Exhibiting Prisoners Prevalent but Officially Deplored

face of a prisoner

Exhibiting prisoners to spectators for a twenty-five cents prison admission fee was prevalent in mid-nineteenth-century U.S. prisons. An extensive investigation in 1866 of U.S. prisons (excluding prisons in former states of the rebelling southern confederacy) reported:

In nearly or quite all the prisons of the United States, general visitors are admitted, daily, during business hours, and are conducted, with very few exceptions, over the entire premises, including the workshops. No restrictions are imposed, other than that they be under the escort of an officer, and abstain from speaking to the convicts or delivering any article whatever into their hands; and they are, besides, quite commonly admonished not to indulge in laughter, loud conversation, or boisterous conduct of any kind.^

The common admonishments about spectator behavior imply that such behavior was common. Other evidence indicates that exhibiting prisoners was prevalent from no later than the 1840s.

Women predominated among prison spectators. Wardens generally reported that two-thirds of spectators were woman (in one prison, five-sixths). Many mid-nineteenth-century state prisons held only men. The few that held a small number of women probably didn’t exhibit the women. Male prisoners’ girlfriends and wives may have come to prisons as spectators. A more general female interest in male prisoners probably also influenced the spectator sex ratio. The 1866 prison study declared:

A moral influence, of an exceedingly pernicious character, an influence which sets itself in deadly antagonism to all efforts at personal reformation, and which need not here be more specifically described, emanates from the presence of such a multitude of female visitors in our prison. Numbers of wardens both spoke to us and wrote to us of this influence, in terms as emphatic as they were condemnatory.^

Other prison officials more specifically described male prisoners’ sexual response to female spectators.

Exhibiting prisoners generated revenue for prisons. The 1866 study observed:

in the great majority of American prisons, an entrance fee of twenty-five cents is charged, which gives the custom still more the air of a public exhibition, and makes the state a showman for a few paltry coppers. All this is derogatory to the dignity of government, and we have never seen the price of admission taken by prison authorities without a feeling, almost, of personal degradation, as being, in some sort, identified with the system.^

Spectator revenue, particularly at Auburn State Prison, was substantial. While prison officials expressed aversion to the practice, exhibiting prisoners continued in the U.S. until the early twentieth century. Given their value in generating revenue for prisons, prisoner exhibitions probably were successfully rationalized as being for the benefit of prisoners.

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