One of the more interesting and depressing treks one can take in South Carolina is the search for what is known as Penitentiary Cemetery, where for more than a century inmates of the South Carolina Penitentiary were buried.
The site is located just north of I-126, between Elmwood Cemetery and the old Columbia Canal in Columbia. More than 1,000 individuals are likely interred there, though the exact number will never be known because officials made little effort, especially in the early years of the state penitentiary, to accurately record prisoner deaths.
The S.C. Penitentiary, later known as the Central Correctional Institution, opened in 1867 amid the rubble of the War Between the States and the chaos of Reconstruction.
“Shackled in balls and chains, ex-slaves earned 75 cents a day constructing Cellblock One using giant slabs of granite that had been mined from a quarry just a few miles up the Congaree,” according to a story in the Columbia Free Times.
The prison remained in operation until 1994 overlooking the Columbia Canal. All told, some 243 men were executed at the site, the vast majority of whom were black, before the structure was demolished in 1999. Today, the locale is home to the CanalSide project.
As it has been for much of its history, Penitentiary Cemetery today is neglected, with few graves marked and only a portion of the cemetery enclosed by fencing.
In a macabre twist, the last of the markers of executed inmates, which were specially marked, have been stolen in recent years.
Walking through the lonely graveyard in the late afternoon as the sun glints through the trees, one realizes that these individuals, all but forgotten in life, have been consigned to eternal oblivion in death, as well.
The Penitentiary Cemetery wasn’t the initial burial ground for inmates of the state penal system.
Originally, prisoners were buried in a small plot within the penitentiary walls, but that was filled by the early 1880s, and the land that would become the Penitentiary Cemetery was acquired in 1883.
According to a 2009 report on the cemetery by the Chicora Foundation, pre-20th century South Carolina penal officials cared little for inmates, who were mostly black.
“Of far greater concern to the citizens of the state was that the prison be run in manner that eliminated all taxpayer costs,” the report states. “It is therefore no wonder that for the first 68 years of the new cemetery’s operation the prison kept almost no records of burials.”
It wasn’t until 1915 with the initiation of South Carolina’s death registration process that death certificates began to be used, making it possible today to identify prisoners buried at the Penitentiary Cemetery.
However, even after this date prison records and death certificates reveal that these state-mandated forms were inconsistently completed by prison officials.
Marking devices at the cemetery has varied over time.
“For several decades whitewashed concrete markers were used, providing a name, prisoner number and death date,” according to the Chicora Foundation, a Columbia-based nonprofit heritage preservation organization. “Then a simple metal plate was substituted. But for much of the cemetery’s use the graves were either unmarked or marked in the most transient fashion.
“As a result most of those buried at the penitentiary cemetery rest anonymously.”
Today, research has identified just 279 individuals known to be buried in the cemetery.
The Chicora Foundation estimates that there are perhaps 1,200 burials within the fenced area and to the east, outside the fence.
That doesn’t include those moved a to the location from Lower Cemetery – a nearby Potters Field that had to be partially excavated when I-126 was built – which would bring the total to at least 1,900.
Penitentiary Cemetery, difficult to access, has received only minimal care by the prison over its history and its usual condition has been overgrown and overlooked.
In 1979, control of the cemetery was assumed by South Carolina’s Budget and Control Board, “an agency that had even less interest in the cemetery and its occupants than the prison,” according to Chicora.
In 2000 the Budget and Control Board disposed of the property to the City of Columbia, which has held the tract since that time. During the past decade the condition of the cemetery has steadily deteriorated.
Many of the markers in the cemetery have been destroyed or stolen.
The cemetery is virtually forgotten by Columbia’s citizens, prison authorities and the city of Columbia, according to Chicora.
While the individuals buried in Penitentiary Cemetery most likely made mistakes in their lives – perhaps in spades – it’s unfortunate that no one has ever bothered to take the time to treat their final resting place with the respect that even they deserve.
As the Chicora report states: “Death in anonymity is the ultimate insult to human dignity.”
(Above: Anonymous grave marker at Penitentiary Cemetery in Columbia.)