Gazetteer of Madison County (Alton, IL: James T. Hair, 1866), 81.