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

By Gustave de Beaumont & Alexis de Tocqueville

[The disciplines of labor.]

Page 6 of 7

The interest of the prisoner requires that he should never be idle; that of society demands that he should labor in the most useful way. In the new penitentiaries none of those machines are found, which, in England, the prisoners set in motion without intelligence, and which occupy them merely in a mechanical way.

Labor is not only salutary because it is the opposite of idleness; but it is also contemplated that the convict, while he is at work, shall learn a business which may support him when he leaves the prison.

The prisoners therefore, are taught useful trades only; and among these, care is taken to choose such as are the most profitable, and the product of which finds the easiest sale.

The Philadelphia system has often been reproached with rendering labor by the prisoners impossible. It is certainly more economical and advantageous to make a certain number of workmen labor together in a common workshop, than to give each of them employment in a separate place. It is moreover true, that a great many arts cannot be pursued with advantage by a single workman in a narrow place; yet the penitentiary of Philadelphia shows that the various occupations which can be pursued by isolated men, are sufficiently numerous to occupy them usefully.

The same difficulty is not met with in those prisons in which the convicts work in company. At Auburn and at Baltimore, a very great variety of arts is pursued. These two prisons offer the sight of vast manufactories which combine all useful occupations. At Boston and Sing Sing the occupation of the convicts has, so far, been more uniform. In these two prisons, the greater part of the criminals are employed in cutting stones. Wethersfield offers, on a small scale, the same spectacle as Auburn.

The Baltimore prison mentioned in the Beaumont and Tocqueville report is the oldest continuously operating institution of its kind in the Western World, opening in 1811 as the Maryland State Penitentiary and still providing correctional services as the Metropolitan Transition Center (above).

The penitentiary was initiated as a reform in the treatment of criminals who previously were sentenced to "wheelbarrow gangs," a Baltimore phenomenon somewhat akin to chain gangs.

The Maryland Penitentiary fluctuated between the two competing penal philosophies of the times -- Auburn and Philadelphia -- but was renowned in its own right for nearly always being profitable. Its enabling law mandated that convicts "shall be kept therein at hard labour, or in solitude." It was from inception operating under neither total individual inmate isolation by physical separation nor under the so-called moral isolation of total silence enforced by the whip. Some inmates worked in their own solitary cells, some in silent workshops with others. However, by 1841, the Auburn approach was definitely on the ascendency.

The facility's name was changed in early 1998 to reflect a change in its mission. Whereas the penitentiary formerly housed maximum security inmates, the Metropolitan Transition Center, as it is now known, serves inmates with short sentences or those who are about to be released back into society.

In promoting its book about the penitentiary by Prof. Wallace Schugg, the Maryland Historical Society offers on its web site a virtual tour of the old prison and its history. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the Maryland State Archives also provide web pages detailing the institution's past and present.

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We shall soon see, when we have occasion to treat of the expenses and income, that the labor of the prisoners is in general very productive. Visiting these various establishments, we have been surprised by the order, and sometimes the talent, with which the convicts work, and what makes their zeal quite surprising, is, that they work without any interest in its produce. In our prisons, as well as in those of the greater part of Europe, a part of the produce of their labor belongs to the prisoners. This portion, called the pécule, is more or less in various countries; in the United States it does not exist. There the principle is adopted, that the criminal owes all his labor to society, in order to indemnify it for the expenses of his detention.

Thus, during the whole time of their punishment, the convicts work without receiving the slightest remuneration, and if they leave the prison, no account is given to them of what they have done. They merely receive a certain portion of money, in order to carry them to the place which they propose to make their new residence.

This system appears to us excessively severe. . . .

Let us now examine by what disciplinary means the order of things which we have explained above, is established and maintained.

How is silence so rigorously maintained among a number of assembled criminals? How are they made to work without any interest of their own?

Here also we have to distinguish between the Auburn and Philadelphia systems. In Philadelphia, the discipline is as simple as the system itself. . . . . The only chastisement which the regulations of the prison permits, is imprisonment in a dark cell with reduction of food. It is rare that more than two days of such discipline are required, to curb the most refractory prisoner. When the convict . . . . has fallen into a dejection of mind, and has sought in labor a relief from his griefs; from that moment he is tamed, and forever submissive to the rules of the prison. What breach of order is it possible to commit in solitude? The entire discipline consists in the isolation of the prisoners, and the impossibility of their violating the established rule. . . .

The discipline at Auburn, Sing Sing, Boston, Wethersfield, and Baltimore, could not have the same character of simplicity: these various establishments themselves, follow, in this respect, different courses.

Sing Sing (sketch above) was, like the other prisons mentioned in the Beaumont and Tocqueville report, built on the Auburn principle. In fact, it was built by a hundred inmates from Auburn.

Shackled in irons, they were transported in 1825 by boat via the Erie Canal and the Hudson to the chosen site, an abandoned mine in a village whose name derived from the area's original native tribe, the Sint Sinck. On April 2, 1813, the community of Sing Sing, then a part of Mount Pleasant, had become the first village in Westchester to be incorporated.

Supervising the convicts' transport and their construction work was Elam Lynds. He had begun his correction career as a staff member at Auburn prison it opened in 1817 and rose to become its warden and then Sing Sing's. In effect, he made Sing Sing an "Auburn on the Hudson."

When construction began, the facility was expected to be known, ironically, as Mount Pleasant State Prison. But it soon became better known as simply as Sing Sing, the Big House "up the river" where most felons were sent from from NYC, about 40 miles "down river."

In an attempt to avoid having its own citizenry and its own goods stigmatized through name association with the prison, the village changed its name to Ossining in 1901.

But decades later the state, as if refusing to let the village "escape" being identified with the prison, changed the institution's name to Ossining Correctional Facility. Now, in still another ironic turnabout, some on state and local levels seek to attract tourists by establishing a museum focused on Sing Sing history.

The village already has two locations where exhibits depicting some of that history are displayed: Ossining Urban Cultural Park visitors bureau in the Caputo Community Center at 95 Broadway (reviewed by and the Ossining Historical Society Museum at 196 Croton Ave.

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At Sing Sing, the only punishment for those who infringe the established order, is that of the whip. The application of this disciplinary means is there very frequent; and with the least fault is punished with its application. For various reasons this punishment is preferred to all others. It effects the immediate submission of the delinquent; his labor is not interrupted a single instant; the chastisement is painful, but not injurious to health; finally, it is believed that no other punishment would produce the same effects.

The same principle is admitted at Auburn, but in its application is extremely rare. The penitentiaries of Boston and Baltimore, a little more severe than that at Auburn, are nevertheless much less so than Sing Sing: Wethersfield differs from all others by its extreme mildness.

In this latter prison stripes are not altogether objected to; but their application is as much as possible avoided . . . . The directors of this establishment seem to have a decided aversion to corporal chastisement; yet they would regret it much if they were not invested with the right to inflict it. They reject the application of cruel pain, but they find a powerful means of acting upon the criminals in their authority to order it. . . .

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