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  • Emmanuel Mehr

What Does Maryland Penitentiary's Demolition Mean for Its History?

Updated: Apr 1

BHW 4: February 25, 2023


From September 2020 to August 2021, the City of Baltimore demolished most of Maryland Penitentiary and the adjacent Baltimore City Jail. [1] These falling walls witnessed plenty of history. The penitentiary had been there for 209 years, since 1811. The jail stood for 161 years, completed in 1859. Journalist Tim Prudente observed for the Baltimore Sun that, “With regret and satisfaction, Baltimore watches the infamous Maryland Penitentiary tumble down.” This mix of “regret,” “satisfaction,” and infamy is worth exploring to understand public thinking about the site. Historic preservationists objected to the demolition, but seemed satisfied that they succeeded in having a few architecturally notable structures spared. Their focus was firmly on the architectural significance of the buildings themselves, for instance with one architect telling the Sun “You can’t punish the structure for what people did with it.” [2] As historian Dolores Hayden makes clear however, this architectural preservation is “less concerned with accountability . . . than community-based public history.” [3] Focusing strictly on architecture for preservation prioritizes physical structures over community connections to the past, silencing place-based historical lived experiences. Perhaps bystanders who viewed the demolition with satisfaction saw it as a way of putting a dark history behind them, moving on from the penitentiary’s history of injustice. [4] Historical erasure of this sort will not serve Baltimore well, as it will prevent learning from the city’s past. It is important to look beyond architecture and focus on the site’s complex past, illuminating the history that took place in the space to prevent its disappearance.

A central concept in public history and memory studies is the power of place, meaning the impact of where history happens on its continued engagement and remembrance. This is especially true in urban settings, where dense past and present eventfulness encourage attachment to an active memory landscape. [5] Maryland Penitentiary raises the question of the extent to which site demolition demolishes the power of place. On the surface it seems it does not, since nothing can take away from the emotions experienced through an understanding that one is standing in a space where history happened. But this connection requires cultivation and reinforcement. It can be preserved by researching a place’s stories, finding ways to share them with the world, and building them into public landscapes. [6] This way, people can find their own historical associations with the spaces they encounter and see places themselves as key elements of their histories. [7] In Hayden’s words, “If Americans were to find their own social history preserved in the public landscapes of their own neighborhoods and cities, then connection to the past might be very different.” [8] Different in the sense of being deeper, more personalized, and more generative of critical thinking. The rise of Maryland Penitentiary in early-nineteenth century Baltimore City reflects the development of an American punitive culture that exacerbated systemic prejudice on multiple scales over an extended period. Baltimore’s punitive history, experienced through the lens of the place where it happened, can thus inform understandings of systemic inequalities, justice, and community.

Understanding Maryland Penitentiary’s historical significance requires placing it in the broader context of the early-nineteenth century movement towards mass incarceration in the United States. As an early American penitentiary, Maryland’s was quite typical. [9] Cities across the country drew lessons from each other’s prison-building experiences to design their own mass incarceration institutions. [10] Rehabilitation and social restoration were primary goals from the start. State governments tasked penitentiaries with taking in people, usually men, who were struggling to generate income as provident heads of households. The purported goal was to rehabilitate these individuals into self-sufficient property-owning patriarchs, in the process restoring moral character through an ethic of hard work. [11] Reformers thought this would rebuild masculinity, which they saw as vital to success post-imprisonment. [12] These penitentiary advocates also aimed to break prior associations of brutality with penal institutions, instead pushing a humanitarian restorative agenda focused on state-sanctioned core values and useful skills. [13] Powerful social and governmental leaders in Baltimore City and nationwide presented the penitentiary as a positive good that would improve upon and stabilize the populace. [14]

Beyond rebuilding normative moral respectability, hard prison labor by design produced institutionally important capital. This labor capital funded prison operations and was also distributed as reimbursements to victims or general taxpayers, a form of social reparations for crime. [15] While nineteenth-century penitentiaries primarily dealt with men, it is important to draw public historical attention to Maryland Penitentiary being one of the first penal institutions to have female prisoners generate profit. These prisoners themselves deserve a great deal of the credit, since they proved wrong false assumptions of many reformers that female prisoners could not be economically productive. [16]

For all genders, strict rules regulated their prison labor. For example, in 1823, Maryland Penitentiary’s leadership released a new list of rules and regulations with labor productivity front and center. The document’s first article concerned itself strictly with economic efficiency:

1st. It shall be the duty of the keeper to employ his time chiefly in the yard—to pay strict attention to the work-shops; to make himself well acquainted with the different branches of business carried on; and with promptness observe that the deputy keeps and prisoners attend to their duty, so as to prevent waste and embezzlement in the materials and goods, idleness, and disorderly conduct, and see that the manufactured articles are finished in near order. [17]

This focus on industrial effectiveness would continue, as evidenced by a General Assembly Select Committee on Maryland Penitentiary recommending in 1848 that “the labor of the prisoners could be directed to some employment more profitable than that now engaged in.” Simply having prisoners engaged in hard labor was not sufficient, this labor had to be economically competitive. [18] The penitentiary’s historical memory should address how it reinforced the redemptive capacity of hard work, along with the importance of industrial discipline for economic productivity and social respectability. However, it must be emphasized that this was an exclusionary narrative. Throughout its antebellum history, the penitentiary concerned itself almost exclusively with white male prisoners.

Maryland Penitentiary represented and reinforced divisions between white and Black people, both enslaved and free. Owning property was the main way to hold power or assert freedom in antebellum Baltimore, and white men held legal title to almost all property. The penitentiary’s reform agenda targeted property owners, who were largely white, so there were few Black prisoners in this era. [19] This sharply contrasts the size of the city’s free Black population. By 1830, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the country. By 1850, it had twice as many free Black people as any other U.S. city. [20] Yet, even free Black people occupied an urban environment restricted by racial power. As political scientist Sara Benson writes, the prison was only one part of an “everyday racial regime” that culturally targeted Black bodies. [21] Into the twentieth century, the institution’s standard Writ of Commitment for prisoners made clear this dehumanizing focus on the body, proclaiming, “Now, therefore, we command you, the said Marshal and Deputies, and each of you, forthwith to convey and deliver the body of the said . . . [person’s name] into the custody of the Warden of the Western Maryland Penitentiary.” [22] Once such a body arrived at the facility, it became a criminalized entity prescribed for punishment.

Maryland’s government did not see the rehabilitation of free Black people as worthy of state resources. In 1860, with the Civil War looming, a Maryland General Assembly committee released a report on Maryland Penitentiary. The committee recommended, “that a law should be passed, requiring the Warden to sell at once the negroes, free and slave, who are now in the Penitentiary, and the proceeds thereof to accrue to the county or city where the said negro was convicted.” [23] No such law was passed, but the “free or slave” stipulation here makes clear the intention to treat Black inmates the same way regardless of their freedom status. Distinctions between freedom and slavery became obscured. [24] This reveals harsh contradictions, with free Black people deemed not worthy of prison rehabilitation nor of acknowledgement of their freedom. Government and institutional officials endeavored to make Maryland Penitentiary a white space. This would change, however, with the Civil War and emancipation.

With emancipation, Maryland Penitentiary’s inmate population shifted from primarily white to primarily black due to changing policies on freedom and racial order. But whereas the antebellum penitentiary aimed to rehabilitate prisoners to become effective property owners, the postbellum penitentiary did not. [25] Benson clarifies this distinction, arguing that “Black containment” was a primary goal of postbellum penitentiaries, in contrast to the antebellum focus on white reform. [26] Indeed, the centrality of white vigilantism in the antebellum punishment and criminalization of Black men transitioned into the mass incarceration of Black men in the postbellum period. This was a fulfillment of the Thirteenth’s Amendment’s exception clause, which essentially exempted criminals from the abolition of slavery. [27] A system of racial control with similarities to slavery persisted through policing and prisons, in Baltimore and nationally.

An extensive contract prison labor industry developed from the 1830s through to the Civil War. After the Civil War, its focus changed along with prison populations from white to Black. [28] Prison labor paid miniscule wages, so this system in practice was not far from slavery. Indeed, white labor unionist John Mitchell pointed out in 1913 that free labor could not compete with prison labor at rates of “free employees at $1.50 to $3.00 a day, in competition with convicts at 30 to 50 cents a day.” [29] Maryland Penitentiary used postbellum prison labor contracts to exploit primarily Black inmate labor in this way, further embedding private interests in the prison-industrial complex. [30] It was not just institutional racism that led penitentiary officials to assume Black prisoner incorrigibility, these views also became entrenched in the law. For example, white and Black criminal courts were integrated after the Civil War without significant effort to check the harsh racism of the previously whites-only courts. [31] As a result, white supremacist ideology crept into carceral decision-making to deem Black people criminally unworthy of freedom, but useful for white economic gain, leaving cruel legacies of systemic injustice. [32] Public history and memory should thus avoid portrayals of Maryland Penitentiary as a place of justice, instead illuminating its role in reinforcing harmful social hierarchies that continue into the present.

Despite the nationwide abolition of the contract prison labor system in the 1930s, prison labor is still used by private interests in Maryland. [33] The modern version involves correctional institutions themselves managing employment and then selling products produced by prison labor to corporations. Maryland Correctional Enterprises (MCE) runs this system in the state today. MCE describes its mission as, “to provide structured employment and training activities for offenders in order to improve employability upon release, to enhance safety and security, to reduce prison idleness, to produce quality goods and services, and to be a financially self-supporting State agency.” [34] This agenda strongly aligns with the rehabilitation through hard work mindsets present throughout the history of prison labor. However, institutions such as the University of Maryland who purchase from MCE have recently come under fire for using prison labor, with critics citing the program’s miniscule wages. [35] The extensive history of labor exploitation at Maryland Penitentiary and other American prisons can provide invaluable context for these present conversations.

What can Maryland Penitentiary’s history tell us about how the institution should be memorialized and remembered post-demolition? Throughout its history it asserted, exercised, and reinforced social power. Since this power has often been held by white men, the prison became an institution of white supremacist patriarchy. In the antebellum era, the penitentiary focused on rehabilitating white men to prepare them to re-enter society as economically productive husbands and fathers. Its postbellum history focused much more on Black men. Rather than trying to rehabilitate them, the penitentiary helped inaugurate an era of mass incarceration of and profit extraction from Black bodies. Today’s American prison system continues to provide an unmistakable reflection of these harmful hierarchies. Hopefully, the former site of Maryland Penitentiary can be used to educate the public about these difficult histories and their continued relevance. Maryland’s government hopes to address this with a restorative justice approach by building a mental health and addiction treatment center on the site. [36] If this project is successful in its stated goal of providing mental health support for inmates, this could provide a measure of restorative healing for groups historically harmed by incarceration in Maryland. [37] Regardless of how the site is used in the future, its history will continue to hold great potential for community-building, learning, and growth.


Cover image: Eli Pousson, "Maryland Penitentiary/Metropolitan Transition Center, 401 E. Eager Street, Baltimore, MD 21202," Baltimore Heritage, 2017, photograph, public domain,


[1] See Tim Prudente, “With regret and satisfaction, Baltimore watches the infamous Maryland Penitentiary tumble down,” Baltimore Sun, September 25, 2020,; “Maryland completes demolition at shuttered Baltimore jail,” Associated Press, August 3, 2021,

[2] Prudente, “With regret and satisfaction,” September 25, 2020.

[3] Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1997), 53.

[4] Prudente, “With regret and satisfaction,” September 25, 2020.

[5] Hayden, The Power of Place, 46-47.

[6] Hayden, The Power of Place, 76.

[7] Linda Shopes, “Foreword,” in Baltimore Revisited: Stories of Inequality and Resistance in a U.S. City, eds. P. Nicole King, Kate Drabinski, and Joshua Clark Davis (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2019), xiii, Kindle edition.

[8] Hayden, The Power of Place, 46.

[9] Jim Rice, “‘This Province, so Meanly and Thinly Inhabited’: Punishing Maryland’s Criminals, 1681-1850,” Journal of the Early Republic 19, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 18,

[10] Rice, “This Province, so Meanly and Thinly Inhabited,” 42.

[11] Adam Malka, The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Kindle edition, 8.

[12] Mark E. Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 136,

[13] Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, 130.

[14] David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990 [1971]), 79,

[15] Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, 133.

[16] Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, 197.

[17] Supplementary Rules and Regulations for the Government of the Penitentiary of Maryland (Baltimore, Maryland: Richard J. Matchett, 1823), Tennessee State Library and Archives, 1,

[18] Maryland General Assembly, Report of the Select Committee on the Maryland Penitentiary, February 21, 1848 (Annapolis, 1848), 7,

[19] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 7.

[20] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 10.

[21] Sara M. Benson, The Prison of Democracy: Race, Leavenworth, and the Culture of Law (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 82-83,

[22] “Writ of Commitment for John Wolf,” National Archives, Criminal Case Files, 1865-1988, NAID: 192121464,

[23] Maryland General Assembly, Report of the Joint Committee of the General Assembly Appointed to Examine the Maryland Penitentiary, February 28, 1860 (Annapolis, 1860), 7,

[24] Benson, The Prison of Democracy, 84.

[25] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 235-236.

[26] Benson, The Prison of Democracy, 84.

[27] Rebecca M. McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 85-86,

[28] McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment, 58, 64.

[29] John Mitchell, “The Wage-Earner and the Prison Worker,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 46 (March 1913): 13,

[30] Malka, The Men of Mobtown, 241; McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment, 175.

[31] See Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, 202; Matthew A. Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 278,

[32] McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment, 53-54; Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy, 303.

[33] McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment, 419-420.

[34] Maryland Correctional Enterprises, “Annual Report 2020,” October 1, 2020, 4,

[35] See Rohin Mishra, “It’s time the University System of Maryland divests from prison labor,” The Diamondback, March 15, 2022,; Anjali Dassarma, “University System of Maryland: Stop buying into current prison labor system,” The Retriever, June 15, 2020,; Maryland Correctional Enterprises, “Annual Report 2020,” 15.

[36] Prudente, “With regret and satisfaction,” September 25, 2020.

[37] Phil Davis, “State moving forward on $450M+ Baltimore Treatment and Therapeutic Center as officials seek consultant to oversee project,” Baltimore Sun, October 9, 2021,

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