Transporting inmates to road camp, c. 1917.

The main goal of the Auburn System was to have the prisoners defray the costs of their incarceration through their own labor. One of the key factors in locating the prison in Auburn was the availability of water power.

Pages 5, 6 & 7 of exhibit brochure. All rights reserved to Cayuga Museum.

A dam and power house on the Owasco Outlet was one of the prison's first construction projects. Wooden workshops that used the water power were built during 1819-1820. Manufacturing -- spinning, weaving, tailoring and shoemaking -- began in 1819, completely directed by the State. The goods produced were considerably cheaper than those made in private shops because of the cheap labor. Private tradesmen in the village objected frequently to what they saw as unfair competition. In 1821, the State authorized contract labor, permitting the labor of convicts to be leased to outside contractors.

The contractor provided all materials and equipment, paid a fixed amount per piece for the convict labor, and sold the articles produced. This was called the "piece system." By 1828, the "contract system," which leased the convict labor at a specified rate for a specified length of time, completely replaced the earlier piece-price system. The statutes of that year specified "it shall be the duty of the agents to use their best efforts to defray all the expenses of the said prisons by the labor of their prisoners."

The contract system benefited the State with revenue from manpower and benefited the area with the availability of cheap labor to manufacture products.

By 1828, seven shops were in operation in Auburn Prison -- copper, tool, shoe, tailor, weaver, blacksmith and turner. These shops employed just over 400 convicts. The system was criticized frequently by private tradesmen. In 1835, under pressure, the State passed legislation to restrict prison labor. It forbade teaching convicts any trade except the making of articles "of which the chief supply . . . is imported from foreign countries," and limited the convicts to trades they had learned before going to prison. The cultivation of silk worms and the weaving of silk cloth was an outgrowth of this law limiting prison production to competition with imported goods. The silk business at Auburn Prison flourished for a few years, but ultimately failed due to poor workmanship in the weaving shop and objections of importers.

Auburn Prison basket shop, c. 1905.

Several important Auburn industries got their starts with prison contracts. What became the Auburn Tool Co. first took out a contract in 1823, when Nathaniel Garrow contracted for convicts to make carpenters' planes. John Seymour, of what later became McIntosh & Seymour, had a contract for producing locomotive parts. Dunn & McCarthy, one of Auburn's largest shoe manufacturing concerns, started with a prison contract in 1865.

The cheap prison labor had enabled many Auburn businesses to gain capital. As they became financially comfortable, most of these businesses moved their manufacturing back to private shops around town. By the 1880s, there was a marked decline in new prison contracts.

The contract labor system was discontinued in Auburn Prison in 1890. It was replaced by the "state use system" in which inmates were "to manufacture articles solely for the use of all State departments, institutions, and political subdivisions."

Auburn prison shops are still on the state use system. The goals of the state use system are to reduce idleness among the incarcerated, and to reduce state expenses.

Under the state use system, the shops at Auburn Prison have made brooms and furniture, metal bed frames, baskets, clothing for inmates, and blankets. In 1920, the license plate shop opened. Today, every license plate in the State of New York is still made behind the walls of Auburn Prison.

During WWII, rifle stocks, ammunition boxes and carpenter's chests were made in the prison wood shop. In the 1950s, a tobacco curing industry was transferred into Auburn Prison from Comstock Prison. Six different types of cigarettes and tobacco products were made, each named after one of the Iroquois Six Nations. The tobacco shop closed in the 1970s; there is now no smoking allowed inside Auburn Prison.

Today, a significant furniture-making business -- Corcraft -- is in operation at the prison. The industry shops at Auburn Prison have an operating budget of $9.7 million, including an annual payroll of $2.4 million for civilian and Division of Prison Industries staff, and $6.5 million in raw materials.

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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.