Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Providence Prison Volume 50 Number 6, November/December 1997
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

A nineteenth-century prison notorious for its stench, overcrowding, and harsh regimen of solitary confinement has been uncovered beneath a parking lot near the Rhode Island State House in downtown Providence. Archaeologists working in advance of construction of a shopping mall unearthed the remains of six-by-ten-foot cells and even smaller 3.5-by-six-foot punishment rooms. One contemporary newspaper account described the prison and jail complex, known as the Rhode Island State Prison, as "gruesome...of all prisons the most prisonlike in outward show, dreary to see, dreary in history."

The prison opened in 1838, its design and program of solitary confinement modeled on that of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (see "A Study in 'Progressive' Penology," ARCHAEOLOGY, May/June 1992). But while cells at Eastern State opened to small individual exercise yards, the Rhode Island State Prison had no such facilities. Wardens soon noticed that inmates were hallucinating from lack of external stimuli, and by the late 1840s prisoners were permitted recreation in an outdoor yard. By the 1850s the prison abandoned solitary confinement altogether, crowding two inmates to a cell and allowing them to work together in a prison shop. The building was demolished in 1894 after a new prison was built outside Providence.

Jim Garman of the Public Archaeology Laboratory, a contract archaeology firm based in Pawtucket, found numerous tobacco pipes inscribed with the words "Home Rule," attesting the presence of Irish inmates. Garman says the jail population was disproportionately Irish, recent immigrants who were often singled out and imprisoned on charges like "Failing to give a good account of self." In the prison shop, Garman uncovered evidence of button-, furniture-, and shoemaking, and a small machine shop. The excavation also revealed shoddy construction work. A foundation in the kitchen that was supposed to have been solid granite was found to be made of rubble fill with a granite veneer. Pipes carrying sewage from privies were not laid on a steep enough grade, causing clogs and foul odors. "State [public works] projects have always been incredibly inefficient," says Garman. "Issues of overcrowding and prisoners' rights--they're all being revealed here in a material form. One of the most meaningful lessons of this dig is that nothing has changed."

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America