Students at the nearby Auburn Theological Seminary conducted the first educational efforts at Auburn Prison. Sabbath School was held on Sunday mornings, after religious services. Attendance was good, because if not attending at chapel, inmates were locked in their cells from Saturday evening to Monday morning – in silence.
In 1847, the State authorized the employment of two part-time teachers, under the chaplain’s direction. Lessons were given on the galleries at night, with the teacher outside with a lantern and a Bible and the inmates in their cells. The education programs were in the Chaplain’s department until the 1920’s.
By 1900, there was a successful program for the Americanization of foreign-born convicts. Basic education, teaching illiterate or semi-literate inmates to read and write, was deemed important. In 1913, the average daily attendance at the prison school was 351, out of 1329 inmates.
Education of inmates was a primary goal of Thomas Mott Osborne’s prison reform movement. The Mutual Welfare League greatly expanded educational opportunities for inmates, both academic and vocational. By 1920, average school attendance was 529. After the League was disbanded in 1930, education declined.
In 1958, the buildings which had housed the women’s prison were razed to make room for a new educational building. The new school opened in January 1961. The Osborne School, named in honor of Thomas Mott Osborne, was fully accredited by the State Education Department and provided academic programs, high school equivalency and college programs, and vocational training. By 1970, an average of 35 men annually graduated with a Regents high school diploma and another 150 men obtained high school equivalency diplomas.
In the 1970’s, a wave of prison reform swept the country after deadly riots in several prisons. New programs at Auburn included an active art program, writing workshops, the creation of what became an award-winning inmate newspaper, The Auburn Collective, and a college program for inmates. Men could earn an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, even a Master’s degree behind bars. SUNY Auburn’s motto was “You can graduate, but you can’t leave.” Public sentiment against inmates receiving a “free” education eventually doomed the program. SUNY Auburn was discontinued in the 1990’s.