Early sketch of Auburn State Prison. For a list of image links to a larger version of this and other Auburn views, visit Bill Hecht's excellent site of old maps, pictures, postcards, air photos, and geology info for Cayuga County and the Finger Lakes. [Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

John N. Miskell's Offering Hope, the Connection
between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison

Page 7 of 8


In his continued efforts to make the institution less costly to tax payers, Warden Gershom Powers introduced a contract labor system in the prison with the approval of the State Legislature. In time it would become a highly controversial move that would upset humanitarians and area clergy, including the faculty of the seminary.

Initially contract labor, which began in 1828, was an economic success. Several contracts were let out during the first year. Under the contract system prisoners were leased to outside firms at a daily rate per capita which varied depending on the type of product produced. 411 inmates worked on contracts the first year. Average daily earnings per man for a day's work which began at sunrise and continued until the sun set, was 27 cents. The institution received the cash, not the workers. The income from contractors equaled the total disbursement for the operation of the entire prison that year and continued to pay all costs for several years.

Hard labor under the contract system became a fetish. After all, hard labor was the rule of life outside the prison, and if the prison could be made less costly by the labor of prisoners, hard work should be the rule inside prison walls. Besides, hard labor was considered by some to be indispensable in any reformation of the prisoners.

An intense preoccupation with financial considerations was very apparent in the development of prison industries under the Auburn System. Economy minded legislatures desired to exploit convict labor without regard to the adverse effects experienced by prisoners. There were legislatuies who felt that inmate life had not been sufficiently severe to date and should produce more terror and suffering for felons. Prison should be a school of hard knocks, not a refuge for lazy people.

Corcraft web site logo.

Corcraft is the trade name of the Division of Correctional Industries, the NYS Dept. of Correctional Services (DOCS) manufacturing arm.

Its primary purpose is to employ inmates in real work situations producing quality goods and services at competitive prices, delivered on time as required by the state and its subsidiaries at no cost to the taxpayer.

Corcraft cuts incarceration costs by employing inmates productively, providing them with skills and work habits that can help them find and keep jobs after their release.

It strives to do this without unreasonably competing with private sector labor and companies. So its products are sold only to state and local governmental entities and agencies.

Corcraft promotes the private sector economy by:

  • creating private sector jobs through purchase of raw materials,
  • employment of civilians and officers, and
  • through partnerships with local companies.

One example of such partnerships is its working with Binghamton and Johnson City's Azon Corporation that provides the technology for Auburn's new license plate manufacturing system.

Visit the user-friendly Corcraft web site for more information, product catalogs, and on-line ordering.

One on-line catalog available via the Corcraft web site's download menu page is the January 2002 Price and Specification Guide.

The 147-page book is virtually a complete guide to the products Corcraft offers NY state agencies and local governments. (Below is an image of its front cover.)

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Corcraft catalog cover.

Seminary officials and reformers in the community were appalled by reports of harsh treatment of prisoners working under the contract system and the continued emphasis upon revenue rather than reformation. Yet, despite their pleas to a calloused Legislature, the work program was to continue unabated for many years.

Curiously, inmates, ignoring their fatigue, continued to go to sabbath school and to attend Sunday services. They were not to be deterred from participating in a program that offered them hope.

Hope is the last thing that dies in human nature. The seminarians did not let it happen to the prisoners, rather they renewed their efforts to - share their beliefs with the men confined.

The Auburn system produced a fatalistic frame of mind in the prisoners who knew what to expect if they were disruptive or did not obey the rules. On the job they adjusted their behavior accordingly and did the work unenthusiastically. While Sunday sermons were sometimes boring, going to prayer services on Sunday morning was still better than staying in a damp, gloomy cell.

All men were not indifferent. Some, overcome by the pressures of confinement, found emotional release in attending services and openly wept during sermons about redemption.

Gershom Powers left state service in November, 1929. There were thirteen rotations in the chain of command at the prison during the next twenty years. Each new warden inherited the responsibility to pay expenses of any kind of the operation of the prison wholly, or as nearly as possible, by the labor of prisoners. Advocates of the Auburn system in the Legislature concluded that the institution should bear the cost of food, clothing, medical expenses and staff salaries.

There were, however, flaws in the master plan. The institution was now falling into debt each year as an increase in the number of convicts to over 800 persons involved an increase in the number of guards and keepers.

During this period the reformation of a confirmed villain, although desirable, was a forlorn hope to most administrators. While they paid lip service to progressive ideals of reform, they left religious efforts to the chaplain.

The Reverend Jared Curtis left Auburn to accept the position of chaplain at Massachusetts State Prison . . . . The aim of his replacement was to create changes in human life. In a sense he was the conscience of the entire staff. Over the years he often protested that it was unreasonable to think that an inmate could labor hard and at the same time be taught lessons of morality and religion. His pleas were ignored.

In 1847 the Legislature passed the first legislation governing education directing the employment of two part-time teachers who were to work under the direction of the chaplain. Their main objective was to teach English to illiterate inmates. No formal classroom instruction was held; teachers worked in evening hours, standing outside of the cells. It was a difficult situation to try to teach reading and basic mathematics. While their labors were of necessity superficial among so many convicts, they considered their efforts to be successful considering the conditions of poor lighting and tired students. The teachers were a welcome adjunct to the sabbath school.

On Sundays seminarians continued to teach theological virtues of faith, hope and charity in an unobtrusive fashion. They realized over time that it was difficult for a prisoner to keep the faith for in prison religion was more of an ideal than a practical application in his daily life. In reality they were preparing the individual for his release back in the community and his adjustment to a normal way of life. In the beginning Gershom Powers had agreed to starting a sabbath school because he knew that there will always be men in prison who need some form of religious experience if they are to survive mentally intact while incarcerated.

John N. Miskell.

NYCHS is honored by and grateful to retired Auburn Correctional Facility Deputy Suprtintendent John N. Miskell for permitting our web site to present this and other historical writings of his, including those listed and linked below.

While the school with the help of over 1,000 theological students operated for over fifty years in Auburn Prison and provided much needed comfort and education to hundreds of inmates, his dream of a revival of religion with many conversions was never fully attained. The theologians did their very best; no one will ever know how much good they accomplished or how much worse imprisonment would have been without their prayers to God to have mercy upon and to pity and bless the prisoners in their lonely cells.

-- John N. Miskell
November 8, 1998

Offering Hope, Connection Between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison ©1998 by John N. Miskell
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