Auburn State Prison Led in Exhibiting Prisoners

face of a prisoner

Auburn State Prison, exemplar of the world-famous Auburn System for suppressing prisoners’ personal communication, also led in exhibiting prisoners to the public. Fees from exhibiting Auburn prisoners to the public amounted to about 3% of Auburn Prison’s operating expenses from 1820 to 1850. In addition to generating revenue for the prison, exhibition of Auburn prisoners also helped to promote the Auburn System in the world-wide penal deliberation on how to best suppress prisoners’ communication.

Auburn Prison began attracting a large number of spectators soon after it went into operation. The Auburn Prison received its first prisoner in 1817. No later than 1819 the prison began to admit spectators for a fee of 12.5 cents per person. In 1820, about 7900 persons entered Auburn Prison as spectators. That was about three and a half times the total population of Auburn. Revenue from spectators’ admission tickets in 1820 amounted to 5.4% of Auburn Prison’s operating expenses. Given the large number of spectators relative to the population of Auburn, non-local spectators probably contributed significantly to the local economy.

In 1822, Auburn Prison doubled its spectator admission fee to 25 cents per person. That admission fee was sizable relative to earnings and prices at the time. At 25 cents, the admission fee was then equivalent in monetary value to about one-third the daily wage of common labor, five quarts of milk, or a quart of lamp oil. In 1826, the Auburn Prison Board of Inspectors stated that they doubled the admission price “not with a view to increase the revenue, but to operate as a check upon a certain class who overthronged the prison.”^ Prison officials could have used non-price means, such as limits on sales of tickets, for discouraging such visitors.

Auburn’s doubling of admission fees probably was related increased visitor demand to see prisoners working in a common room. In December, 1821, Auburn adopted a policy of solitary confinement for prisoners. However, in the summer of 1823, Auburn shifted to what became known as the Auburn (Congregate) System of prison discipline.^ Under the congregate system, prisoners worked in each other’s presence in large workshops. By the late 1820s, spectator revenue at 25 cents per ticket was about 50% higher than in 1820 at 12.5 cents per ticket. Increased spectator revenue financially benefited the prison. The Board of Inspectors’ denial of that objective suggests some uneasiness about revenue from prison spectators.

Auburn Prison subsequently made extensive provisions for spectators. About 1828, the Auburn prison constructed special viewing avenues for spectators:

These avenues are about three feet wide, partitioned off from the back side of the shops which stand against the wall. There are narrow, horizontal apertures in the partition, through which spectators can, unperceived, have a full view of those within. These avenues extend around all the shops, about 2,000 feet.^

These facilities provided for better disciplined exhibition of the prisoners:

Instead of being conducted through the shops among the convicts, as formerly, spectators are now taken though the inspection avenues in the rear, and which surround all the shops, where they can have a full view of the convict, without the convicts being able to see the spectators, who are to refrain from levity, noise, and loud conversation, and are not to speak the names of the convicts they may see in the shops, or on any subject so loud as to be heard by them.

Spectators are also conducted through the north wing, and all other departments, except that of the females and the hospital; they are treated politely, and all desired information furnished them.^

Spectators could purchase a guidebook for an additional 25 cents.^ According to a British penal official who visited Auburn Prison in 1835, “convicts are viewed {by spectators admitted to the prison} as objects of curiosity, not unlike animals in a menagerie.”^

When the New York State Fair was held in Auburn in September, 1846, 5323 spectators paid admission to Auburn Prison in just that month. That was by far the largest monthly number of spectators admitted to the Auburn prison from 1831 to 1863. A local fair probably occurred regularly in Auburn in September. September, along with February, were seasonal high points in spectator revenue at Auburn Prison.

Spectators at Auburn Prison were much more numerous relative to Auburn’s population than spectators at prominent early European penal institutions. Spectators passing through Auburn Prison around 1840 numbered roughly 9300 per year. That was 1.7 times the total population of Auburn. In 1659, spectators at Amsterdam’s famous rasphouse (also called the rasphuis or tuchthuis) numbered about eight thousand. That number was equivalent to 5% of Amsterdam’s population. Spectators passing through the prison at Leiden in 1671 numbered about 12,400 persons, equivalent to 17% of Leiden’s population. Like at Auburn, an annual fair at Leiden attracted a relatively large number of spectators to the Leiden workhouse. A majority of the spectators at the Amsterdam and Leiden penal institutions were local residents and people living in the area. Family and friends of the prisoners were not distinguished from spectators.^

In addition to masses of ticket-purchasing spectators, Auburn also entertained distinguished visitors. In 1826, with obvious pride in the institution he ran, the Agent of the Auburn prison, who also served then as the Keeper, noted that the prison had “for some time past, attracted much public attention.” He added:

Many distinguished individuals, from various parts of the United States as well as from Europe, are almost daily calling, to examine, personally, its management and the peculiarities of its construction and discipline.^

According to the Agent/Keeper, visitors regarded the prison highly favorably. They usually sought detailed written information to take away with them. The Agent/Keeper wrote an eighty-two-page guidebook to provide detailed information about the prison and its system of prison discipline.^

Deliberative competition between the Auburn System and the Pennsylvania System apparently increased the flow of spectators to Auburn Prison. The exemplar of the Pennsylvania System, Eastern State Penitentiary, began operations in 1829. Spectators at Auburn Prison increased steadily from 1832 (the first year of consistent annual statistics) to 1836. In 1836, about 10,400 spectators passed through Auburn Prison. Spectator revenue equaled 5.6% of the Auburn prison’s operating expenses. In 1837, a financial panic severely hurt the New York economy. It probably accounts for a sharp drop in spectators in 1837. The number of spectators at Auburn Prison rose again through 1841. The vociferous, public arguments between proponents of the Auburn and Pennsylvania Systems fostered publicity and encouraged persons to visit the models of the arguments.

Eastern State Penitentiary may have recognized over time that being open to spectators promoted its model of imprisonment in public deliberation. Eastern State Penitentiary initially did not welcome spectators. It received only about 100 distinguished visitors per year from 1829 to 1834.^ The prison’s visiting policy then apparently changed. In 1835, the number of spectators passing through Eastern State Penitentiary jumped to 1108, about ten times more than in the previous year. Spectators numbers climbed steadily in subsequent years to 4000 spectators in 1839.^

Unlike other state penitentiaries, Eastern State Penitentiary did not require spectators to pay an admission fee. However, most spectators were not allowed to see prisoners:

The public are freely admitted, without fee; but they can only walk up and down the corridor between the cells; they see no prisoner, unless they be persons of known character – nor even then, if the prisoner exercises his right, and objects to receiving the visit.^ ^

To the extent that family and friends of prisoners visited prisons as spectators to see a specific person, the arrangements at Eastern State Penitentiary lessened the number of spectators. Spectators could see only the circumstances of imprisonment. Nonetheless, spectators still numbered in multiple thousands per year.

Some prisoners and prison officials disliked spectators. In his report to the prison inspectors in 1848, the Physician of the Ohio State Penitentiary observed:

A suit of portable screens has been provided for use in the middle ward {of the prison’s infirmary}, where the greater number of beds is contained, by means of which the prostrate patients may be entirely occluded from the view of that promiscuous throng of strangers so frequently traversing the apartment. I had long been convinced that the exposure of the sick and suffering convict to the searching gaze of every curious visitor, amounted to little less than a cruel and undeserved punishment, inflicted upon him, but that it also, unfailingly exerted a highly pernicious influence on his disease. Many have made the declaration to me, that they would greatly prefer to meet the pain of the lash, than be obliged to encounter the scrutinizing look which it seems the pleasure of every passer by to fix upon them.^

The officers of the Mississippi Penitentiary objected to spectators generally:

It is evident some wholesome restriction should be laid on all visitors. The fewer the number admitted the better. The attention of the convicts should be attracted as little as possible ; they would probably be more easily controlled, and pursue their labors with more alacrity and profit.^

As policy, “the fewer, … the better” takes exhibiting prisoners outside of a decision calculus that includes spectator admissions fees.

New York’s Sing Sing (Mount Pleasant) Prison in the mid-1840s explored various spectator admission policies. In the early 1840s, Sing Sing reported hundreds of dollars of spectator revenue per year. In November, 1844, Sing Sing’s spectator admission fee was reduced to zero. That may have been the result of judicial or political order. Policy subsequently reversed. Sing Sing prison officials complained:

multitudes of idle visitors throng the prison daily, having no interest, either in the purposes of the institution, or the fate of its inmates; who require the almost constant attendance during the day, of from one to three of the guard.^

The officials argued that seeing prisoners did not deter spectators from crime, because they didn’t see the the true breadth of prisoners’ sufferings. Other evidence also indicates that New York officials were uneasy about spectators and spectator admission fees. On the other hand, Sing Sing officials explicitly tabulated the large amount of revenue that Auburn Prison collected from spectator admission fees. Sing Sing Prison officials decided to establish a spectator admission fee, called a “tax,” of twenty-five cents.

Through the early 1850s, the Auburn prison reported more spectator revenue than other prisons in the U.S. Most state prisons at this time exhibited prisoners for an admissions fee. The Massachusetts State Penitentiary at Charleston, the next leading public attraction among prisons, reported in the mid-1840s about 75% of the spectator revenue that Auburn received. Other penitentiaries reported much less. Despite Sing Sing Prison being located close to the large population of New York City, Sing Sing prison’s spectator revenue from October, 1847 through September, 1849, amounted to only 12% of Auburn Prison’s. State prisons in Connecticut, Vermont, and Maryland reported in 1849 only 23%, 8% and 6% of Auburn’s spectator revenue. In addition to Auburn’s fame as a model for suppressing prisoner’s communication, Auburn may also have had better administrative control on reporting prison spectator revenue.

While open access or transparency in government institutions now tends to be associated with accountability to the public, exhibiting prisoners in mid-nineteenth-century America provided little public accountability. Spectators were not allowed to converse with prisoners. Prison officials could carefully control what spectators saw. As a British official observed in 1835:

I am aware that the appointment of official Visitors, and the general admission of strangers to the Auburn prison, on the payment of a quarter-dollar, are regarded by many as some security against the infliction of excessive punishment. But this is an error.^

Public access to prisons now tends to be considered in terms of press access, not mass spectatorship.^ In its pure commercial form, the press merely provides mediated mass spectatorship. Even with enlightened public interest, neither direct exhibition nor mediated spectatorship is a good substitute for personal communication with prisoners.

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