The Auburn & Pennsylvania System of Corrections: A Controversy

2bpositive By 2bpositive, 13th Sep 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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This is a short paper I presented as part of my research project many years ago. It provides an in-depth look at the historical, ethical, social, and economic issues surrounding the establishment and maintenance of nineteenth century American correctional institutions.

Systems of Prison Discipline Evolve

As far back as the memory can go, crime has been an inseparable part of our society. Unfortunately, with crime comes the problem of enforcing penalties against those convicted. The need for an efficient prison system arose. This need was satisfied primarily in the nineteenth century. While there have been various types of correctional institutions, most have been based on the Auburn system of discipline. My objective is to inform the reader about the developments in the area of prison reform. In so far as taking a position, I do so foe the explicit purpose of assisting the reader with comparing the strengths and weaknesses between the two most predominant systems of prison discipline. However, before analyzing Auburn and the controversy surrounding its existence, we must first look back to the birth of the prison establishment.

Some historians have noted that, in 1776 the year of our independence, "an early act of the newly-formed State of Pennsylvania provided, in its constitution, that the Legislature:

'proceed, as soon as might be, to the reform of the penal laws,
and invent punishments less sanguinary, and better proportioned
to the various degrees of criminality.'

The State of Pennsylvania took the first steps and initiated a new system of penalties and prison maintenance whose goals were toward the development of more humane procedures and practices dealing with criminals. Crimes once bringing death and torture as penalty, now brought prison sentences. It is, thus, within these surroundings that the Pennsylvania system arose.

In 1790, the Walnut Street Jail, located in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, the first correctional institution in America, was built. Not long after, the Quakers in an attempt to, and in concern for, changing the bad treatment of convicted criminals, succeeded in "convincing the Pennsylvania legislature to declare a wing of the Walnut Street Jail as a be used exclusively for the correction of convicted felons."2 (emphasis added.) The system of prison discipline which ultimately developed at the Walnut Street Jail became known as he "Pennsylvania system." The Pennsylvania system embodied the idea that solitary confinement without labor would best meet the needs of prison reform. With these purposes in mind, prison administrators sought to devise a system by which all this could be achieved. However, as it would turn out, this system was not successful.

In 1826, another prison was completed. It became known as the Western Penitentiary. Its primary function and design was for cell treatment and no labor whatsoever. This penitentiary consisted of 190 cells measuring seven by nine feet and arranged in a semicircular one-story block. Although the prison intended to isolate the inmates it failed in serving that purpose because the "prisoners found ways of communicating with one another through the walls and pipes."3

In 1829, still another prison was built, named the Eastern Penitentiary. The development of the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia became known as the "separate system." Unquestionably, the term adequately described the Eastern Penitentiary system of "solitary confinement, silence, and labor in 'outside' cells."4 Inmates at this penitentiary were housed in these cells which measured seven by eleven by sixteen feet. Although they spent most of their time in their cells, they were allowed out one hour a day for the sole purpose of exercise. For the most part, they read the bible and received moral training. Contact between prisoners at all times was strictly prevented. Shortly after this penitentiary was opened changes in the law occurred. Specifically, the legislature "provided for solitary labor in the cells in the two prisons. Inmates were required to work at such activities as carpentry, weaving, tailoring, and shoemaking."6 This, subsequently, became a major pitfall of the Pennsylvania system. The complete separation of prisoners at all times did not coincide, nor was it conducive to, maximizing efficiency of labor.

Individual labor is reminiscent of the Luddites. They were a group of workers in England, during 1811-1816, who smashed labor saving textile machinery in protest to industrialization. Although the circumstances under which the Luddites reacted were somewhat different, their plight is significant enough for a correlation to be drawn here. Their economic way of life was destroyed. There, as in the Pennsylvania system here, individual home labor could not stand up to the economic benefits of mass factory production. Just as it was inevitable for their way of life to come to an end, so to was it inevitable that the Pennsylvania system under these same conditions fall.

Birth of the Auburn System of Corrections

The New York State prison at Auburn opened in 1819. This system was quite different from the one used at the Eastern Penitentiary. This prison was designed with small cells specifically for sleeping and not work. As for its governance, the Auburn prison was controlled by a board of five inspectors. They worked for no pay. This board was responsible for appointing the warden. The first warden of Auburn was William Brittin, appointed in 1818. His principal keeper was Elam Lynds. Upon the death of Brittin, Elam Lynds filled his position becoming the second warden of Auburn.

In order to understand the management of a prison one must first be familiar with the philosophy of the warden who is charged with its maintenance. History depicts "Elam Lynds... one of the most influential persons in the development of early American prison Discipline. He is described as a strict disciplinarian who believed that all convicts were cowards who could not be reformed until their spirit was broken. To this end he devised a system of brutal punishments and degrading procedures, many of which remained as accepted practice until very recent times."6 One illustration of just what type of character Lynds had can be seen in this story:
"A prisoner had sworn to murder Lynds at the first opportunity that offered itself. When Lynds heard about this he summoned the culprit to his bedroom. Disregarding the man's agitation, Lynds ordered him to help him get dressed and even shave him. The prisoner dared not carry out his threat. Lynds then dismissed him with the contemptuous words: 'I knew you wanted to kill me. But you are too much of a coward ever to dare to do such a thing. Alone and unarmed, I am stronger than all of you together.'"7

In 1821, the Legislature of New York ordered the erection at the prison of an additional wing. This wing was to be made up only of solitary cells. These solitary cells provided the foundation for the present American system. Furthermore, in that same year, the Legislature of New York enacted an obligatory grading system of the prisoners at Auburn. This was done in an attempt to amend prison abuses. Three different classifications of prisoners were developed.

The first of these classes included eighty of the most hardened and severe criminals. These criminals were to be subjected to solitary confinement without any labor. This new Auburn system of discipline was not foolproof and "n unfortunate by-product of the badly planned Auburn experiment was the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment within the prison."8 This experiment ended after two years, on a sad note. After numerous attempts of suicide and self defamation, mass pardoning of inmates was granted:
'a number of the convicts became insane while in solitude; one was so desperate that he sprang from his cell, when the door was opened, and threw himself from the gallery upon the pavement, which nearly killed him, and he would have undoubtedly destroyed his life instantly, had not an intervening stovepipe broken the force of his fall. Another beat and mangled his head against the walls of his cells until he destroyed one of his eyes.'9
This experiment was self-defeating. Why? Because of those prisoners released, twelve of them were again convicted and sent back to Auburn. The horrible effects of continual solitary confinement had not rehabilitated these men, but only served to make them insane.

The second and more corrigible group of inmates were to be rotated between solitary confinement and labor. The labor that was afforded these prisoners was to be deemed as their form of recreation. The rules at Auburn were expected to be strictly adhered to. Silence at all times was by far the most strictly enforced method of discipline with deviation inviting the whip. They felt that if silence was constantly maintained you would eliminate the possibility for prisoners to corrupt one another. Silence had been the governing rule then, and is still followed in many prisons today. However, the irony of this much made "silent" system is that the "requirement of silence has had a less continuous history. It was never fully observed except perhaps in the very first few years at Auburn...."10 Additionally, other forms of discipline were, a group mess hall in which the prisoners ate back to back, and interlocked marching procedures when going from place to place. At Auburn, hard labor had replaced idleness. It was believed that such labor was productive, healthy, and would prepare the inmates for a more successful transition from a prison setting back into society.

The third and last group of inmates, the most promising, were to work in association with each other during the day and be in seclusion in their cells at night. This group was significantly different than the other two. At night, they were separated as to prevent them from plotting uprisings, riots, escapes, and the like. This class of inmates became the cornerstone of the Auburn system, known as the "congregate system." The Auburn system was the first prison that had its inmates work in association during the day for maximum production. Also, this type of system became the model for prisons in the entire country, with the exception of the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania. That system maintained its practice of complete separation of inmates at all times.

Another way that we may better understand the controversy between advocates of the Pennsylvania separate system and the Auburn congregate system is by evaluating how environmental factors may shape the formation of character. Namely, the details of penal institutions are extremely important because criminals are the product of disorderly homes, schools, and communities--ergo products of their environment. The creators of these institutions believed that the strong discipline acquired in well ordered prisons would restore inmates to society's norms. Perhaps they were the early founders of using rehabilitation as a means of institution reform, believing it to be a necessary means to achieve those ends.

The systems at Auburn and Pennsylvania were quite similar. However, during the period 1825 to 1860, a controversy erupted. Increasing public interest and the need for additional institutions beckoned the need for a model system to follow. Let us now examine what the supporters of both these systems maintained as their chief arguments for the superiority of their system and why it should serve as the example for others to follow.

Arguing for the Pennsylvania system was the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. They maintained: '(1) that it facilitated the control of prisoners, (2) that it permitted greater consideration of their individual needs, (3) that it prevented contamination through the contact with other convicts, (4) that it provided opportunity for meditation and repentance, and (5) that it secured relative anonymity upon discharge.'11

At the other end of the spectrum was the Prison Discipline Society of Boston supporting the Auburn system, which maintained: '(1) that it was cheaper to introduce, (2) that it provided greater opportunity for vocational training, and (3) that it produced more revenue for the state.'12

While the arguments the supporters of the Pennsylvania system make are quite accurate, the same can be found in the Auburn system. In addressing the arguments made by the Pennsylvania establishment, I shall reply in a similar sequence. (1) Auburn's congregate system can be said to be conducive toward controlling prisoners. Many precautions were taken so that the least bit of communication at any time scarcely occurred. Although they worked together, they worked in silence. They ate back to back. Also, they were kept in separate confinements. All facets of their daily lives were under the constant supervision of prison officials. (2) The issue of considering individual needs must be looked at within the context of the ideological and social theories of those charged with housing and rehabilitating criminals. Auburn viewed the central need of its prisoners as being functioning members of society upon release. And upon these beliefs, it can be said, they prepared their inmates via vocational training. (3) Very little contact, likewise, took place between prisoners at Auburn. The fact that they were contained in separate cells and any contact made during the day was superficial, shows that the same holds true here. Since silence was so strictly enforced, how could contamination have taken place. (4) One notable criminologist, Harry Elmer Barnes, in a letter describing life at Auburn said that "n their solitary cells they spend the night, with no other book but the Bible.... after supper, they can, if they choose, read Scripture undisturbed and then reflect in silence on the errors of their lives."13 (5) As for relative anonymity, it does not really matter what got them to the "Penn" in the first place. On the way there, their names were, no doubt, plastered on the front page of the most widely local circulated newspaper. Were they given new names and identities upon discharge? Hence, "relative anonymity" is a subjective statement. In reply, I would ask how "relative?"

At the Pennsylvania system, tools and instruments were given to the inmates to work in their cells. However, since Auburn provided a more factory oriented setting allowing for mass production through economies of scale, it was more cost effective than Pennsylvania, producing revenue for the state. In fact, "in the 1830's, the Auburn Penitentiary was attracting more than six thousand paying tourists a year."14

Most of the people who systemized and ran nineteenth century American prisons were more concerned with economic success and job security. There has been little disagreement that the "development of prosperous prison industries was the most earnest concern of the wardens, and indeed the rivalry between the officers of different prisons over their financial records gradually pushed aside the argument between the two systems, leaving it to the cranks and the historians to settle if they could."15

The primary reason why Auburn survived longer than the Pennsylvania system was because "it paid better returns on the taxpayer's investment."16 With production becoming a chief goal of prisons, many prisons sought to become self sustaining by creating workshops which were to generate revenue. Moreover, these early prison industries "exploited the available free labor for the sole purpose of perpetuating the institution itself."17

It cannot go unmentioned that sources do shed light on the fact that the Auburn system was not flawless, and the only reason why it continued in its existence is that no new penal system evolved. However, it is not difficult to understand why new prison systems failed to spring up at that time. When weighing the social and economic needs of the institution, the economic needs won out. In order to establish a workable penal system the construction of the institution must come after the development of the system. Since many United States penal institutions had been long ago established based on Auburn, any new system would not have been cost effective, because as a practical matter you would have to redevelop a whole new institution.

The arguments made by the proponents of the Auburn system of corrections can neither be refuted nor claimed by the supporters of the Pennsylvania system. The origin of many prisons today and many of their practices governing the control of inmates can be traced back to the Auburn system. It is important to note, despite the ongoing controversy, both systems were far better than earlier versions. Perfection will never be achieved in this area of the criminal justice system. In my opinion, it is just not possible. However, the preponderance of the evidence leads me to believe that, although Auburn never reached the utopian status many dreamt it would, its system of reform more easily fits into the social and economic needs of today's society.

Prison History


1. The Development of American and prison Customs. p. 8.
2. Corrections In America: An Introduction. p. 29.
3. The Reformers. p. 48.
4. Corrections In America: An Introduction. p. 40.
5. The American Jail. p. 37.
6. Corrections In America: An Introduction. p. 46.
7. The Reformers. p. 50, 51.
8. Corrections In America: An Introduction. p. 43.
9. The Development of American Prisons and prison Customs. p. 82.
10. Prison Methods In New York State. p. 392.
11. The American Jail. p. 38.
12. Ibid. p. 38.
13. Corrections In America: An Introduction. p. 43, 44.
14. Encyclopedia of Crime & Justice. p. 1200.
15. American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions. p. 30.
16. Corrections in America: An Introduction. p. 50.
17. Ibid. p. 50.

Leon Czolgosz Executed in 1901 at Auburn Prison


Allen, Harry E., and Simonsen, Clifford E. Corrections In America: An Introdiction.
Beverly Hills: Glencoe Press, Inc., 1975.

Erikson, Torsten. The Reformers.
New York: Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., 1976.

Klein, Philip. Prison Methods In New York State.
New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1969.

Lewis, Orlando F., Ph.D. The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845.
Montclair: The Correctional Association of New York, 1967.

McKelvey, Blake. American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions.
Montclair: Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation, 1977.

Moynahan, J. M., and Stewart, Earle K. The American Jail.
Chicago: Nelson-Hall inc., 1980.

Encyclopedia of Crime & Justice


A Study Of Prisons, Auburn System Of Corrections, Bible, Corrections, Death, Discipline, Histroy Of Correctional Institutions, Pennsylvania System Of Corrections, Prisoners, Public Prisons In The United States, Reform, Rehabilitation, Solitary, Warden

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author avatar 2bpositive
A Poet and Philosopher. Prophecy portends the future, while poetry helps make sense of the past.
Poetry with a message. Sometimes an eternal message, because this world IS the doorway to our eternity. My poetry, more than merely words on paper, is...(more)

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author avatar Delicia Powers
14th Feb 2012 (#)

Wonderful report, very enlightening history....

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author avatar Songbird B
29th Feb 2012 (#)

What an amazing page and history this is 2b! Wow...

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