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Prisons: History

The Auburn Plan

The establishment of a second New York state prison at Auburn in 1816 soon led to a new prison model and regime, designed to keep convicts separate and unable to communicate with each other even as they were forced to labor as penal slaves. "Industry, obedience, and silence" were the guiding principles of the new system. One of its chief proponents and rulers was Elam Lynds, who served for many years as warden of Auburn and other prisons.

By the early 1820s, the Auburn plan had resulted in the construction of tiny individual cells and workshops as well as a rigid system of enforced silence and harsh punishments. Each entering convict was assigned a prison number, which served as his or her identity. Movement to and from the workshops was performed in a regimented manner, known as the lockstep, which called for prisoners to march in a military-style human chain.

A Boston clergyman who visited Auburn in 1826 found it a shining example of what could be accomplished with proper discipline and design. "The whole establishment, from the gate to the sewer, is a specimen of neatness," he wrote. "The unremitted industry, the entire subordination and subdued feelings of the convicts, have probably no parallel among an equal number of criminals." The Reverend Louis Dwight and his associates from the Boston Prison Discipline Society pronounced Auburn a "noble institution" and said, "We regard it as a model worthy of the world's imitation." The institution seemed so successful that in 1825 Lynds was assigned to build a similar prison in Sing Sing.

Many Americans took such pride in what they seemed to have accomplished in their new model prisons that they encouraged visitors to tour the institutions in exchange for a small fee, to see for themselves what was being done with public funds.

In 1831 two young French magistrates, Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville, were dispatched by their government to study the new American prison systems and report back on their possible application in France. Although Tocqueville was also interested in observing America's political system, which later would form the basis of his classic study Democracy in America (1835, 1840), he visited the United States in order to examine different penal approaches. The pair wrote in On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France (1833) that "[w]hile society in the United States gives the example of the most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: History - Early Jails And Workhouses, The Rise Of The Prisoner Trade, A Land Of Prisoners, Enlightenment Reforms