Every society needs a plan for dealing with those individuals who break the rules. In the 1700’s, rather than confinement, various forms of corporal punishment — the lash, branding, the stocks — were used to punish offenders. Sixteen heinous crimes were punishable by death. In 1796, Governor Jay recommended creating institutions for the detention and reformation of criminals, based on the principle of confinement and hard labor, a plan already in use in Pennsylvania.
The first prison in New York State was Newgate Prison, opened in New York City in November 1797. The system was hard labor and mild punishment. Food was sufficient and the work was not hard, prisoners were paid for “overwork.” Incarcerated individuals were housed together in common rooms holding ten to twenty men. The system did not appear to deter crime, and criminality seemed to become even more hardened through association with other criminals. Newgate became overcrowded in just a few years, prompting the Governor to pardon some individuals in order to make room for the newly convicted. In 1809, the number of convictions and pardons was equal, urging the public to call for a new prison in the interior of the state.
The act authorizing the erection of a new state prison was passed on April 12, 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 New York.
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 the 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. The cornerstone of the prison wall was laid in 1816, and the first 53 incarcerated individuals arrived in 1817.
The State granted authority to use incarcerated labor in building the prison in April 1817, both to relieve the crowded jails and to save the wages of free workmen.
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.