Lockstep marching, striped uniforms, and strictly enforced silence were tools used to break down the prisoners' individuality.

After the spectacular failure of the solitary system, a new penal system began to develop at Auburn Prison. What became known as the Auburn System was copied all over the world. The Auburn System confined prisoners in individual cells at night, but required they work together during the day.

Pages 3 & 4 of exhibit brochure. All rights reserved to Cayuga Museum.

A key factor in the Auburn System was complete silence, strictly enforced with the threat of the whip. John D. Cray, who is also credited with building the statue known as Copper John, realized that communication was necessary to maintaining a sense of self. In order to break the convicts of this sense, they were strictly forbidden to communicate with each other in any way. Cray also developed the lockstep method of marching. Convicts were marched back and forth to the workshops in lockstep - each man's arms under those of the man in front of him, all looking to one side, marching in unison. Convicts were required to keep their eyes averted from each other and the keepers, wear humiliating striped uniforms, and engage in constant activity when outside their cells.

The Auburn System was designed to prevent the corruption of one prisoner by another. The goal was to totally isolate each prisoner, while forcing him to work for the prison's profit. Such a system, which violated most basic human nature, could not be maintained without extreme physical cruelty.

Elam Lynds, a former Auburn hat maker, was appointed principal keeper in 1821. Lynds believed absolutely in the disciplinary power of the lash and used flogging to punish even minor infractions. Lynds was often vilified in the local press for his severe methods.

The seeming success of the Auburn System -- the shops were profitable and the prison was silent -- drew distinguished visitors from throughout the U.S. and Europe. Auburn Prison was visited by thousands of sight-seers. There were narrow passages in the rear of the shops through which visitors could watch the convicts. Until 1822, the price of admission for visitors was 12 1/2 cents, but it was doubled that year to 25 cents. The Board of Inspectors doubled the fee, not just for revenue, but to lessen the large numbers of visitors.

After the death of a prisoner attributed to flogging and neglect in 1839, the local Auburn press, the leaders of the community, and the staff at the Auburn Theological Seminary were instrumental in causing the State to investigate the discipline in Auburn Prison. The law stated that six blows on the naked back with the "cat" or six-stranded whip was the most punishment that could be assigned for any one offense. Even the committee admitted that in Auburn Prison the limit was often exceeded. Another commission was appointed in 1846, following the death of a prisoner that a Cayuga County coroner's jury attributed, in part, to "severe flagellation." Petitions poured into the state legislature, many from Cayuga County, advocating the abolishment of whipping in the prisons. A new statute outlawed the use of the whip -- "No keeper in any state prison shall inflict any blows whatever upon a convict, unless in self-defense or to suppress a revolt or insurrection."

With the lash no longer allowed, prison officials looked for another way to punish convicts who broke the rules. The shower bath, a true torture device, came into general use at Auburn. The shower bath consisted of a barrel about 4 1/2 feet high with a discharge tube at the bottom. The prisoner was stripped naked, bound hand and foot, with a wooden collar around his neck to prevent his moving his head. The barrel, with the inmate inside, was placed directly under an outlet pipe, where water, sometimes iced, would pour down. The shower bath was discontinued at Auburn Prison in 1858, after the death of an inmate from this punishment. The yoke -- a bar of iron weighing about 40 lbs., fastened to the back of the inmate's neck and both hands -- was another form of discipline. These punishments, which did not violate the letter of the law prohibiting any blows to the inmates, certainly violated the spirit of the law.

Most forms of corporal punishment were eliminated in the late 1800s. In 1900, the dehumanizing lockstep was abolished. The silent system was also gradually discontinued. The rules were slowly relaxed until enforced silence was abolished almost entirely with the establishment of the Mutual Welfare League.

The striped uniforms were discontinued in October 1904. Solid gray uniforms, made in the prison shops, replaced the stripes. New York State inmates wore gray clothing until after the riot at Attica Prison in 1971.

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Cayuga Museum of History and Art 4/12-8/31 2003 exhibit brochure:
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Both Sides of
the Wall

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this presentation of the "Both Sides of the Wall" exhibit brochure authored by Eileen McHugh, Cayuga Museum of History and Art director.
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All Cayuga Museum of History and Art rights to its Both Sides of the Wall exhibit brochure material presented above are reserved to and retained by it.