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Virginia’s“ place of liberty and priviledge”

From the earliest days of colonial Virginia — a main ancestral home of The Legal Genealogist and the destination for this week’s adventure (at the Fall Fair of the Fairfax Genealogical Society) — residents of the Old Dominion have been subject to imprisonment:

• In 1631/2, Frenchmen brought to Virginia to establish vineyards who had “willinglie concealed the skill, and not only neglected to plant any vynes themselves, but have also spoyled and ruinated that vyniard, which was, with great cost, planted by the charge of the late company and theire officers here” were subject to imprisonment “untill they will depart out of this colony.”1

• Anybody who undercut the price of merchandise or goods from England was liable “uppon penalty to have or suffer, for his or theire first offence, imprisonment by the space of 2 mounthes without bayle…”2

• A ship captain who started selling his goods until licensed to do so could “have and suffer one mounthes imprisonment.”3

• Anybody selling arms or ammunition to the Indians “shall … suffer imprisonment duringe life.”4

But it wasn’t until 1642/3 that the laws provided that the sheriffs were responsible to “detaine and keep all such prisoners as shall from time to tyme happen to be within the said severall counties as there to have their tryall…” and not until then that the counties were required to “take care that sufficient prisons be built for the use of the severall countyes respectively.”5

Fairfax VA prison bounds

Fairfax County, Va., prison bounds

So… we all know what that means, right?

Balls and chains.

Bread and water.

Dark dank cells.

And prison bounds.

Prison bounds?

Yep, prison bounds.

As in “bounds and limitts for the conveniencie and accomodation of prisoners in the day time, as … shall be thought reasonable.”6

As in a zone around the jail “to be a place of liberty and priviledge for each prisoner (a) (not committed for treason or fellony) giving bond with good security to the sherriff of the county for his true imprisonment, to walke and abide in for their health and refreshment, within which compasse, soe long as such prisoner (not committed for treason or fellony) shall remaine and continue; he shall not be adjudged to have made an escape.”7

By 1726, persons imprisoned for debt were permitted, if they could post a good enough bond with sureties, “to go out of the prison, and to return at his or their pleasure.”8

And by 1748, the law required the justices of every county “to mark and lay out the bounds and rules of their respective county prisons, not exceeding ten acres of land, adjoining to such prison, …: And every prisoner, not committed for treason, or felony, giving good security to keep within the said rules, shall have liberty to walk therein, out of prison, for the preservation of his or her health, and keeping continually within the said bounds shall be adjudged in law a true prisoner.”9

That remained the law thereafter,10 until finally there was a time limit of a year put onto the entitlement to prison bounds for debtors.11

And did Fairfax County have a jail with prison bounds?

You betcha. And there’s that nice neat drawing above showing just that.12

Like the rest of Virginia’s jails and prisons, the Fairfax jail wasn’t boundless.

Like the others, it too had bounds… a “place of liberty and priviledge” for our colonial ancestors.


  1. Laws of 1631/2, Act XVI, in William Waller Hening, compiler, Hening’s Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 1: 161.
  2. Ibid., Act XIX, Hening’s Statutes at Large 1:162.
  3. Ibid., Laws of 1632, Act XXIII, Hening’s Statutes at Large 1:191.
  4. Ibid., Laws of 1633, Act X, Hening’s Statutes at Large 1:219.
  5. Ibid., Laws of 1642/3, Act XLVI, Hening’s Statutes at Large 1:263.
  6. Ibid., Laws of 1647, Act I, Hening’s Statutes at Large 1:340.
  7. Ibid., “An act … for building prisons in each county, and for ascertaining rules to each prison,” Laws of 1684, Act V, Hening’s Statutes at Large 3: 15.
  8. Ibid., “An Act … to declare the Law concerning Executions; and for relief of poor Prisoners for debt,” Laws of 1726, Chap. III, Hening’s Statutes at Large 4: 162.
  9. Ibid., “An Act for establishing county courts, and for regulating and settling the proceedings therein,” Laws of 1748, Chap. VII, Hening’s Statutes at Large 5: 508.
  10. See ibid., “An act for amending and declaring the law concerning the escape to debtors out of the prison rules…,” Laws of 1765, Chap. XXII, Hening’s Statutes at Large 8: 120.
  11. See e.g. “An Act concerning such debtors in execution as may have had the benefit of the prison rules for the term of one year,” C. 135, in The Revised Code of the Laws of Virginia, 1819 (Richmond: Thomas Michie, 1819) I: 547; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Nov 2015).
  12. Ten acres of land surrounding the courthouse laid off for the prison bounds. Record of Surveys, Section 2, p. 93, 1800, in Ross D. Netherton and Ruby Waldeck, The Fairfax County Courthouse (Fairfax, Va. : Fairfax Co. Office of Comp. Planning, 1977); ebook, Project Gutenberg ( : accessed 5 Nov 2015).
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