Virginia State Penitentiary Photograph Collection

C1: 151
approx. 270 Kodak prints with negatives

Receiving its first prisoners in 1800, the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond had by the 1980s, through a series of radical redesigns, grown from architect Benjamin Latrobe’s elegant horseshoe-shaped loggia on the banks of the James to an enormous modern complex of cellblocks and administrative buildings, mostly constructed with inmate labor, and partly from the brick and stone of Latrobe’s original horseshoe, itself fallen into disuse and razed in 1928.

C1:151 Virginia State Penitentiary Photograph Collection

In 1991, with the inmate population decentralized and relocated to various facilities throughout the state, and the penitentiary buildings themselves doomed to obsolescence, the Virginia Film Office sent photographers to survey the complex as a potential movie location. While ultimately no movies were filmed in “the Pen,” the photographers did gather the most comprehensive and intimate visual account of the penitentiary made near the end of its long life cycle, a year before its demolition by the state. The exterior and interior photos are rich in detail and include views of the dining hall, the chapel, and the infirmary with its distinctive green-and-white checkered floor, as well as glimpses along the inner lengths of the tiered cellblocks, various furniture, lamps, and other unexpected details of life behind bars, such as houseplants and an umbrella casually hung by its handle on an open door. One long panorama, composed of five separate snapshots, captures the penitentiary’s high-walled athletic field in its entirety, and behind it the Richmond cityscape, with the Jefferson Hotel and City Hall easily distinguishable.

Arrangement and access:
The approximately 270 photo prints, many in duplicate, are meticulously trimmed and arranged into multi-panel panorama and triptych views. Many of these multi-panel sets have themselves been pasted into four manila folders.

The Virginia Film Office

3 thoughts on “Virginia State Penitentiary Photograph Collection”

  1. Georgia Fitzgerald

    Are these photos of the Virginia State Penitentiary available to be copied/used by the public?

    1. Yes, high resolution scans can be ordered of any item in the permanent collection. If you are interested in viewing the collection, or discussing the types of copies that are available (and prices) – please contact us directly for any additional information. Phone 804/692-3703 or email

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