Conflict Between NY Prison Assocation and Prison Inspectors

face of a prisoner

Within a year after the Prison Association received authority comparable to that of the politically appointed prison inspectors, the Prison Association and the prison inspectors were harshly criticizing each other. The Prison Association in its annual reports provided to the public and the New York State legislature a large amount of formerly unavailable information about conditions in all four New York State prisons and some county prisons. The Prison Association published information about prison finances, prison discipline, prisoner population statistics, and discharged convicts. Moreover, the Prison Association documented abuses that had not been previously publicly reported. In its report of Dec. 2, 1847, the Prison Association’s Executive Committee compared the Prison Association favorably to the official state prison inspectors:

The inspectors however honestly they may be disposed to discharge their duties, are always more or less interested in particular offices, they are instruments of their own appointment, friends perhaps of long standing, and it may be, men of considerable political influence; besides, as supervisors of the prison, the presentation of any serious charge against the officers is in fact a censure upon themselves, impeaching their vigilance, care and discretion. Thus many abuses are yearly overlooked, which if they had been properly represented to the Legislature might have led to investigations which would have formed a basis for desirable improvement in our prison discipline or at least furnished important lights to guide us through its scarcely illumined mazes. The power therefore vested in the Prison Association appears to be wisely devised, and limited as it is, to examining and reporting, of the utmost importance. ^

The State Prison Committee of the New York Senate, however, expressed concern about the Prison Association’s actions. In a report to the Senate on Dec. 14, 1847, the Senate’s State Prison Committee stated:

its influences have tended to impair the discipline of the prison. The convicts are said to be “in daily communication with the prison association, or some officer of the prison in the interest of the association, and are informed that the Legislature has given this society power to regulate and control the affairs of the prison;” that there is “intense feeling and sympathy entertained for the poor creatures, and a watchful eye will be kept upon all the acts and conduct of the keepers, &c., &c., which has a tendency to make the convicts restless, impudent, and to doubt the authorities of the prison.” This is the testimony of one who knows well its effects. They seem to act in the character of spies on the discipline generally and particularly, being permitted to converse alone with the prisoners, without the presence of the keeper; and the results above alluded to, your committee are of opinion, are the natural consequences of such minute and constant interference with the particular management of the prison, and must be very annoying to the keepers in their attempts to preserve a mild but healthy discipline.^

The actions of the official prison inspectors did not generate such concern. Apparently the Prison Association members were inspecting prisons more actively and more independently than were the official state prison inspectors.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *