Its location along the Owasco River let Auburn Prison offer contractors both cheap labor and water power.

Every society needs a plan for dealing with those individuals who break the rules. In the 1700s, rather than confinement, various forms of corporal punishment -- the lash, branding, the stocks -- were used to punish offenders.

Pages 1 & 2 of exhibit brochure. All rights reserved to Cayuga Museum.
The first prison in New York State was opened in New York City in November 1797. Newgate Prison was based on the principles of confinement and labor as means of reforming the criminal.

Inmates were housed together in "apartments" holding ten to twenty men. The system did not appear to deter crime, and convicts seemed to become even more hardened through association with other criminals. Newgate became overcrowded in just a few years. The public began to call for a new prison in the interior of the state.

The act authorizing the erection of a new state prison was passed in April 1816, just a year after Auburn had been incorporated as a village. At the time, with 200 buildings and about 1,000 residents, Auburn was the largest village in central or western NY. Auburn "boosters" lobbied heavily for the placement of the proposed prison in Auburn. Four men -- Samuel Dill, David Hyde, Ebenezer Beach and John Beach -- donated land to the state as a site for the new prison.

The land along the Owasco River had been the site of a Cayuga Iroquois village, then a British prisoner of war camp during the war of 1812. Work started on the main building and the prison wall in 1816; the first 53 convicts arrived in 1817. The State granted the authority to use convict labor in building the prison in April 1817, both to relieve the crowded jails and to save the wages of free workmen.

Auburn Prison cell block,
c. 1910
The work of building the prison went on for several years, under the direction of William Brittin, a master carpenter. The State Inspectors appointed Brittin as the first "agent and warden" of Auburn Prison in 1818, while he continued building the expanding prison -- perhaps to avoid paying a second salary to a warden. It was Brittin who designed the north wing at Auburn Prison, completed in 1821, which was made up entirely of solitary cells.

The north wing cells were 7' long, 7' high, and 3 1/2' wide. Cells were lined up, back to back, stacked five tiers high inside a huge containing building. Auburn Prison became the first in the world to house prisoners in individual cells. This design, which became known as the Auburn plan or inside cell design, became the model for all American prisons.

After a serious riot at Newgate Prison, the State legalized the flogging (whipping) of prisoners and a mandatory grading of prisoners by offense. The worst offenders were to be kept continually in solitary confinement. The first group was separated out of the general population on Christmas Day 1821.

83 men were consigned to solitary confinement in absolute silence. In less than a year, 5 of the 83 men had died. Many more became insane, one of whom jumped to his death as soon as his door was opened. The results of this experiment so horrified the State that the system was abandoned and most of the survivors pardoned.

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Cayuga Museum of History and Art 4/12-8/31 2003 exhibit brochure:
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Both Sides of
the Wall

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this presentation of the "Both Sides of the Wall" exhibit brochure authored by Eileen McHugh, Cayuga Museum of History and Art director.
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All Cayuga Museum of History and Art rights to its Both Sides of the Wall exhibit brochure material presented above are reserved to and retained by it.