In the early 1800’s, the residents of Auburn were afraid that the prisoners would break out and wreak havoc in the village. This fear resulted in the organization in 1820 of the “Prison Guard,” known afterward as the “Auburn Guard.” The Guard was armed and equipped by the State, and provided with an armory within the prison walls. The Guard was called upon in November 1820 when the convicts rioted and set several buildings on fire. The Guard marched the prisoners back to their cells at bayonet point.
A serious race riot among the inmates occurred in 1921, and a number of prisoners were injured. But the worst troubles at Auburn Prison occurred on July 28 and December 11, 1929- the hottest and coldest days of the year.
July 28, 1929
On July 28, inmates sprayed acid in an officer’s face and gained access to the arsenal. Four prisoners escaped over the wall. The riot spread to the inmate population and prison shops were set on fire. Six buildings were destroyed.
After several hours, the rioters were subdued and locked in their cells. The fires were brought under control by the Auburn Fire Department. Two inmates were killed and one wounded. Two officers were shot, one was burned with acid, one was beaten, and one overcame by gas.
Auburn Prison was overcrowded in July of 1929. There were 1,768 inmates, although cell capacity was only 1,285. Reasons behind the riots included routinely longer sentences, and the decrease in early release for good conduct. With longer sentences and slim hope of parole, inmates had little to lose by rioting. After calm was restored, resentments smoldered. Because several workshops had been burned, there was no work for many inmates.
December 11, 1929
On December 11, the coldest day of the year, Warden Edgar Jennings went into the main yard to investigate rumors of impending trouble. He, and six guards and a foreman, were taken hostage by a group of convicts. Some of the inmates were armed with guns concealed since the July riot.
Principal Keeper George A. Durnford was shot and killed. State troopers were called upon to man the prison walls. Eventually, the rioters were subdued with the use of gas. Eight prisoners were killed, and nine persons, including two inmates, were wounded. Three convicts were later executed at Sing Sing for their roles in the riots.
Auburn residents were terrified of a prison break during the riots. Many wanted the prison dismantled and reconstructed out of town, on the site of the prison farm in Sennett. Despite the political pressure, the State concluded that moving the prison was simply too expensive. The decision was made to reconstruct and enlarge the prison on the existing site.
Fortunately for Auburn, hard hit by the beginning of the Great Depression, the reconstruction of the prison employed hundreds for more than 10 years. The old cell blocks, administration building, kitchen, mess halls and auditorium were razed. New cell blocks were built with stone walls and steel cells.
16 acres of land west of the rear prison wall were purchased, and a modern industrial complex erected on the site. Construction of a high cement wall to surround the newly enlarged prison grounds was begun in 1934.