The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation of the Correctional Association of NY's 150th anniversary history authored by Ilan K. Reich.
NYCHS logo

A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.

Eastern State Penitentiary.
For more on ESP history and its educational programs, visit its excellent web site at or call (215) 236-3300 or write: Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, 2124 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19130.

Development of the
"Modern" Prison

Until the sixteenth century, prisons were often places to hold people suspected of criminal acts until they were judged by trial or a form of tribunal. The punishments meted out to the guilty were invariably corporal: whipping, the stocks, enslavement, or execution. Persons of high social rank who were found guilty of crimes against the sovereign might be fortunate enough to have their death penalty reduced to life imprisonment in the Tower of London or the Bastille.

The concept of confining persons after trial as a punishment for their crimes did not generally exist, except perhaps in the case of convicted felons awaiting transport to faraway colonies.

By the seventeenth century, many European countries began to imprison debtors, juvenile criminals, and felons. They were herded together indiscriminately, male and female, those awaiting trial and those already convicted, the sane and the insane. . . .

Sweat box, a cruel form of punishment in the nineteenth century.

Prison reform did not surface until the eighteenth century, when the British social reformer John Howard led the movement that fostered legislation improving sanitation in prisons and separating the sexes.

In the United States, two prison systems emerged in the early nineteenth century. The first began in New York's Auburn Prison in 1817 and was known as the Silent System. Inmates worked in total silence during the day and were housed in separate cells at night. The rule of silence was strictly enforced through punishments such as lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails or immersion in a cold-water shower bath. . . .

After [the cat's] abolition by [1847] statute (except "in self-defense, or to suppress a revolt or insurrection"), misbehaving prisoners were to be punished only by solitary confinement. Through its visits to state prisons, however, the Association discovered that alternative forms of punishment had emerged: the cold-water bath or an iron yoke on the neck.

Statistics provided by the warden of Auburn Prison reveal that in 1852 there were 223 instances of shower bath punishment, 88 instances of punishment by the yoke, and 55 instances of punishment by solitary confinement. . . .

The second prison model was the Pennsylvania or Separate System, begun in 1829 in the Eastern State Penitentiary at Cherry Hill. Its premise was solitary confinement for convicts, both day and night, for the duration of their sentence. Prisoners received their meals, alone, in cold, dark cells. . . .

The goal of total silence was often defeated by the architectural and engineering constraints . . . In many prisons "the arrangement of the large water-pipes permits conversation between prisoners in any part of the same tier ... the voice is easily transmitted, and through these the most revolting details of crime are communicated." . . .

Second Annual Report-1845. Report of the Committee on Detentions, p. 67.

Although by contemporary standards both of these systems are unthinkably grotesque and inhuman, they were at first considered reformist and modern. In fact, vigorous debates were held about their relative strengths and disadvantages. The Separate System was praised for its emphasis on introspection. With only a Bible to read, prisoners were expected to rehabilitate themselves through penitence. Many could not read, however, and insanity was a common result even among the literate.

The Silent System was viewed as being more productive because it made use of inmates' labor. Through their work as contract laborers (for which they were either unpaid or grossly underpaid), the prison was largely self-sufficient and hence not a drain on the state's resources. The abuses of the Silent System included harsh physical punishments meted out to talkative prisoners and the virtual slavery of inmates to private businesses and the prison keepers.

The Association was officially neutral in this debate, in part to preserve its status as an impartial advocate for prison reform and in part because its key members detested the cruelties of both systems.

The Association's early annual reports provided a forum for debate by reporting the facts. For example, in 1845 the Association laboriously sought to compare the death rates among prisoners in each of the two systems during the preceding two decades throughout the United States.

Cat-o'-nine-tails - 1200 lashes on inmates a month were reportedly not uncommon.

The Silent System had an average mortality rate of 56 percent, while the Separate System had an average mortality rate of 71 percent. The largest single cause of death was "diseased lungs."

In order to ascertain whether this resulted from prison life or from "previous habits of exposure, dissipation and crime," the Association sought to obtain more detailed statistics on prison and health conditions from every state prison. It noted that from 1821 to 1842 the death rate in Philadelphia among black prisoners was two to three times higher than the rate for white prisoners. Many apparently suffered from consumption at the time they entered prison.

In both the Silent and Separate systems, each prison facility operated independently, without any effective oversight or administration by governmental agencies. The warden was akin to the lord of a fiefdom: his authority over discipline, financial management, and everyday affairs was absolute.

The Prison Association of New York officially changed its name to the Correctional Association of New York on March 1, 1961.

To compound matters, appointment to the position was invariably a political decision in which the candidate's competence played virtually no role. Some states, including New York, appointed boards of independent inspectors whose mission was to visit prisons and report on conditions.

All too often these inspectors were simply political hacks. One notable exception was Judge John Edmonds, whose career as a prison reformer began through his sideline work as an inspector. His virtue lies in the fact that he saw the penal system's many abuses and sought to remedy them by enlisting public support for the formation of the Prison Association of New York -- our present Correctional Association.

The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation. For more on CANY, visit its web site; write it at 135 E.15th St., NY NY 10003 or call (212) 254-5700.
NYCHS logo

A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.

<== Previous - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Next ==>
Chapters: Intro -- I -- II -- III -- IV -- V -- VI -- VII -- VIII -- IX -- X

[NYCHS Home Page] [Chronicles Starter Page]