Prison Association of New York Discounted Prisoners’ Personal Communication

face of a prisoner

The annual reports of both the Prison Association of New York and the New York State prison inspectors include statements from prison chaplains affirming the value of prisoners’ communication with family and friends. In the first annual report of the prison inspectors, the chaplain at the Auburn State Prison noted:

The privilege of hearing occasionally from friends exerts a beneficial influence upon the mind of the convict, and should be allowed to a moderate extent. … The privilege of communicating with friends keeps alive and strengthens the attachment which the prisoner feels for home and its inmates, and operates as a powerful stimulus for good behavior while in confinement.^

The fifth annual report of the Prison Association included a report from the Auburn State Prison chaplain emphasizing the important of prisoners’ communication with family and friends:

A close observation for the last two years, of the effect of letter writing upon the minds of the convicts, has served to increase the conviction formerly expressed, that the practice is decidedly beneficial in its tendency, and ought not to be discontinued, nor diminished to any considerable extent. The effect of entire non-intercourse would be extremely injurious to all who have friends, especially so to those who are possessed of ardent temperament, and also to those who are confined on long sentences.^

The chaplain’s statement suggests that he perceived a threat that such communication would be curtailed. Chaplains in other prisons in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania also strongly endorsed the value of prisoners’ communication with family and friends.^

In seeking to improve the condition of prisoners, the Prison Association was much more interested in creating knowledge than in encouraging prisoners’ communication with family and friends. The Constitution of the Prison Association listed under six headings the general duties of the Committee on Prison Discipline. One heading was “Visitation,” meaning committee members visiting prisons. Another heading was “Reformation,” which included topics such as “instruction, religious and ordinary,” “rewards and punishments,” “pardons,” and “visitation of friends.” With respect to this last topic, the Prison Association’s Annual Report for 1845 stated:

Besides those whose admission is provided for by the statute {which included Prison Association visitors}, and such distinguished strangers as visit for the purpose of investigation, none should be admitted into our prisons but the particular friends, and near relatives of the prisoner, and those only at distant and stated periods.^

Subsequent annual reports omitted the topic “visitation of friends.” A questionnaire for prison officials included under the title “miscellaneous” a question about regulation of visits and correspondence with prisoners.^ In general, the Prison Association’s annual reports showed little concern for prisoners’ visiting and corresponding with family and friends. The Prison Association’s institutional interest in creating public knowledge much more directly concerned state prison officials attempting to restrict Prison Association visits with prisoners.

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