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The Washington Jail was located at about the center of Judiciary Square. The first jail built on this site was constructed in 1801 — a simple, rectangular brick building designed by white architect George Hadfield. In 1839 another jail, a three-story building designed by the white architect of public buildings Robert Mills, was built because the first jail was overcrowded.

Prisoners at the time were black and white criminals and debtors, black freedom-seekers, free blacks, and the insane of both races. Given the Black Codes that governed life for African Americans before 1862, blacks could be jailed for a variety of small infractions, such as staying out on the street past curfew. (In 1812 white city officials instituted a curfew law requiring that all blacks carry a permit signed by a white enslaver authorizing their right to walk the streets after curfew hours. African Americans without the permit were put in jail and generally could only be released if identified by a white slaveholder, who also paid a fine. Those not claimed by a white enslaver were often deemed runaways. Their descriptions were placed in newspapers to notify whites that they were imprisoned.) The second jail was razed in 1874.

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