Thomas Mott Osborne's Within Prison Walls©

INTRODUCTION by Frederick R-L Osborne

Page 2 of 18

Within Prison Walls is an electrifying account of Thomas Mott Osborne's week-long incarceration in Auburn Prison. This voluntary stay was an experience destined to change Osborne's life and the way this country looked at its prisons.

Before Osborne left prison he threw himself on his knees and prayed for the strength to spend the rest of his life trying to reform the prison system. For the next 13 years, until his death in 1926, he spoke out against the senseless brutality of the prison system, seeking to turn the scrap heap of the prison system into a human repair shop, which would fit men for a return to society.

Osborne came by his reform attitudes naturally.

His grandmother and his great aunt, Lucretia Coffin Mott, were both active in the women's rights movement. Another aunt, his mother's sister, was married to a son of William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the Motts, Garrisons and others were frequent family visitors.

A photoprint of a 1910 black and white black and white photo of Thomas Mott Osborne, full-length, seated, facing left, and his four sons can be obtained from the Library of Congress. More particulars can be found on its American Memory web site.

The Reproduction Number of the b&w film copy negative is LC-USZ62-96161 and the Digital Id is cph 3b42273.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

Osborne was graduated from Harvard in 1884 and married Agnes Devens of Boston in 1886. She died only ten years later, leaving four sons, Charles, David, Lithgow and Robert.

In 1886 Osborne assumed the presidency of the farm machinery manufacturing business which his father had founded. In 1903 the company was acquired by the International Harvester Co., in what was at the time one of the largest mergers in U.S. history.

The merger left Osborne free to pursue his other interests, including politics, where he was an anti-Tammany Democrat. His son Lithgow recalled once that campaigning with his father could be a nerve-racking experience, for he never hesitated to say what he believed and never compromised.

In 1913 Osborne was appointed chairman of a State Commission on Prison Reform. It was in order to get first-hand knowledge of prison conditions that he decided to become a prisoner for a week. [T]his experience . . . turned Osborne from an intellectually committed prison reform activist to the prophet of prison reform which he became. On Monday September 29, 1913, using the name Tom Brown, Osborne went "underground" in Auburn Prison as Prisoner No. 33,333x.

Within Prison Walls is his prison diary. In the simpler times earlier in the century, Osborne's adventure was electrifying. Osborne illuminated the "grey" darkness of early twentieth century prison life in ways which at the close of the century seem naive or, perhaps, quaint. . . .

With the publication of Within Prison Walls, Thomas Mott Osborne became a force to be reckoned with on all prison issues. Together with a former fellow prisoner, Jack Murphy, he formed the Mutual Welfare League as an attempt to train prisoners in self-government and to prepare them to return to society. The Motto of the League was simple enough: Do Good. Make Good.

Furthering the goals of Thomas Mott Osborne (above) is the mission of the Osborne Association founded in 1931. Experiencing Auburn prison for a week as inmate "Tom Brown #33,333x" left him determined to see prisons transformed from "human scrap heaps into human repair shops."

After his progressive stewardship at Sing Sing, he founded the Mutual Welfare League, that helped discharged inmates obtain jobs, and the National Society of Penal Information that studied prisons to obtain information on housing, discipline, administration, and other matters.

Through this work, Thomas Mott Osborne became known as "the pioneer and prophet of prison reform."

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

The League sought and received an end to the rule of silence, then in force in most American prisons. [T]hey were able to end the Blue Sunday rule in which inmates were locked in their cells, except for church services, in observation of the Sabbath. And for the first time, prisoners were permitted to exercise in the great prison yard at Auburn.

In December 1914 Osborne assumed the leadership of a large and volatile situation at Sing Sing. Of course as an upstater who had not come up through the Westchester political machine, the problems were mainly from outside the prison. Yet, Osborne was able during a stormy two-year administration to establish the role model for correctional professionals who, like Osborne, asked his question: Shall our prisons be scrap heaps or human repair shops?

After his resignation as warden of Sing Sing in 1917, having successfully tackled a long series of challenges to his leadership, Osborne went underground once again. This time at the request of the Secretary of the Navy who had asked Osborne to make a study of Naval Prisons. Osborne was joined by another imposter/investigator, Austin H. MacCormick.

Austin MacCormick, who would lead the Osborne Association for 40 years, left his teaching position at Bowdin College to serve under the newly appointed warden of the Portsmouth Naval Prison Lieutenant Commander Thomas Mott Osborne. The Osborne-MacCormick team was an imaginative, if controversial, force against the naturally conservative tendencies of naval tradition. Backed, however, by a new assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, an old friend from New York, Osborne had a strong supporter in Washington.

Osborne retired from the Navy in 1920 and devoted himself to the organization which today bears his name. Among his activities in the last year of his life were inspections of several state prison systems. He died, at the age of 67, on October 20, 1926. After final services in the prison chapel at Auburn Prison, he was buried in a Portsmouth prison uniform.

In 1915, Osborne had founded the Welfare League Association, an outgrowth of the Mutual Welfare League, to assist discharged prisoners. In addition to providing basic services like food, money and clothing, the League was also a support association to help "bridge the gap," with vocational placement and counseling.

The Osborne Association provides treatment, educational, and vocational services for people in the adult and juvenile justice systems, including inmates, ex-inmates and their families. It serves some 5,000 annually in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, as well as in city jails and state prisons.

The association has 175 staffers and some 40 volunteers, including many ex-inmates. In January 2001, it merged with the South Forty Corporation, the oldest employment organization of its kind in NYS.

Administrative Office
36-31 38th St.
Long Island City, NY 11101
(718) 707-2600
Fax: (718) 707-3103
South 40 Employment & Training Services
36-31 38th St.
Long Island City, NY 11101
(718) 707-2600
Fax: (718) 707-3105
Brooklyn Site
175 Remsen St.,
8th Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 637-6560
Fax: (718) 237-0686
Bronx Site
809 Westchester Ave.
Bronx, NY
(718) 842-0500
Fax: (718) 842-0971
Aids In Prison Project
A collect hotline
NYS inmates.
(718) 378-7022
Family Resource Center
A toll-free
information hotline
NYS inmates' families
(800) 344-3314
web site URL:
e-mail address for information:
Elizabeth Gaynes
Executive Director
Patricia Ritchings
Associate Executive Director
John Rakis
Associate Executive Director
Carolina Cordero Dyer
Director of Development
George Drakopoulos
Chief Financial Officer
Chair: Barbara H. Stanton
President: Frederik R.-L. Osborne
Secretary: Leroy Frazer, Jr.
Elizabeth B. Hubbard, pro tempore
Treasurer: Charles Toder
Ralph S. Brown, Jr.
Amanda M. Burden
Constance P. Carden
Gregory L. Curtner
Victor F. Germack
Richard H. Girgenti
Zelma Weston Henriques
Clay Hiles
Seymour W. James, Jr.
Ricky Jones
Delores D. Jones-Brown
Barbara A. Margolis
J. Edward Meyer, III
Herbert L. Miller, Jr.
Leigh M. Miller
Elizabeth E. Osborne
Lithgow Osborne
Anthony M. Schulte
Anthony R. Smith
Jeffrey G. Smith
Pearl F. Staller
Katrina vanden Heuvel
William J. vanden Heuvel
Alfonso Wyatt
Antonio M. Young

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In 1921, after leaving Portsmouth, Osborne decided that the country needed more research and a central agency to help the states and the Federal system reform their prison systems. The organization was called the National Society of Penal Information. In November 1932, the organizations were merged and renamed the Osborne Association as a memorial to its founder.

Since its founding, the Osborne Association has carried out the work of Tom Brown in proving that no matter the difficulties, and there are many, society is best served by a prison system which prepares men and women to return to the community. . . .

The Osborne Association operates a wide range of direct service programs including the nationally recognized Family works parenting program at Sing Sing: El Rio, an experimental crack-treatment program in the south Bronx, and LIVING-Well an HIV/AIDS service program for parolees and their families.

What to do about our prisons remains a difficult problem. Today, there are over one million persons incarcerated in America. That's more than the 772,000 young men and women in the U.S. Army, and a larger proportion of incarcerated individuals than any other industrialized nation, including the Soviet Union or South Africa. On any given day, one out of every four young African-American males is under some form of correctional supervision - a far larger number than are in college.

In a review of a biography of Osborne the New York Times had this to say:

Thomas Mott Osborne presents the phenomenon, not rare among men of genius and high talent, where the work of the man surpasses the individual. To no one person is the modem world of prison reform and the whole broad subject of penology so much in debt as to him.

Yet in his own eyes he felt, near the end of his days, that he had lived an ineffectual life. With the shortsightedness of disappointment and despair he could not realize that within ten years of his death biographers would be preoccupied with the ideal of evaluating him as one of the major figures in American reform . . . . . .

1991 Republication of Within Prison Walls © by Spruce Gulch Press, NY [see title page notes]
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