Pages 12 & 13 of exhibit brochure. All rights reserved to Cayuga Museum.

Women were received at Auburn Prison from 1825, confined in a large room in the attic of the south wing. Women were not exempt from physical punishment. Rachel Welsh arrived at Auburn Prison January 5, 1825 and died there on January 9, 1826, six weeks after giving birth to a child clearly conceived in prison.

After a public outcry, a commission of inquiry was appointed to look into the circumstances of her death. Evidence showed she had been whipped, frequently and severely. However, commissioners concluded that "the punishment inflicted upon Rachel Welsh has no connection with her death."

The first matron ever employed in any New York State prison was Miss Lucinda Foot, hired by the warden of Auburn Prison for $16 a month in 1832. As early as 1828, Governor Clinton had addressed the gross impropriety of females being confined in quarters connected with a prison for males. The Legislature authorized the building of women's prisons at Auburn and at Sing Sing in 1835, but the one at Auburn was never built. The women's prison at Sing Sing housed all the state's female convicts until 1877, when they began being housed in county jails.

Sewing shop women's prison, c.1915.

When the asylum for the criminally insane closed at Auburn in 1894, the state authorized its buildings use as a prison for women. With 125 rooms, accommodations for as many as 250 women, the Women's Prison served the entire state until 1934 when part of the Westfield State Farm at Bedford Hills became the women's prison.

Thomas Mott Osborne, son of one of Auburn's most prominent families, was appointed by Governor Sulzer as Chairman of a Commission on Prison Reform in 1913. Osborne wanted to see for himself the conditions under which convicts lived. He arranged to go into Auburn Prison "under cover," entering September 29, 1913 under the name Tom Brown. He stayed for one week, living as a regular inmate.

Osborne came away from that week of incarceration convinced that self government was the practical remedy of the problems plaguing the prison system. He believed that the prison should be treated as a community, and the prisoners should have some say in governing that community. Osborne stressed the value of educating rather than punishing the prisoners. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Mutual Welfare Inmate League, established at Auburn Prison in December 1913.

Thomas Mott Osborne.

Inmates elected delegates to the League, and the League took over some of the management of the prison population, including punishment of inmates. Some of the humane improvements that came out of the Mutual Welfare League were expanded yard recreation time, weekly movies, entertainments, an inmate band, and vocational education programs. The League also helped establish work camps, in which well-behaved prisoners were allowed out of the prison to work on roads.

The League was successful in improving the lives of inmates. However, there was no organized training program to develop leaders among the prisoners, and eventually abuses crept into the system. When the Mutual Welfare League was blamed by many for the deadly 1929 riots, the League was abolished.

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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.