Once referred to as "the little girl who lives at the jail," Barbara Hackey lived in the Jailer's Residence at the Old Washington County Jail in Kingston, Rhode Island when her father, Robert Bristow, was Deputy Sheriff and Jailer there from 1935 to 1939. In this video she tours the Jail with Lori Urso and Mary Keane, and remembers what life there was like at the time of her family's residency. As an adult, Hackey served as Town Moderator, and as President of the South Kingstown Town Council.
1658 Five white men from Newport contract with the Narragansett Indians to buy the “Narragansett Country,” lands we now know as South Kingstown, Narragansett, and parts of North Kingstown and Exeter. The contract becomes known as “The Pettaquamscutt Purchase.” Torrey Road, south of the intersection of present day routes 1 and 138 and opposite Saugatucket Rd and beside the Tower Hill Cemetery, is the earliest concentrated settlement in the area. It had at least one tavern, a Congregational meetinghouse (1695; relocated to Kingston in 1820), and a school, surrounded by large plantations occupied by wealthy planters. All these early building are destroyed in King Philip’s War in 1675.
1720 The Narragansett Country lands are incorporated into the Colony of Rhode Island as King’s County.
1729 Rhode Island develops county court system. Each of the 3 counties (King’s, Providence, and Newport) is to have their own courthouse and jail. A High Sheriff and his deputies are in charge of maintaining order.
1730 Tower Hill Road settlement made the county seat, and the first jail and courthouse for King’s County are built there.
1752 Residents of Kingston petition to become the new county seat, and have the courthouse and jail moved to Kingston. They promise to pay for the new buildings, and also to build three new taverns. Being the county seat means increased business and prestige. The Tower Hill residents fight to keep their town as county seat, but lose.
First Kingston jail built across the street from the present jail. It is a two-story frame (wood) structure housing prisoners and the jailer and his family together.
This first Kingston jail was flimsy and falls quickly into disrepair. Breakouts are common and the jailer complains frequently about poor living conditions. It is so bad that debtors object to staying in the jail and are housed in private homes in town. The decision is finally made to build a new jail.
A courthouse was built on a site just east of the present-day Kingston Congregational Church. A new courthouse later replaced that courthouse in 1776 across the street, the present-day Kingston Free Library.
1792 Two-story wooden jail built at present site. It is approximately the size of the current front part of the building only (with no back extension). The prisoners are kept in 5 cells upstairs, and the jailer and his family live in four rooms downstairs. Still, the arrangement is too close for comfort.
1803 One-story cellblock addition or “close” prison of wood built at back of jail. (A close prison is self-contained and holds prisoners only.) Still, prisoners manage to escape regularly; in 1812 two prisoners escape by burning down part of the building, and in 1827 all the prisoners escape.
1838 State prison built in Providence. However, the system of county jails to house prisoners without bail awaiting trial continues.
1858 Current two-story granite cellblock addition built. The outer walls are buried 3 feet in the ground and are 3 feet wide. The first story floors are 2 feet thick with an additional 2 inches of concrete. The ceilings are stone. The granite blocks are held together with 2-inch iron balls to further strengthen them. Cell doors and outside windows are of heavy iron. Two doors leading to the jailer’s residence are made of 2-inch oak plank; these are later replaced with iron doors.
The jail cells on the first floor, which hold two prisoners per cell, are meant for criminals (murder, rape, robbery, counterfeiting, etc.). The upper jail cells are more like regular rooms in a house: they are much larger, are heated, and have windows to the outdoors. These cells were for debtors, or people who owed money but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay it. They lived in the cells as if they were apartments, and often were allowed to leave during the day to earn money to pay off their debt. Sometimes the better-behaved criminals or female criminals stayed upstairs as well.
Despite its forbidding appearance, this new close prison was considered a big improvement and much more humane than previous jails. The wooden jails had few if any windows, almost no ventilation, and the wood was usually rotting and full of bugs and other vermin. In other words, they were dark, crowded and dirty, and they stank. By comparison the new stone prison was clean, and had light and ventilation. Prisoners still managed to escape, usually by trickery, but not as frequently as before.
1861 Wooden jailer’s residence in front torn down and current granite jailer’s residence built. This building is not as heavy as the addition; it has 20-inch thick walls on the first floor, and 16-inch walls above. (Note: The Civil War began in April of 1861).
1880 Front porch with mansard roof attached.
1885 Steam boiler (central heat and hot water) added.
1906 Electricity added.
1956 County jail system discontinued. The four existing county jails (in Kingston, East Greenwich, Bristol, and Newport) are closed. Defendants without bail awaiting trial now go to the state prison.
The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography occupied the old country jail until moving into the new Narragansett Bay Campus about 1960.
1958 The Pettaquamscutt Historical Society founded on the 300th anniversary of the Pettaquamscutt Purchase.
1960 The Pettaquamscutt Historical Society buys the Washington County jail from the state for $1.00 to use as its headquarters.
1999-2002 Jail extensively restored to more closely resemble its original appearance.