Auburn excerpts from
On the Penitentiary System in the United States and
Its Application in France

By Gustave de Beaumont & Alexis de Tocqueville

[Religious inspiration, isolation's failure, silence's success]

Page 2 of 7
. . . The first idea of a reform in the American prisons belongs to a religious sect in Pennsylvania. The Quakers . . . had always protested against the barbarous laws which the colonies inherited from their mother country. In 1786, their voice succeeded in finding due attention, and from this period, punishment of death, mutilation and the whip were successively abolished in almost all cases by the Legislature of Pennsylvania. . . . the law authorized the courts to inflict solitary confinement in a cell during day and night, upon those guilty of capital crimes.

Above is a sketch of an all-in-one device: a combination pillory, whipping post, and stocks, reflecting the kinds of corporal punishment that the penitentiaries were designed to replace.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

It was then that the Walnut Street prison was established in Philadelphia. Here the convicts were classed according to the nature of their crimes, and separate cells were constructed for those whom the courts of justice had sentenced to absolute isolation. These cells also served to curb the resistance of individuals, unwilling to submit to the discipline of the prison. The solitary prisoners did not work.

This innovation was good but incomplete. . . .

The true merit of its founders was the abolition of the sanguinary laws of Pennsylvania, and by introducing a new system of imprisonment, the direction of public attention to this important point. Unfortunately that which in this innovation deserved praise, was not immediately distinguished from that which was untenable. . . .

Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. . . however instead of accusing the theory itself, its execution was attacked. It was believed that the whole evil resulted from the paucity of cells, and the crowding of the prisoners; and that the system . . . would be fertile in happy results, if some new buildings were added to the prisons already existing. . . .

Such was the origin of the Auburn prison [1816].

Sketches above and below depict the Walnut Street Jail. A quote from from the 1949 Handbook of Correctional Institution Design and Construction, United States Bureau of Prisons describes it:

"What has been called 'the first American penitentiary, if not the first one in the world,' was established in Philadelphia, in 1790, in the Walnut Street Jail, a building formerly operated as a city jail.

"The cell blocks constructed in the Walnut Street Jail, pursuant to the law of 1790, introduced in permanent fashion the structural pattern of outside cells, with a central corridor, the chief architectural feature of the Pennsylvania system of prison construction.

"Here, for the first time in penological history, the use of imprisonment through solitary confinement as the usual method of combating crime, was permanently established.

"The basic principles of the new system, so it appears from contemporary accounts, were the effort to reform those in the prison, and to segregate them according to age, sex, and the type of the offenses charged against them."

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

This prison, which has become so celebrated since, was at first founded upon a plan essentially erroneous. It limited itself to some classifications, and each of these cells was destined to receive two convicts: it was of all combinations the most unfortunate; it would have been better to throw together fifty criminals in the same room, than to separate them two by two.

This inconvenience was soon felt, and in 1819 the Legislature of the State of New York, ordered the erection of a new building at Auburn (the northern wing) in order to increase the number of solitary cells. . . .

The northern wing having been nearly finished in 1821, eighty prisoners were placed there, and a separate cell was given to each. This trial, from which so happy a result had been anticipated, was fatal to the greater part of the convicts. In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

The unfortunates, on whom this experiment was made, fell into a state of depression, so manifest, that their keepers were struck with it; their lives seemed in danger, if they remained longer in this situation; five of them, had already succumbed during a single year; their moral state was not less alarming; one of them had become insane; another, in a fit of despair, had embraced the opportunity when the keeper brought him something, to precipitate himself from his cell, running the almost certain chance of a mortal fall.

Upon similar effects the system was finally judged. The Governor of the State of New York pardoned twenty-six of those in solitary confinement; the others to whom this favor was not extended, were allowed to leave the cells during day, and to work in the common workshops of the prison.

From this period, (1823) the system of unmodified isolation ceased entirely to be practiced at Auburn. Proofs were soon afforded that this system, fatal to the health of the criminals, was likewise inefficient in producing their reform. Of twenty-six convicts, pardoned by the governor, fourteen returned a short time after into the prison, in consequence of new offenses.

"Messrs. Allen, Hopkins, and Tibbits" mentioned in the Beaumont and Tocqueville passage below were a legislative team that inspected and reported on state prison conditions:
  • Stephen Allen was a merchant and Tammany Haller who eventually became New York City mayor. It was during his administration that the treadmill was introduced at the city prison. As head of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, he helped run the New York House of Refuge.
  • Samuel M. Hopkins was a former Congressman and leading state legislator who took special interest in formulating penal law and prison policy.
  • George Tibbits was a merchant and politician who helped plan Erie Canal construction funding.
[Note by NYCHS webmaster]

This experiment, so fatal to those who were selected to undergo it, was of a nature to endanger the success of the penitentiary system altogether. After the melancholy effects of isolation, it was to be feared that the whole principle would be rejected: it would have been a natural reaction.

The Americans were wiser: the idea was not given up, that the solitude, which causes the criminal to reflect, exercises a beneficial influence; and the problem was, to find the means by which the evil effect of total solitude could be avoided without giving up its advantages. It was believed that this end could be attained, by leaving the convicts in their cells during night, and by making them work during the day, in the common workshops, obliging them at the same time to observe absolute silence.

Messrs. Allen, Hopkins, and Tibbits, who, in 1824, were directed by the Legislature of New York to inspect the Auburn prison, found this new discipline established in that prison. They praised it much in their report, and the Legislature sanctioned this new system by its formal approbation.

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