On January 6, 1870, North Carolina’s State Penitentiary
accepted its first prisoners, housing them in a temporary log
structure that was surrounded by a wooden stockade. Charles
Lewis, a twenty-two-year-old African American convicted of robbery
in Johnston County, was the first person to be admitted, and
his accomplices, Eliza and Nancy Richardson, were the second
and third individuals received by the prison and the first women.
Prior to 1870, North Carolina, unlike the majority of other
states, did not have a central, state-operated prison. Responsibility
for housing convicts and administering punishment rested with
the counties. As local jails became overcrowded and expenses
mounted, public officials began to examine the possibility of
opening a state-funded institution to house long-term inmates.
In 1846, there was a statewide vote on the desirability of a
state penitentiary, but North Carolina’s voters, many
of whom still believed in the efficacy of corporal punishment,
such as whippings, croppings, and brandings, overwhelmingly
disapproved of the plan. Not until mandated by the Reconstruction-era
Constitution of 1868 did North Carolina fund and build a state
Operating under this more progressive plan of government, the
General Assembly created a penitentiary committee in August
1868 and charged it with selecting a location for the new structure
and contracting to have it built. This committee chose and purchased
land near Lockville, a community in the Deep River Valley of
Chatham County, but the legislature nullified the purchase and
began anew after an investigation discovered that the entire
process had been fraudulent. The assembly disbanded the original
committee and selected a new commission, ordering them to locate
the prison near the state capital and giving explicit limitations
on acreage and price. The new committee, of which Alfred Dockery
was president, purchased about twenty-two acres in southwestern
Raleigh. This site had easy access to a railroad line and was
adjacent to a stone quarry from which material to build the
structure could be removed. With the location chosen, construction
of a temporary facility began in late 1869.
The prison into which Charles Lewis and the other inmates were
admitted on January 6, 1870, differed greatly from Central Prison,
the modern structure that now occupies the same location. A
report submitted by the penitentiary’s assistant architect
on November 1, 1870, describes the original wooden edifice as
“The Work has been as follows: 2965 ft.
Prison Stockade made of long leaf pine poles, hewed on two sides placed
close together and set four (4) in the ground, standing fifteen (15) ft.
above ground. In which are two (2) large Wagon gates, one (1) Railroad gate,
and one small gate for entrance of Persons on foot.
There are twenty (20) Prison Cells, two (2)
Hospital Rooms and (2) Rooms for Lockups, all of which are 19x19 ft.
square, 8 ft. pitch, built of logs, and sealed with heavy boards on the
inside, and all covered with one continuous roof...
There is 850 ft. Railroad Track running in
the grounds, and connecting with
The N. C. Railroad, also 870 ft. heavy plank stockade enclosing
Believing that the state penitentiary should be self-supporting
and that manual labor was beneficial for the prisoners, state
officials utilized the readily available and inexpensive inmate
work force to construct the permanent buildings, walls, and
fences. The process took almost fifteen years and over one million
dollars, but in December 1884 the permanent buildings were completed
and occupied. The old log cells, which were eventually used
as storage bins for animal feed, survived for several more years,
with some burning in 1887 and others removed over time.
Brown, Roy Melton. “The Growth of a State Program of Public
Welfare.” Typescript in North Carolina Collection, University
of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ca. 1950.
Murray, Elizabeth Reid. Wake, Capital County of North Carolina.
Raleigh, N. C.: Capital County Publishing Company, 1983.
North Carolina. Board of Public Charities. First Annual Report
of the Board of Public Charities of North Carolina. February,
1870. Raleigh, N.C.: Printed by Order of the Board, 1870.
North Carolina. Penitentiary Commission. Report of the
Penitentiary Commission, to the General Assembly of North Carolina,
Made December 8th, 1870. Raleigh, N.C.: The Commission,
North Carolina. Penitentiary Commission. Rules and By-Laws
for the Government & Discipline of the North Carolina Penitentiary
During its Management by the Commission. Raleigh, N.C.: M.
S. Littlefield, State Printer & Binder, 1869.
Olds, Fred A. “History of the State’s Prison.”
The Prison News, vol. I, no. II (November 1926): 4-7.
Ralph, Julian. “Charleston and the Carolinas.”
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 536, January