After the Civil War, the State of North Carolina adopted a new constitution to rejoin the Union in 1868. It was during this constitutional convention that North Carolina chose to establish a state penitentiary like the ones Quakers had lobbied for in the Northeast. For pacifist Quakers, the whipping post and branding iron were inhumane, and some half a century after New York and Pennsylvania established penitentiaries, North Carolina agreed.
A site had been chosen in Chatham County, but was abandoned after law makers realized they could not reap the profits of prison labor at that site as they had planned. A new commission chose and purchased from Kate Boylan a 22-acre site in Raleigh, which had been known for some reason as the “Temple of Love”.
The public urged a speedy construction of the prison since county jails were overcrowded and rapidly deteriorating. It was not to be, and construction at Central Prison took fourteen years to complete.
William Hicks designed Central Prison and oversaw work there, later becoming a prison warden. He also oversaw construction of the Governor’s Mansion and the Supreme Court Building, which now houses the Labor Department.
Other notable figures who worked on Central Prison include W.O. Wolf, a stone cutter who owned a marble and stone works on the corner of Blount and Morgan streets. Wolf would later add an “e” to the end of his last name, move to Asheville, and then father Thomas Wolfe, one of North Carolina’s most famous writers.
The lion’s share of the labor, including quarrying rock for the prison on the 22-acre site, came from the prisoners themselves. In January 1870, the first prisoners were transported to the “Temple of Love” to start building. Those prisoners were housed in log cabins which were little improvement over the county jails of the time.
In 1884, Central Prison was completed. The stone cells were spacious and clean, compared to the overcrowded and disease-ridden log cabins. But because of the lengthy construction period, critics said Central Prison was already outmoded.
It was not until a full century later that the state finally decided to replace the original stone prison with updated cell blocks and administrative buildings. The new buildings were completed in the 1980s, right at the time when annual prison intake in North Carolina nearly doubled, from 17,500 in 1986 to 30,800 in 1992.
Last July, to the surprise and near-daily annoyance of myself and my Boylan Heights neighbors, the state broke ground on a $160 million hospital project at Central Prison. State officials expect that my house will continue to shake and rattle until 2011 or 2012, when the prison hospital should be completed.