NY Prison Association Emerges As Rival to Prison Inspectors

face of a prisoner

In New York State, political and civic institutions occupied similar positions for creating public knowledge about prison conditions. From the opening of the first New York State Prison in 1797, politically appointed inspectors reported to the New York legislature about prison conditions. Some of these inspectors in 1844 invited “the attention of the benevolent” to forming a society to aid discharged prisoners.^ The following month concerned citizens formed the Prison Association of New York.

The Prison Association of New York assumed a broad role in relation to prisoners. In addition to relief of discharged convicts, the Prison Association included as its purposes “amelioration of the conditions of prisoners” and “the improvement of Prison Discipline generally.”^ The Prison Association followed earlier, similar associations in Philadelphia and Boston in encompassing these purposes. These purposes directly concerned the primary activities and interests of the politically appointed prison inspectors.

The first annual report of the Prison Association described inspection difficulties. The report noted “difficulty in inspecting the prisons of the State, arising sometimes from the reluctance of their officers to submit to what they deemed unauthorized intrusion.”^ Punishment is a public function. In a democracy, civic institutions and citizens in general should be concerned with prisons. At the same time, civic concern is not the same as direct administrative responsibility. The Prison Association and prison officials differed over who was authorized to inspect prisons.

Evidently responding to questions of authority, the Prison Association secured extensive authority under a legislative act of incorporation. The Prison Association’s Act of Incorporation, passed on May 9, 1846, stated:

The said executive committee {of the Prison Association} by such committees as they shall from time to time appoint, shall have power, and it shall be their duty to visit, inspect and examine, all the prisons in the state, and annually report to the legislature their state and condition, and all such other things in regard to them as may enable the legislature to perfect their government and discipline.

The Act of Incorporation explicitly gave the Prison Association committees the same rights to inspect prisons that the official prison inspectors had under statute:

And to enable them to execute the powers and perform the duties hereby granted and imposed, they shall possess all the powers and authority that by the twenty-fourth section, of the title first, chapter third, part fourth of the Revised Statutes are vested in the inspectors of the county prisons, and the duties of the keepers of each prison that they may examine shall be in the same relation to them, as in the section aforesaid, are imposed on the keepers of such prisons in relation to the inspectors thereof^

Prison Association members were required to secure a judicial order prior to inspecting a prison. The first president of the Prison Association, W. T. McCoun, was a New York State Vice Chancellor. A leading founder and the Vice-President of the Prison Association, John W. Edmonds, was a circuit judge. Since Prison Association members included such judicial officials, securing a judicial order was probably quite easy. The Prison Association became potentially as powerful as the politically appointed prison inspectors for creating public knowledge about prison conditions.

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