Inside the Original Rhode Island State Prison

The site where the Providence Place mall stands today was once home to Rhode Island prisoners from 1838 to 1877.
The Public Archaeology Laboratory In Pawtucket

A cell door from the original R.I. State Prison. Photography by Wolf Matthewson

Between 1994 and 1997, workers from the Public Archaeology Laboratory dug deep into the soil beside the Woonasquatucket River, unearthing the detritus of another life. The site, now the Providence Place mall, was once the home of the original Rhode Island State Prison, a hulking, two-story structure that opened to prisoners in 1838. The building closed in 1877 and was later demolished to make way for the Rhode Island Normal School, but evidence of their lives is preserved today in boxes of items at PAL’s Pawtucket office.

The Public Archaeology Laboratory In Pawtucket

Artifacts include a tooth polishing kit, whetstone and handmade bone buttons, among other items. Photography by Wolf Matthewson

The Public Archaeology Laboratory In Pawtucket

Bottles recovered at the site once held everything from perfume to medicine, whiskey and ink. Photography by Wolf Matthewson

“[Prisoners] were marched on foot from downtown Providence to Cranston,” says laboratory manager Heather Olson, who notes the unsanitary conditions at the original prison and the grueling walk to the current state property. The lab contains an estimated 1.5 million artifacts excavated from sites across the Northeast, including the prison and Snowtown, a historically mixed-race neighborhood that was located a short distance away. “The people who were in the prison and who lived in Snowtown were not the movers and shakers,” Olson says. “I’m more interested in the people who weren’t writing the histories.” It’s why, she says, she prefers digging to reading history in books. “History is someone’s opinion of what happened in the past. Artifacts don’t lie. What you see is what they had.”