Petersburg Federal Reformatory Album

C1: 087
1 album, 16 x 11 inches, 111 pages, 310 photographs, typed narrative

C1:087 Petersburg Federal Reformatory Album

More than a picture album, this carefully composed narrative history of the Petersburg Federal Reformatory (now the low-security Federal Corrections Institute outside Hopewell, Virginia) describes and photographically documents the institution’s first eighteen years. Founded in 1930 as a makeshift camp on former farm properties along the Appomattox, the reformatory quickly achieved “an atmosphere of permanency” through the efforts of a relatively small inmate population the narrative characterizes as enthusiastic, industrious, and dignified. 

C1:087 Petersburg Federal Reformatory Album

Indeed, with its stately administrative building and quadrangle of formal hedges, the reformatory, in these photos, looks more like an English country estate than a Depression-era prison. According to the narrative, the inmates took great pride in beautifying the reformatory, which they essentially built from the ground up with local materials and resources, including dogwood, mimosa, redbud, and rambler roses. An ornamental fish pond was even created by flooding the cellar of a vanished farmhouse. A beautiful Arts and Crafts house, built by inmates for the warden, featured a fireplace of petrified wood.  The reformatory was from its earliest days almost completely self-sustaining, with vast fields of alfalfa, squash, and potatoes; horse and mule barns; a dairy herd and modern milking machines; a piggery and slaughterhouse; a cinderblock-making facility; a power plant; and even its own fire station with homemade firefighting vehicles. The changing demographics of the prison population, including the introduction of Italian POWs during World War II, a general increase in juvenile offenders, and attendant internal conflicts among an increasingly diverse inmate population are also described in detail. 

C1:087 Petersburg Federal Reformatory Album

The history narrative is followed by photos and comprehensive descriptions of inmate admissions and discharge processes; work assignments; recreation and education; and vocational training in farming, architectural drafting, bookbinding, furniture making, and typewriter repair. During the war, the reformatory was a major manufacturer of cargo nets for the U.S. Army, producing more than ten thousand nets in 1945 at a cost of only $3,654. 

Among other points of interest are photographs of “Santa” handing out Christmas cigarettes and candy to inmates and posing with staff. 

The album, intended to be read “landscape style,” with the spine along the top, opens with a hand-stenciled title page, and its sturdy leaves are adorned throughout with neatly drawn line borders and original photographs embedded in the text. The text is the typed original. Among the photos are aerial views of the complex and interior shots of practically all the reformatory buildings, including racially segregated dorms, cell blocks, clean and efficient medical facilities, the commissary, the visitors’ lounge with unexpectedly dainty wicker furniture, and original photos of the tents and farmhouses that predated construction of the modern reformatory buildings. 

The author/assembler of the album, and the album’s original purpose, are unknown, though the narrative’s level of detail and tone of pride strongly suggest an insider’s firsthand knowledge and a vested interest in advocating to an intended audience of potentially skeptical outsiders. The name of the wife (“Mrs. C. O. Nicholson”) of the reformatory’s warden at the time of the album’s creation is penciled at the top of one the first pages, suggesting the album was in her personal possession. Somehow, at an unknown date, the album found its way into the collection of the El Paso, Texas, Public Library, which transferred it to the Library of Virginia in 1981. 

Donated, 1981 

Related resources and collections:
C1: 127 Hopewell Locals of United Mine Workers of America Photograph Collection
C1: 151 State Penitentiary Photograph Collection

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