Thomas Mott Osborne and Prison Reform

Thomas Mott Osborne was born in Auburn in 1859.  His father was founder of the D.M. Osborne agricultural works, and his mother was Eliza Wright Osborne, staunch supporter of abolition and women’s suffrage.  Upon his father’s death, Thomas Mott Osborne became President of the Osborne Company.  He later served as Mayor of Auburn and publisher of the Auburn Citizen.  He was very active in the George Junior Republic, a social experiment in rehabilitating delinquent boys.  He believed that the principles of self-government that were successful with the Junior Republic youth could also be successful with adult convicts.

Due to his work with the Junior Republic and his prominence in state politics, Osborne was appointed by Governor Sulzer as Chairman of the New York State Commission on Prison Reform in 1913.  Having visited the prison as a sightseer in his childhood, Osborne wanted to see the prison from the inmate’s point of view.  With the agreement of Warden Charles Rattigan, Osborne spent a week in Auburn Prison as inmate Tom Brown in September 1913.

Osborne came away from that week of incarceration as an advocate of a more humanistic prison system.  He believed that the prison should be treated as a community, and the prisoners should have some say in governing that community.  Osborne stressed the value of educating rather than punishing the prisoners.  He was the driving force behind the creation of the Mutual Welfare Inmate League, established at Auburn Prison in December 1913.

Inmates elected delegates to the League, and the League took over some of the management of the prison population, including punishment of inmates.  Some of the humane improvements that came out of the Mutual Welfare League were expanded yard recreation time, weekly movies, entertainments, an inmate band, and vocational education programs.  The League also helped establish work camps, in which well-behaved prisoners were allowed out of the prison to work on roads.

The League was successful in improving the lives of inmates.  However, there was no organized training program to develop leaders among the prisoners, and eventually abuses crept into the system.  When the Mutual Welfare League was blamed by many for the deadly 1929 riots, the League was abolished.