Ever wonder how the modern prison system came to be? Join us for a discussion of 19th century prisons, their history, evolution and the intended reforms they were intended to produce. We take a deep dive into exploring the Auburn Prison and how the “Auburn System” came to dominate the penal system throughout America.

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Transcript of Auburn State Prison: The Making of the Modern Prison System

Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Sarah: One of the most pressing, and distressing, questions of our current age is that of mass incarceration. The conditions that prisoners live under, the books and possessions they are allowed to have, whether or not they are allowed to see their loved ones face to face, and even whether or not prisoners should be paid for the labor – that loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery made well-known by the documentary 13th – have become part of renewed conversations about imprisonment.

Elizabeth: Underlying these really critical issues are some larger questions: What do we hope to accomplish when we send people to prison? Do we want to rehabilitate, or punish? What would an ethical prison look like? It might be surprising to hear that these questions are not new. These are questions that reformers, politicians, bureaucrats, and wardens have been asking for centuries.

Sarah: Today, as part of our series on the law, we’re expanding our focus a little to look at what is often the end result of the law: imprisonment. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the Auburn Penitentiary, now known as the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, New York. This prison changed the landscape of punishment in the United States, and its designs and policies were exported around the world.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Elizabeth

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: In the early years of the 19th century, New York State officials had a problem. Their only state prison – named Newgate, most likely after the famous prison in London, was overcrowded. As the state’s population grew – and as the New York City population grew – it became clear that the prison was just not going to be big enough to hold the criminals of the entire state. As state government discussed plans to build a second prison, they looked at the rest of the state (which, newsflash, it pretty damned big, and is more than just New York City, folks!) and tried to determine where the best place for a new facility would be. Steered by prominent state assemblyman John H. Beach, they landed on a small but prosperous village called Auburn, Beach’s hometown. The village was located in the Finger Lakes region, situated at the tip of Owasco Lake and just East of Cayuga Lake. The spot was perfect: it was close to the Owasco Inlet, a small river, which could provide water power to the prison. Politically, the town was solidly Democratic-Republican, the party of Jefferson, and the party of the New York State legislature. In part as a thank you for their political support, the state legislature rewarded the small town with the new state facility, and construction began in 1816.  

Elizabeth: In order to really understand how Auburn revolutionized criminal justice in the United States, we need to give at least an overview on what prisons and the criminal justice system were like up to the 1810s. The American criminal justice system was, unsurprisingly, based on the English common law system. English law, especially through the 1600s and 1700s, was pretty heavy-handed, and it relied heavily on capital punishment. If you’ve heard our episode on sexuality and bestiality in Puritan New England, you know that capital punishment was a fairly standard sentence. Now, when we say capital punishment, we don’t always mean the death penalty: people could be whipped, locked up in the stocks, branded, be mutilated – have your ear cut off, maybe – or publicly shamed. If you’ve ever heard of the novel The Scarlet Letter, you know one form of punishment that was sometimes used in colonial New England – public shaming in the form of literally labeling people with their crime, in the case of the book, that was a scarlet “A” for adulteress. It was a system that punished through pain and shame, motivated by the idea that people would not become repeat offenders because they would want to avoid that discomfort. Sort of the same reason some people give for spanking their children: if you avoid doling out that pain, your kid will never understand what it means to corrected, and they’ll learn to avoid trouble because they want to avoid the pain that comes with it.

Sarah: And even though the American colonial system was inspired by the English system, it wasn’t a carbon copy. American courts tended to be less punitive than English courts, and, specifically, were less quick to sentence offenders to death. In England, people were regularly sentenced to death for relatively minor infractions like robbery and burglary – this almost never happened in the colonies. Less people were executed than in England, and more people sentenced to death were given pardons.

A small, very old wooden building surrounded by trees

The “Old Gaol [Jail]” in Barnstable, Massachusetts, built in 1690 and operated until 1820, is today the oldest wooden jail in the United States of America | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In addition to physical punishment, there were of course jails – but it was more common in colonial America for people to receive a relatively quick physical correction and then sent on their way. Generally speaking, colonial Americans were more interested in getting people out and back to work than separating them from society, even temporarily. Jails were more typically used to house criminals who were waiting for their trials. When someone was held in jail for an extended period of time – and it was only usually for a few months –it was really just an extended form of those physical punishments and public shaming. Prisoners would be whipped publicly at different intervals, or paraded around once a week to be shamed. Usually, prisoners weren’t really held in private cells, but kept in a communal area at night, and during the day, required to work for the keep. Another form of “jail” that did hold people for longer periods – workhouses. These were places where vagrants or debtors would live for extended periods, working off their debts.

Side note: there was a hilarious law in New Hampshire that made it so that vagrants, beggars, and debtors would live in these workhouses, but also “persons using any subtle craft, juggling, or unlawful games, or plays, or feigning themselves to have knowledge of physiognomy, palmistry, or pretending that they can tell destinies, fortunes, or discover where lost or stole goods may be found, common pipers, fiddler, runaways, stubborn servants, or children, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, wanton and lascivious persons, either in Speech or behavior; railers or brawlers who neglect their callings, misspend what they earn, and do not provide for themselves or support their families.” LOL  

Elizabeth: These early jails were more or less “houses of correction.” They weren’t necessarily perceived as places where people were punished by separating them from society, or by detaining them for long periods, but rather they were just places where people could receive those traditional ‘corrections.’

The spirit of the American Revolution changed the penal system significantly. After the Constitution was ratified, Americans had new rights codified by the federal government. The Bill of Rights gave Americans certain rights, like the right to free speech, the right against unreasonable search and seizure, the right to due process, the right to a fair and fast trial by jury, freedom from excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment. The desire to reform governments bled out into a general desire to reform society, which extended to crime and punishment. The legal profession and law enforcement started to become organized and professionalized, meaning that the system by which people who broke the law were punished were made more standard and efficient – not by any means that large bureaucratic organizations we have today, but far more standardized than they had been in the colonial era. Punishments were also reformed. The number of crimes that were eligible for the death penalty were greatly reduced. Another funny side note: Thomas Jefferson, when he was governor of Virginia, proposed reducing the death penalty but instead, using different kinds of corporal punishment – for example, he suggested castrating rapists (not such a bad idea?); drilling a hole through the nose of women who committed sodomy; and literally using the idea of “an eye for an eye” when someone hurt or maimed another person. None of these punishments were used, but Tommy Jeffs suggested them nonetheless.

Sarah: These kinds of corporal punishments were falling out of favor, anyway. In numerous states, physical punishments were being abolished and instead, prisons were being built. Whipping, maiming, and otherwise hurting people somehow seemed like a holdover from monarchical authoritarianism. The death penalty was still used for certain crimes, like murder, but executions started to happen in private instead of in the public square, as they had been for centuries prior. While in the 18th century public hangings were thought to be important ways for the public express their animal instincts, people in the 19th century were much more concerned about quelling those animal instincts, controlling emotion, and creating an outward appearance of propriety. There were serious exceptions to this: enslaved people were regularly punished using physical means, and their whippings, beatings, and physical torture were all done in the sight of other enslaved people so that their pain could be used as a lesson. There’s a really disturbing disconnect between the decline in using physical punishment for white people, and its continuation for black people. Physical punishment became racialized.

A black and white photograph that shows two men in stocks on a high plaform. Beneath it, a man with his shirt off is about to be whipped.

A whipping post or pillory, with stocks atop it, at the New Castle County Jail, Delaware, in 1897 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: This brings us to the penitentiary system. As corporal punishment fell out of favor, those ‘houses of correction’ became the alternative but instead of being simply places where people were physically corrected, they became in and of themselves the correction. Historian Laurence Friedman explains that this change took place because there was an actual shift in how people perceived of criminal behavior. Whereas before the Revolution, people were more likely to see crime as the result of a certain kind of person, 19th century Americans were more likely to see criminals as the product of their environment. People committed crimes because they lived in sin-ridden cities, surrounded by bad influences. If that was why people caused crimes, then all the whipping in the world wouldn’t help. Instead, people needed to be physically separated from that bad environment and being taught how to behave properly.

Sarah: The first major penitentiaries were designed by the Quakers. As you might already know, Quakers are a Christian denomination who are deeply pacifist and deeply concerned about reform and social justice, and they have been forever. I’d love to do an episode on famous Quakers – one of my favorite bits of trivia is that Richard Nixon, infamous Cold Warrior and extender-of-the-Vietnam-War, was a Quaker. A really bad one, I guess! Anyway, the Quakers were deeply concerned with ending capital punishment, or at the very least restricting it. And the perfect reform, they believed, was the penitentiary system: large prisons designed to hold prisoners for long periods of time. This would separate criminals from their corrupting environment and offer an extended period of time where they could be re-educated by the morally upright Quakers. The most well-known of their reformed prisons was the Eastern State Penitentiary, located near Philadelphia, which would open in 1829. The prison was designed like the spokes of a wheel, radiating out from a central area. Guards sitting in the center could see down these halls, radiating out, but not into the individual cells.

Elizabeth: And while they may have been well-meaning, the Quaker prison reformers took the idea of separation and reform to the furthest possible extent. The Quaker prison system, also called the Pennsylvania system, relied on isolation. Prisons like Eastern State were the first in the world to use solitary confinement. Prisoners were marched into the prison hooded, in part so their identity would be kept secret so they could ‘re-enter society’ without baggage, but also so they wouldn’t be able to see their surroundings as they entered. Once they were in the prison, prisoners lived in complete isolation and silence, allowed only to keep a Bible as a personal possession, and required to work making shoes and other products. Silence was so important that guards wore slippers so they could move around the halls without prisoners being able to tell where they were. The work served more than one purpose: it gave prisoners a skill, taught them the moralizing importance of hard work, but also gave them something to do while living in complete isolation. The central goal of a Pennsylvania–system prison was maintaining anonymity and keeping prisoners from interacting with each other. In some prisons, even the exercise yards were individual. In other prisons, exercise yards were communal, but prisoners wore masks to keep their anonymity and discourage interaction.

An old black and white etching of a large institutional building with a rectangular outer walls. Inside the rectangle, walls radiate to the outer wall from a central point like spokes on a wheel.

Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed in the 1820s | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The Pennsylvania System was adopted widely in both the United States and England, but it wasn’t the only system. That little upstate New York village and the prison it was awarded for its political loyalty became the originator of the second major prison system, which came to be known as the Auburn System. The Auburn system was inspired by the Pennsylvania System, but with serious modifications. Part of the Quaker roots of the Pennsylvania system was based on the Quaker idea of the “inner light,” or the light or spirit of God within the individual. So the idea was that prisoners needed to spend time cultivating that inner light. Some might say, and I think some Quakers today would say, that solitary confinement was a harsh or extreme way of focusing on that God-within, but that was the inspiring premise. Auburn was not based on that same premise. The Finger Lakes region, like all of WNY, was settled with New Englanders looking for open land that was unavailable in NE. They certainly weren’t Quakers – instead, they were born and raised in a Puritan society.  The Puritan God was not the Quaker God. There was no inner light. The Puritan God was one of retribution, anger, vengeance. He didn’t love individual people, and there was no “working toward salvation” by improving yourself or society – instead, individuals were either predestined for Heaven or not. They couldn’t do anything to change that fate. So while Auburn used the Pennsylvania system as a starting point, it didn’t share the same ideological framework.

Elizabeth: At first, there was nothing really different about Auburn, or, for that matter, anything particularly noteworthy at all. It was more or less the same as the prisons in New York City – Newgate, and another one called Walnut Street. But things weren’t going well at those jails, and they weren’t going all that well with Auburn either. Prisoners were used to construct the prison itself, but this led to a culture of cooperation between guards and inmates, so that guards sold contraband goods like alcohol and tobacco to prisoners. Discipline was poor, and folks in the surrounding town were getting nervous. Because guards and inmates knew each other, guards sometimes refused to carry out punishments like whippings – in one case, this meant that an Auburn citizen once came in to dole out those punishments, but when he entered the prison, he was met with a mob of prisoners who tarred and feathered him and literally rode him around town on a rail. Clearly, something had to change. In 1822, governor of New York Dewitt Clinton suggested that maybe reformers had taken the desire to reform prisons too far, and had forgotten about punishing criminals. He said: “The end of punishment is the prevention of crime, by the infliction of pain, and the operation of fear … which aspect should our Penitentiary present?”

Sarah: The goal, then, became to bring back that fear and pain to the New York State prisons. For guidance, they turned to Pennsylvania. In 1819, construction started on a new cell block at Auburn – side note, major set back in 1820 when prisoners somehow managed to burn it down! But eventually, this block helped to define the Auburn style. Cells were built along a corridor or hallway. The doors of these cells faced a wall with barred windows every few feet to provide light and ventilation. This ensured that prisoners never saw each other, and never saw anyone else, with the exception, perhaps, of guards. This has been perhaps the most influential prison design in the history of prisons. This style – having cells set up in a parallel lines, generally back to back, opening out toward either a central space where guards stand watch, or to walls – remains standard prison design even today.

Elizabeth: Initially, the goal was to use pure solitary confinement, inspired by the Pennsylvania system. This would solve the problem with discipline, and the problem limiting prisoner interaction with each other & guards. Prisoners would be confined almost 100% of the time, with short breaks for exercise. While inmates at Eastern State were kept in constant solitary confinement, their time was broken up with work. Prisoners were required to labor as part of their imprisonment, and made shoes or other items that either went to be used by the prison, or were sold to support the prison. This work was done independently, with prisoners working in their own cell. Cells at Eastern State were fairly large compared to Auburn cells, which were made smaller to make more room for a second row of cells behind them (they were in a double line). Auburn was more focused on punishment. Even though they also believed in rehabilitation, their idea of rehabilitation was through punishment, not rehab. Remember, the Pennsylvania system used labor as a sort of rehab. This didn’t interest the folks in charge of Auburn. So prisoners were kept almost exclusively in their cells without anything to pass the time, nothing to do.

Sarah:  The results were … not good. Prisoners could not endure this intense isolation and silence. Deprived of any human contact, and without anything to occupy their time, and kept in incredibly small quarters, prisoners began to suffer serious mental health problems. Between 1821 and 1823, Auburn turned into a horror show. One prisoner tried to commit suicide by flinging himself off one of the hallways of cells; another prisoner tried to kill himself by beating his own head into the walls until he destroyed one of his eyes. After five prisoners (out of a population of only 83) successfully committed suicide, and many others were driven to severe mental illness and self-harm, it became clear that they could not use solitary confinement without work. According to one commentator, “this system does not reform, it kills.” This is where the Auburn system was born.

Elizabeth: The results were so disastrous that they scrapped the idea of all-day-long solitary confinement altogether, basically rejecting the Pennsylvania system entirely. Instead, they instituted a brand new system. Rather than having prisoners in their cells all day and all night, they instead brought all inmates out during the day to work in workshops, kept on a very regimented schedule. They maintained their adherence to absolute silence and zero interaction, however. This seems fairly incongruous: how would you both have inmates work together en masse, but also get them to be silent and not interact with one another? The answer was intense discipline, a rigid schedule, and the utter destruction of the prisoner’s individuality. Prisoners were essentially interchangeable. It didn’t matter how well they behaved, they never received better treatment or reward or privileges. No one was allowed reduced sentences or parole – these were considered “a mockery to public justice.” The one drawback to not allowing extra privileges for those with good behavior was that there was also nothing to threaten to take away for bad behavior. So how did guards keep prisoners in line?

a vintage photograph of a long hallway with wooden doors lining the wall

A stereoscopic view of the solitary confinement cells at the Pennsylvania prison Cherry Hill | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Well, they relied on humiliation and a destruction of prisoner’s sense of self-worth. Prisoners were treated without any acknowledgement of their individuality or humanity whatsoever. When they entered the prison, they were given uniforms – actually, the almost stereotypical striped prison outfit that we associate with cartoon bad guys comes from Auburn. While the cartoon version is supposed to be kind of funny, it was intended to be deeply shameful – these outfits looked ludicrous, historian Walter David Lewis calls them “grotesque.” The uniforms also served to strip prisoners of their unique identities. When prisoners moved around the prison, whether they were going out to work or whatever, they moved in literal lock-step. This was another invention of Auburn. Prisoners walked in a column, one hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him, with his head turned toward the guard. This way, the guards could easily tell if the prisoners were whispering to one another. At all other times, prisoners were supposed to walk with their eyes down, looking at the floor. Prisoners were not allowed to have visitors, nor were they allowed to write to loved ones. The only human contact they might have – other than with guards or fellow inmates – was with average citizens who could pay a small ticket fee to come tour the prison as if it were a zoo.

Now, this was actually fairly common practice with any kind of large institution in the 19th century – asylums often made money off of a kind of macabre voyeurism that members of the public had, allowing them to come into the institution, tour the grounds, and look at mentally ill inmates as if they were animals. The same was also true of old soldier’s homes, these large, sort of old-folk’s homes that were constructed in the aftermath of the Civil War, created to house aging and disabled Civil War veterans. They were often built to have park-like grounds, like asylums, so that it would attract people’s interest in having an interesting Sunday outing – walking the grounds of an institution or asylum.  But it had, I think, an even more insidious purpose at Auburn. This kind of voyeurism was meant to shame and humiliate prisoners – this was inviting members of the public into the prison to see how degraded and disgusting these men were, to emphasize their separation from society, and to ensure that they understood that they were not fit for citizenship or freedom. It was part of the effort to degrade and demean these men so they would internalize their punishment – so that they would, in a sense, self-punish.

Elizabeth: This might be a good place to pause for a second to think about everyone’s favorite turtleneck wearing, bald-headed, philosophizing Frenchman: Michel Foucault! The idea of using shame and humiliation to manage prisoner’s behavior was first described by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. Bentham was interested in how to make prisons more efficient, and he proposed what he called The Panopticon. This would be a prison designed in the round. All the cells would be built circling a central guard tower. At no point could these prisoners have real privacy, because the guards in the center would always be watching them. Now, this proposed prison was never really built (although there are a few prisons on this plan around the world now) but the idea of the panopticon – of constant surveillance – stuck around. It was picked up in the 1970s by French philosopher Michel Foucault. And what Foucault picks up on is the idea that in the panopticon, the end result and indeed, the goal, is to get the prisoners to discipline themselves. Since they’re never sure when and if they’re being watched, they begin to behave as if they are ALWAYS being watched. And Foucault theorizes that there are many ways in which the panopticon works in our lives – when we are told over and over and over that a behavior is socially reprehensible and are shamed about it, we internalize that and we self-police, trying to avoid that behavior. A really funny but also really accurate version of this is the Elf on the Shelf (turn this off if you have little kids who love their elf!). The elf is always watching, and he’s always reporting back to Santa. So little kids could take that to mean that they are being watched and they should learn to scrutinize their behavior at all times in order to avoid punishment.

(side note from Sarah: I was so intimidated by learning Foucault that I used to get physically sick thinking about my professors grilling me about particulars of his theories in my oral exams. Of course no one did that – and, actually, Foucault is not that intimidating if you’re not a philosopher interested in the minute details! They did grill me on other details, though …)

An architectural drawing of a prison in the round

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Yeah, Foucault theorizes that the idea of the panopticon – constant surveillance and internalizing the gaze of the authority –exists in all sorts of different settings. It can exist between doctors and patients; little kids and their teachers; people of faith and their Gods or their faith leaders. It can work with groups of people. For instance, in my research, I talk about how disabled people learned from dominant culture that their disabled bodies and minds were shameful, and so they learned to carry themselves in ways that minimized the obviousness of their difference.

But back to prisons. Even though Auburn wasn’t created with the same architecture of the panopticon, it still utilized some of the central components of it. Guards walked up and down the corridors of the prison in slippers or socks so they could move around without the prisoners hearing them, so they learned that they could be being watched at any given moment. Stripping prisoners of their individual identities, having outsiders come in to leer at them, and humiliating them was all focused on getting prisoners to internalize their inferiority and worthlessness. Once they were ‘broken,’ they would be easier to keep quiet and calm in the prison. Essentially, it would make the guards’ jobs easier. If they did break a rule, they were punished by whippings.

Elizabeth: There were safeguards in place, thanks to an 1819 law, about how and when whippings could take place. For instance, women convicts weren’t to be whipped under this law – but, in 1825, an Irishwoman named Rachel Welch was severely whipped by a guard for causing trouble. She was pregnant at the time. She became incredibly ill, and although her baby was delivered alive, Rachel died shortly thereafter. When the public learned about Rachel’s death, a grand jury investigation was ordered, and eventually, a jury determined that whipping women was absolutely against the law. But they upheld its legality for men, and in fact, although the law stated that men could only be whipped after a kind of trial or hearing, subsequent trials found that whippings could take place before any kind of hearing and could be given out by basically any guard of any standing within the prison. So you see a sort of stripping of prisoner’s rights to any kind of hearing before receiving additional punishment. The judge in one case stated that prisoners were not really ordinary men or citizens, but criminals that “should most deeply feel the awful degradation and misery to which their vicious courses had reduced them,” and “they must realize that the ordinary sympathies of our nature could be not extended to them, consistently with the welfare of society, and that they must not be indulged.” What this meant was that guards had unfettered access to the bodies of the people they guarded.

Sarah: The whip hung over everything at Auburn, including the work shops. At Auburn, work wasn’t necessarily about rehabilitation or honing skills to be used in freedom, but rather to keep prisoners busy (and out of trouble) and to keep the prison solvent. Prison labor was used to support the prison itself – prisoners didn’t make money off their labor. Their work went to pay for operating costs. Sometimes, prisoners made shoes and clothing that would be used for prisoners themselves. Guards oversaw prison labor, and used the lash as a form of terror to keep prisoners in line and working hard. This was indicative of the overall ethos of Auburn. The underlying motive was not rehabilitation, but punishment. In fact, Elam Lynds, warden of Auburn in the early 1820s, wrote a report to the state legislature describing his vision of prison management. Earlier approaches to punishment were too focused on the idea that prisoners were victims of their environment, but Lynds said this had been misguided, “There seems to have existed, in this and other countries, an almost universal sentiment of partial regard to criminals of all sorts, and to sturdy beggars; and generally in favor of all who get their living by inflicting distresses, and imposing burdens, in breach of the laws, upon the best of mankind.” These people, he wrote, deserved be punished with hard labor, and that the prison could be run more cheaply if prisoners had to wear wooden shoes, sleep on corn husk mats on the floor, and eat tiny portions of cheap food.

Elizabeth: Even though Auburn and the Auburn system became a huge part of penology theory in the United States, it was pretty heavily criticized even at the time. Pennsylvania system supporters were horrified at the Auburn system, and some critics in Europe. An influential English reformer named William Roscoe was so disgusted by the system that he complained about it to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was in the midst of his triumphant tour of the United States, hoping that the old war hero could change some minds as he made his way around the young nation. Even some prison managers in New York – specifically at Newgate in NYC – were critical of the system.

Sarah: But at the same time, many others latched on to aspects of the Auburn system. And this is really fascinating. A New England reformer named Louis Dwight, the leader of the Prison Discipline Society, loooooooved the Auburn system. He thought it was magnificent. He actually thought it was so ingenious he suggested that it be used in all sorts of different kinds of situations. He designed a plan for a school that would, get this, have individual rooms for children that were built in such a way that they could all be observed from a central location. He wrote, the “unceasing vigilance” of Auburn “afforded a principle of very extensive application to families, schools, academics, colleges, factories, mechanics shops.” He was trying to sell the very central idea of the panopticon – that it is used in all these different settings in all these slightly different ways. It just sort of blows my mind.

An image of an abandoned prison with a central guard tower surrounded by a round wall with individual cells built into it

A more modern attempt at the panopticon, at the Presidio Modelo Prison in Cuba | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: Dwight spent years advocating for the Auburn system. He visited legislators and emphasized how cheap the system could be compared to the Pennsylvania system. By 1833, new prisons in Maine, new Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, and Ontario, CA. Conversely, the Pennsylvania system was only being used in PA, New Jersey, and Maryland.

Sarah: Ultimately, the Auburn system, or at least aspects of the Auburn system, became the dominant prison system. I think we can all recognize major elements of current corrections facilities in the description of Auburn. Maybe not the sneaking around in socks, or the constant whippings, but certain the constant surveillance, individual cells with communal work spaces and rec spaces used during the day, with the threat of punishment overhanging every interaction – maybe not whipping, but certainly losing privileges, losing the right to have visitors, the right to exercise or certain foods. And this system wasn’t the only thing about Auburn that stayed with us. In 1890, Auburn became the first prison to use the electric chair when they executed a man named William Kemmler, who had killed his wife with an axe. And – in another episode that seems disturbingly similar to current events, Kemmler didn’t die easily. The chair didn’t work right away. Kemmler was electrocuted for seventeen seconds, and then doctors declared him dead. But …. he wasn’t dead. So they had to strapped him in again and gave him another round. Finally after four minutes, the man died. Horrific.

Elizabeth: Today, not so many people have heard of Auburn, or its famous prison, but they certainly live in a world molded from it.

Further Readings:

The New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinment. 

Jennifer Gonnerman, Kalief Browder, 1993-2015The New Yorker, June 7, 2015.  

Roth, Michael. Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System (Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Publishing, 2011). 

“The Penitentiary System in America,” American Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV. (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea Publishers, 1838), 228-254.

Narval Morris and David J. Rothman, The Oxford History of the Prison in Western Society (New York: Oxford University, 1998.

Laurence J. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History. (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

Ever wonder how the modern prison system came to be? Join us for a discussion of 19th century prisons, their history, evolution and the intended reforms they were intended to produce. We take a deep dive into exploring the Auburn State Prison and how the


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