August 7

This Day in History

Crime

Aug 7, 1945:

Georgia institutes a State Board of Corrections

Concerned with its reputation in light of recent revelations about inhumane prison conditions, Georgia changes its constitution to set up a State Board of Corrections. The board was directed to be more humane in its treatment of prisoners and abolished whippings, leg irons, and chains. Until 1945, prisoners in Georgia could expect to have heavy steel shackles put on by a blacksmith upon arrival. They were then taken out to work under severe conditions.

In 1943, Leon Johnson escaped from a Georgia chain gang. When he was captured in Pennsylvania, Georgia demanded his return. However, Johnson fought extradition in federal court, claiming that the Georgia chain gang was unconstitutional. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but the Supreme Court reversed the decision and Johnson was sent back. Still, the publicity brought Georgia much unwelcome attention, and when the citizens heard that white prisoners were suffering in these chain gangs as well, prison conditions began to change.

The North had already gone through its own prison reform era. In 1913, a grand jury condemned the conditions at Sing Sing Prison in Westchester County, a suburb of New York City. The cells did not have toilets--only slop buckets that were infested with vermin, a condition that continued through the 1920s. Many of the prisoners were infected with syphilis. Boys and first-time offenders were put in cells with hardened criminals who raped them. Thomas Mott Osborne, a prison reformer, admitted himself to prison under the name Tom Brown in order to get a firsthand account of the treatment. He then became Sing Sing's warden, instituting many reforms in his short stint as head of the infamous prison.

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