The United States contains less than five percent of the world’s population but incarcerates one-quarter of all prisoners across the globe. Statistics have long shown that persons of color make up a disproportionate share of the U.S. inmate population. African Americans are five times more likely than whites to serve time in prison. For drug offenses alone, they are imprisoned at rates ten times higher.
Recent scholarship has explored the roots of modern mass incarceration. Launched in the 1980s, the war on drugs and the emergence of private, for-profit prison systems led to the imprisonment of many minorities. Other scholarship has shown that the modern mass incarceration of black Americans was preceded by a 19th century surge in black imprisonment during the Reconstruction era. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, southern whites used the legal system and the carceral state to impose racial, social and economic control over the newly liberated black population. The consequences were stark. In Louisiana, for example, two-thirds of the inmates in the state penitentiary in 1860 were white; just eight years later, two-thirds were black.
Charlotte, an enslaved woman from northern Virginia, experienced several of these institutions firsthand over a 17-year period. Using court records to trace her life illustrates the many official, lawful forms of imprisonment that the enslaved might encounter in the antebellum era.
In 1840, Charlotte was held in bondage in Clarke County, Virginia, west of Washington, D.C. She was only 16 or 18 years old, a dark-skinned, diminutive young woman, standing just four feet 11 inches tall. Legally, she was the property of Eliza Pine, a white woman whom Charlotte despised. Reportedly thinking that committing a crime would prompt Pine to sell her, on March 10, Charlotte set fire to a house in the town of Berryville. She was arrested for starting the blaze and placed in the local jail as she awaited trial.
Enslaved people were imprisoned briefly in local public jails or workhouses under a variety of circumstances. Masters sometimes made use of such facilities to punish bond people deemed troublesome or, if needed, to store them securely. Enslaved individuals apprehended as runaways or awaiting trial or sale at auction also saw the inside of city or county jail cells. In all of these instances, the enslaved usually measured their terms of incarceration in just days or weeks.