John N. Miskell's Why Auburn?
-- the Relationship between Auburn and the Prison


Page 5 of 10
Many systems were tried in an effort to make profitable use of the labor of convicts. There were many problems regardless of the system used. The convicts at first performed custom work, but they were employed doing the same work as the artisans and mechanics of the village. The prisoners were in competition with free men, many of whom left the village in order to earn a living elsewhere.

In 1821, an experimental agreement was made to permit Samuel D. Dunham, an entrepreneur, to utilize the labor of five convicts to manufacture tools. He furnished the materials and equipment, paid a fixed sum per day for the convict labor and was responsible for the sale of the articles produced. This system worked quite well. It became known as the piece-price system.

At other times a contract labor system was used. Contract labor was introduced in Auburn in 1828 under Warden Gersham Powers by authority of the State Legislature. Four hundrd-eleven convicts worked on contracts that year. Average daily earnings per man were $.27. The institution received the cash, not the prisoners. The total disbursement for operation of the prison in 1828 was $35,504. The total income from contractors was $34,504.

Warden Powers maintained that the most sanguine economist never dreamed of making prisoners pay their support and also for the prisons to confine them.

Canals map detail.
The relationship of Auburn's Owasco Lake in the canal system of the Finger Lakes region can be seen in a modified detail from a map of the Oswego River Basin. The Owasco Lake appears just above "New York" in the map detail above. Auburn would be in the vicinity of the color marking northwest of the lake.

The New York State Canal System is operated by the NYS Canal Corporation, a subsidiary of the NYS Thruway Authority. It consists of the Erie, Champlain, Oswego and Cayuga-Seneca Canals and connecting lakes and rivers.

The original canal system was designed for commercial shipping by barges. The dams and control structures were built to ensure water levels for navigation, not for the flood control that is their chief mission today.

The Oswego River Basin, located in central NY, encompasses the Erie Canal from Macedon to Rome and the Cayuga-Seneca and Oswego Canals. It drains a total area of 5,122 square miles into Lake Ontario.

For a full and unmodified map of the Oswego River Basin and related maps as well as additional information on NYS Canal System water management efforts to minimize flood damage, visit the NYS Canal Corp. web site. The site also offers a fine brief history of the canals' origins and importance.

While 19th century canal construction boosted the economies where work took place, winter layoffs of crews often resulted in some idled workers getting into trouble on the local scenes, thereby helping increase Auburn prison's population.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Under the contract system prisoners were leased to outside firms at a daily rate per capita, usually fifty cents for a ten hour day, although it varied depending on the type of work. At times there was a combination of the two systems, the contractor furnishing raw materials, machinery and foremen; the prison supplying the work space, the convicts and their keep ers. The keepers maintained discipline in the shops.

Contract labor proved to be profitable and from 1828-1841 the prison produced enough revenue to support itself and pay for officer's salaries.


Early assessments of the presence of the prison in the community were encouraging. According to an early report, the advantages accruing to the village from the location of the prison of Western New York were very great. The dignity and importance of Auburn among the villages of the state were immeasurably enhanced, the place rose into general notice, and by the development of its quarries, water power and other natural resources, its citizens acquired wealth and prosperity and the population advanced steadily. In 1825 it was reckoned that Auburn contained 2,982 persons.

There was a downside which upset villagers not associated with the prison. There was in the public mind a morbid sensitiveness upon the subject of rigid convict discipline and much controversy over the question.

For some the introduction of convict labor was a great embarrassment. The increased discipline necessary to prevent the convicts from maliciously destroying their work was distasteful to the public. But the competition between convict and free labor was more so. The mechanics of the village dreaded a loss of business. But, the state could not afford to sustain prisoners in idleness and the use of convict labor continued. All who employed it lost popularity in the village.


Hard labor under the contract system became a fetish. Afterall, hard labor was the rule of life outside the prison. If the prison could be made less costly by the labor of prisoners, hard work should be the rule inside the prison walls. And besides, hard labor was considered indispensable in any possible reformation of the prisoners.

Getting the convicts to work wasn't always easy. The system could not be maintained without prompt, severe and effective punishment. Shaved heads was one way to humiliate and subjugate.

Other punishments included the yoke, the dungeon or solitary confinement on shortened rations, the ball and chain, and the lash or whip. Reformation by horror, constant hard labor, and by breaking the spirit was the Auburn method. Every attempt was made to isolate an individual and deprive him from all meaningful contact with his fellows.

The system was satisfactory economically. The most striking feature of the system, however, was its physical cruelty to the convicts, for the lash was used often to enforce discipline.

In addition prison officers wore sidearms and were prepared to use their weapons if deemed necessary. They did not expect much of a rebuttal from the outside community. Keepers were to carry weapons in the workshops until 1929.

Marriage of Waters

Unlike "upstaters," few NYC dwellers today are aware of the Erie Canal's significance for their city and state.

But at the time of its opening and expansion, NYCers well realized how accessing the continent's interior would make New York truly the Empire State and the city America's most important port.

The canal statewide significance is symbolized by the mural (detail above) in NYC's Clinton High School depicting the 1825 celebration of the "marriage of the waters" -- lake, river and ocean waters being poured by Gov. DeWitt Clinton. The full mural can be seen on the NYS Canal Corp. site's brief history of the canal system.

Elsewhere on our NYCHS web site an excerpt from Charles H. Haswell's Reminiscences of NY by an Octogenarian (1816 - 1860) recounts the canal opening rites when Lake Erie waters were ported by barge and boat to be poured solemnly into the Atlantic.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

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.


The financial panic of 1837 which affected the entire country was a period of business reversals and calamities in the village of Auburn. There was widespread suffering among all classes. Real estate values crumbled. To compound business woes, a massive fire on Jan. 21st destroyed fourteen wooden buildings on the south side on Genesee Street. The local economy did not recover for over five years.

Yet the earnings of the prison did not diminish. Under the cruel leadership of Elam Lynds the earnings during 1839 were $60,161 while the expenditures totaled $51,671, a savings of $8,490 or 16.5 percent of expenditures.

Fortunately for Auburn the economy began to recover. The construction of the Erie Canal just ten miles north of the village meant that Cayuga County could establish a trade route for its agricultural products. The coming of the railroad in 1839 provided more access to markets.

Eleven years after the Panic of 1837, Auburn was chartered as a city on the 21st day of March, 1848, having then nearly 8,500 inhabitants. It had gradually assumed its old time appearance and prosperity.

Legislators in Albany continued to be pressured by local contractors who profited handsomely from their contracts with the prison. Legislators in turn pressured prison officials to make the institution pay for itself. The profits of the outside firms, however, exceeded the revenue paid to the prison by as much as two-thirds their costs. Prison officials had no choice except to work the prisoners harder. The mistreatment of convicts was to continue unabated for nearly forty years. For them it was a gloomy and disheartening situation.

Why Auburn? the Relationship between Auburn and the Prison text ©1991 by John N. Miskell
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