Illicit Communication in Auburn and Eastern State Model Prisons

face of a prisoner

Eastern State Penitentiary and Auburn Prison were world-famous models for suppressing prisoners’ communication. Despite large investments in physical plant and extensive administrative efforts, neither prison actually succeeded in completely suppressing communication among prisoners.

Eastern State Penitentiary was designed to keep prisoners physically separate at all times. To serve that purpose, it featured innovative building services:

each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

These extraordinary architectural investments made Eastern State Penitentiary one of the most expensive buildings in early 19th-century U.S. It had a per-prisoner cost seven times greater than other contemporary prisons.

Yet even within the bounds of Eastern State, prisoners found ways to communicate. An authority on Eastern State Penitentiary noted:

It is quite certain that prisoners were able to communicate by means of tapping on pipes, floors, and walls…. As one reads the journal of punishments kept for a time by the wardens, the number of cases in which the offense was “talking with another prisoner” exceeds all others. Inmates obviously went to great lengths to contact those near at hand by means of water pipes, tapping on cell walls, by communicating with others while in exercise yards, and by actually shouting in their cells.^

Prisoners also domesticated a rat and used its ability to crawl between cells to convey messages.^ In 1834, the convicts communicated through sewer pipes extensively enough to plan a general insurrection.^ In the summer of 1838, sewer pipes in one prison block were modified to prevent such communication. Similar changes in the other prison blocks were planned for 1839.^ The contraction and expansion of hot-water pipes also created cracks that provided communication media. Monitoring by the Prison Keeper from within Eastern State’s corridors apparently was also necessary to suppress communication.^ Even Eastern State’s highly expensive architecture was not sufficient to suppress prisoners’ communication.

Auburn Prison, which allowed prisoners to congregate in silence, likewise struggled to suppress communication in practice. Some prisoners developed an alphabet of finger motions. Observers worried about a prisoner who was a professional ventriloquist.^ Even convicts who were not ventriloquists were reportedly able to communicate, without moving their lips, by speaking “in a low tone from the throat.”^ Prisoners were innovative, shrewd, and resourceful in attempting to communicate:

Stopping communication at night was especially difficult; inmates would make intelligible noises and, if caught, tell the keepers that they had been talking in their sleep. Besides, it was extremely hard to identify the precise cells from which sounds were emanating in the darkness. If word-of-mouth contact was impossible, prisoners scratched notes on leather, wooden chips, or anything else that was available. Hiding scraps of paper, pencils, or even bits of coal, they tied strings around messages written with these materials and threw them from door to door.^

At the Auburn prison in 1845, 173 whipping were administered “for offenses consisting of or including conversation.”^ About 40% of instances of punishment at the Auburn and Sing Sing prisons in 1845 were for talking.^ The frequency of such punishments indicates great practical difficulties in suppressing prisoners’ communication.

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