Even the language of criminal punishment is freighted with our nation’s history of injustice. Prisoners awaiting trial are usually held in county jails. But some are moved to the state prison system.
The official term for this type of transfer is SAFEKEEPING. Judges, jailers, and lawyers using this word every day probably have no idea it originated in slavery.
SAFEKEEPING referred to the practice of jailing enslaved runaways until their enslavers paid a reward and collected them.
“I will pay the above reward to any person who will deliver said boy to any jail for safe-keeping so that I can get him.”
The Daily Progress (Raleigh), 1863
After slavery was abolished, SAFEKEEPING described the practice of holding an accused in Raleigh’s state penitentiary, rather than the county jail, to prevent his lynching.
“This last action was made necessary as it is confidentially believed here that a crowd is coming to Fayetteville… tonight thinking the negro is in jail here, to lynch him.”
The Semi-Weekly Messenger (Wilmington), 1907
“… he ran for his life and got away from a mob of white men…. The young Negro… gave himself up… and was taken to Raleigh for SAFEKEEPING…”
The Charlotte News, 1947
SAFEKEEPING is still an official term within the criminal punishment system today, used regularly by judges, sheriffs, lawyers, and prisons.