“We all have to remember – when they go to prison, they’re all going to come back out.  Do we want them to come out better or worse?”

— Harold Butler
46 years in Dept. of Corrections, retired as Warden of Sing Sing in 1975

Please note, some of these pages include descriptions of graphic violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Prison Beginnings

The Auburn System

The State Asylum for the Criminally Insane

Women’s Prison

Exploitation of Incarcerated Labor

Thomas Mott Osborne and Prison Reform

Riots and Reconstruction

The Electric Chair

Copper John

Prison Education

The Prison Today


As it has been since the day Auburn Prison opened 200 years ago, the question for society is whether the goal of the penal system is to punish convicts or rehabilitate them into productive citizens.  The pendulum swings back and forth, but the central question remains.