The Auburn System

After the spectacular failure of the solitary system, a new penal system began to develop at Auburn Prison.  What became known as the Auburn System was copied all over the world.  The Auburn System confined prisoners in individual cells at night, but required they work together during the day.

A key factor in the Auburn System was complete silence, strictly enforced with the threat of the whip.  Because communication is necessary to maintaining a sense of self, prison officials decided to break convicts of this self-hood by forbidding them to communicate in any way.  Even the keepers, the men who supervised the convicts, did not speak to them. The keepers signaled directions by tapping their metal-tipped canes on the ground.

Convicts were marched back and forth to the workshops in lockstep- each man’s arms under those of the man in front of him, all looking to one side, marching in unison.  Convicts were required to keep their eyes averted from each other and their keepers, maintain absolute silence at all times, and wear humiliating striped uniforms.  They worked 10-hour days, longer in summer, in the prison shops.

The prisoners’ uniforms consisted of a jacket, vest, and pants, all striped, as well as a shirt and hat.  The keepers wore dark suits, with vests and jackets, and distinctive hats that resembled top hats.
The Auburn System was designed to prevent the corruption of one prisoner by another.  The goal was to totally isolate each prisoner, while forcing him to work for the prison’s profit.  Such a system, which violated most basic human nature, could not be maintained without extreme physical cruelty.  Elam Lynds, a former hatmaker, was appointed principal keeper in 1821. Lynds used flogging to punish even minor infractions, and became infamous for his brutality.

The seeming success of the Auburn System- the shops were profitable, rebellions rare, and the prison silent- drew visitors from throughout the U.S. and Europe.  In addition to visiting prison officials, Auburn Prison was visited by thousands of sight-seers.  The prison was constructed so that the entire central yard could be viewed from above.  There were narrow passages in the rear of the shops through which visitors could watch the convicts.  Until 1822 the price of admission was 12 ½ cents, but it was doubled that year to 25 cents, in part to lessen the number of visitors.

After several inquiries into abuse of corporal punishment in prisons, the NY State Legislature outlawed both whipping and beating prisoners in 1846.  Keepers turned to other forms of punishment, including the shower bath, in which a naked prisoner was forced to endure cascades of freezing water, and the yoke, in which a prisoner’s wrists were shackled to a beam held in back of his neck.

 

Most forms of corporal punishment were eliminated in the late 1800’s.  In 1900, the dehumanizing lock step was abolished.  The silent system was also gradually discontinued.  The rules were slowly relaxed until enforced silence was abolished almost entirely with the establishment of the Mutual Welfare League in 1914.