From the Richmond Commercial Bulletin, 8/23/1865, p. 3, c. 2

THE STATE PENITENTIARY. – Its Present Appearance and System. – In the unparalleled confusion incident to the evacuation of the city of Richmond on the third of April, the State Penitentiary was not exempted from the demon of fire and ravage that was let loose upon the ill-fated town. Panic-stricken both by the aspect of political affairs, as well as the threatening demonstrations on the part of the hardened convicts, the guard hastily abandoned their posts, and the civil governors and superintendents, unable to to restrain the heavy pressures both within and without, were, also, necessitated to succumb. Once free, these men, who for their crimes had been confined therein, endeavored to wreak their vengeance for their restrained liberty, upon the walls and contents of the buildings, before they had distributed themselves among the pillagers and robbers who were sacking the burning city. As a consequence, the institution was left, and to some degree still remains, in a most mournful and dilapidated condition. A visit some days since to this ground for expiation was prolific with instruction.

The hospital building standing in the area or semi-circle, formed by the cells, was the first building that was consumed; it was a light structure, and the flames soon spread to the galleries of the cells, and before the fire was subdued two sections of the cells were destroyed. At almost the same time, the main building fronting towards the river was set on fire; this building was used by the Superintendent as his office and dwelling, and here, also, all the business connected with the institution was transacted. The musical bell, which tolled the hours to the community around, was suspended in the cupola, and was consequently destroyed with the building itself. These were the only buildings that were destroyed by the flames. The spirit of ravage, however, entered into the Penitentiary and performed much more injury to the buildings than the destroying element.

Shortly after the evacuation, Gen. Turner assumed direction of affairs, and Lieut. Lyman Hoysradt, of the 20th N. Y. S. M. was detailed with a suitable guard of his regiment to restore the institution to his pristine state, so far as was possible. To his assistance came Mr. A. B. Holmes, regularly commissioned by the Governor of Virginia, as Superintendent, in place of Mr. Colin Bass. These gentlemen went to work in earnest, and, as will appear from our sketch, have now succeeded in getting almost everything into admirable system and working order.

Entering the enclosure the visitor first comes upon the quarters of the military guard, cozy, cool and elegant; the old guard-house is used as before by the new soldiers, while the officers occupy the small wooden building just outside the main walls. Passing under the arch of the now burnt building, we were shown into the office of the civil governors. Mr. Holmes here attends to the duties of his position, and is assisted by the following corps: Mr. A. J. Goldman, First Assistant, Mr. James M. Butler, Second Assistant, Mr. Wm. Harrison, yard officer. The first object that meets the eye upon entering the yard, after passing through the offices – which are temporarily arranged in the burnt main buildings, under the arch – is the semi-circle of cells, one half of which immediately fronting the entrance, being those which which were burnt by the flames from the hospital. The cells are arranged in three tiers and a basement, or ground floor, all of which are approachable by galleries or corridors. These cells are 14 feet long, and 6 feet 1 inch in breadth, having a window in one end and the door opening upon the gallery in the other, thus making the width of the building around the semi-circle about 18 feet. Two men generally occupy these cells, which are very comfortable, if such a thing as comfort can exist in a State’s prison.

The number of the cells that can now be used is about one hundred and fifty; 107 prisoners are now confined and use about half as many cells. On the left hand side, as the entrance is made, are the women’s quarters, a portion of which are now used as a hospital, and another portion for State prisoners. There are now three women confined in these cells, which are better ventilated and a trifle larger than those used by the men. On the first tier, under the supreme care of Lt. Hoysadt, are the seven State prisoners, before whose doors the regular tramp of an armed sentry is always heard. Turner, once the jailor at the Libby, is here confined, and the mysterious prisoner, known as No. 5, pines in solitude away in the cell next to him. Who the occupant of this cell is no one but the military authorities who consigned him there, and the one sole person who has control of him, can inform the curious. No. 5 is the only name he has, like the ill-fated Jean Valjean in the French novel. The hospital is in the second tier, over the cells of these prisoners of State; there are but few who are now in hospital, the general health and sanitary arrangement of the Penitentiary being excellent.

We pass from the yard through another arch at its further extremity, and under those cells which were destroyed by the fire, and emerge from another gate into the portion used by the workshops. As we did so, however, before we pass the vigilant Cerberus at the gate, we pass the well which supplies the whole institution with water; this well is 95 feet in depth and has an average of 50 feet of clear, excellent freestone water almost always in it.

The workshops were destroyed by pillagers; we say destroyed, for even now, fixed up as they have been by the efficient superintendents, they look black, and gloomy and desolate. Every single window sash in the workshops was removed; and passing into the blacksmithery, we were informed that but one anvil and one pair of bellows was found on the arrival of the present government of affairs. Imagine pillagers armed with window sash and lugging anvils, bellows, hammers, et id omne genus, in the satisfaction of that morbid appetite of stealing anything that the hands could touch. Mr. John McElroy, now in charge of this department, has now succeeded in starting six fires, which, of course, employ six smiths, with their helpers or assistants. The department is now turning out excellent work, and we saw one cart, just finished, which is a fine specimen of the durability and elegance of the work done there. The wheelwright shop employs some ten or twelve workmen.
Over these shops is the shoemaking department, giving employment to about twenty-four workmen. Some of the work turned out here is truly excellent; one of the finest pairs of boots we have ever seen we witnessed upon the pedal extremities of one of the superintendents. The cheapness, durability and beauty of the work by these convicts, will favorably compare with any work done in the city.

The boiler room is below the shoemaking department and adjoining the wheelwright and blacksmithing departments. Here, a large engine of sixty horse power was placed, and what is left of it now remains. While some of the pillagers were occupied in removing anvils and horseshoe nails, some enterprising individuals were engaged in wrenching from the boiler every particle of brass, either mounting or valve. From the fine boiler, the check-valve, a large and important piece of machinery, the oil globe and the injection tube were taken, together with every species of brass to be found. Mr. Holmes, however, has obtained a smaller engine, and is making arrangements for the perfection of the machinery, so as to be able to run the necessary machines to complete the work. All the gearings and shafts will be changed, and a general and complete renovation will be made in every department. Already measures are on foot to accomplish this end, and before the fall the workshops will be in excellent order, and in comfortable condition.

The receipts of convicts at the Penitentiary average two per diem. The diet now is excellent, the gardens affording large supplies of vegetables. The daily ration to each man is one pound and a half of corn bread, one-quarter of a pound of pork, or a half-pound of beef, (this latter three times a week,) about a pint of coffee, and every other day a gill of molasses. On beef days, soup is issued in large quantities, and on other days portions of tomatoes and cabbages are given out.
Under the present superintendence, the Penitentiary bids fair to become again the institution it has been in its palmist days, under the lamented Morgan. It will be gratifying to every Virginian to know that the interests of the State, so far as lies in this particular, have been entrusted into the hands of an intelligent, enterprising and practical man.

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