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_num

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!

One thought on “Census 1860: Wethersfield State Prison: Gender and Race

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

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