Census 1860: Wethersfield State Prison: Gender and Race

So I’m developing a new database from the 1860 U.S. Census for Connecticut, and last week I ran across the pages for the state prison, which was in Wethersfield at the time. Some of these data are interesting – at least to me – so here’s a post about them! Oh, and this is also an excuse to mention the current exhibit at the Wethersfield Historical Society about the prison (there is a picture of it at the website).

There were 179 prisoners, of whom a total of 12 (6.7%) were female – far less than the roughly 50% of the total population, obviously.  The following two charts show the racial makeup of the prison population:


cen1860race_pctAs one would expect of a New England state, the vast majority of the prisoners were white. What is less obvious is that nonwhites (30 out of 179) are very much overrepresented. I don’t have complete numbers for the number nonwhites in Connecticut in 1860, but I do have them for 1850, and in that year they were 2.1% of the population. Unless the nonwhite population shot up by over 14% in ten years (wildly unlikely), that’s a 16.7% overrepresentation overall. Which isn’t even mentioning the disparity for Indians – less than 1% of the total population, I’m sure, but 6.7% of the imprisoned population. (I should note here that all these numbers omit the county jails, which don’t exist anymore, but I don’t think including them would change the statistics much.)

Since then, though, it’s been a lot worse. According to a 2013 article by Grace Merritt, at the start of that year there were 12,494 black and white prisoners in Connecticut; 56.7% of them (7,078) were black, and 43.3% (5,416) were white. Add in the Hispanics (another 4,419, or 26.1% of the overall total – I’m dealing with them separately because there was no significant Hispanic population in Connecticut in 1860) and the white prison population falls to 32.0%.

And what, you may well ask, was the percentage of white, black, and Hispanic people in Connecticut in the 2010 Census? According to American FactFinder, 77.6%, 10.1%, 13.4%. Suddenly the disparity of 1860 looks almost rosy, eh? But it’s also a telling fact, suggesting that decisions about who to prosecute and imprison, and what to prosecute people for, have been skewed for a very long time indeed.

Tune in next week for a post about the crimes all these people were convicted of!

This entry was posted in Census 1860, Connecticut, research miscellanea, state prison 1860. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Census 1860: Wethersfield State Prison: Gender and Race

  1. Pingback: Census 1860: Wethersfield State Prison: Crimes | History Live!

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