Prison Inspectors and the Prison Association Battle for Authority

face of a prisoner

The Prison Association of New York and state prison inspectors fought vigorously over creating public knowledge about prison conditions. In a letter to the newly elected state prison inspectors on December 24, 1847, the Prison Association requested to meet with the inspectors to discuss the duties of the Prison Association. The inspectors ignored the Prison Association’s request. In August, 1848, a committee of the Prison Association attempted to inspect Sing Sing prison, but the warden turned them away.^ The Prison Association, after again seeking but failing to get support from the inspectors, initiated a mandamus proceeding with the New York Supreme Court.^ Meanwhile, the state inspectors and the Prison Association offered competing warnings and accusations in their reports to the New York legislature.

The state prison inspectors warned the legislature that the Prison Association lacked responsibility. With respect to the Prison Association’s claim to authority, the state inspectors noted:

If the claim be valid to the extent preferred, an irresponsible committee of an irresponsible society may at any time supercede the authority of the prison officers, suspend the jurisdiction of the Inspectors of state prisons, and take the management of the affairs of the prisons into their own hands. …In the most favorable view it presents a power extremely liable to abuse.

The inspectors gained their positions through a publicly established, well-recognized process of public elections. The inspectors suggested that the process by which Prison Association members gained their position was a less secure basis for authority:

Among the members of the New York Prison Association are doubtless many gentlemen of superior intelligence and enlarged philanthropy; but there is no security that such will always constitute its committees of prison examination. Discharged convicts from the prisons may become members of the Association, obtain an appointment upon its committees, and thus become vested with the supreme authority over the institutions whose cells they recently tenanted. Or a certain grade of criminal lawyers, ever ready to engage in profitable business employment, may seek the position to enable them to drive an advantageous traffic in the procurement of pardons.

The inspectors also argued that if the Prison Association was meant to compete with the inspectors, the structure of this competition should be better regulated:

If desirable to establish an authority adverse to that conferred upon the Inspectors – a kind of opposition line – or even concurrent jurisdiction, it is respectfully suggested that its powers be accurately defined and limited, and that it be held responsible for the consequences of its acts, and the Inspectors and officers of the prisons relieved from that responsibility.^

That the authority of the Prison Association wasn’t accurately defined appears to have been a practical political strategy of the New York legislature. The state prison inspectors’ concerns about responsibility were primarily formal. They did not address the actual differences in inspection practices between the state inspectors and the Prison Association.

The state prison inspectors attacked the Prison Association for circumstances beyond the Prison Association’s responsibility. The inspectors associated the Prison Association’s authority with descriptions of prison conditions prior to January, 1848, and their own authority with descriptions of subsequent conditions. January, 1848, was the date when the elected prison inspectors assumed their offices. According to the prison inspectors, prior to their taking office:

For some years previous to January 1848, the Prison Association exercised an undue influence in the management of the Sing Sing prison. Whatever the members of that association may have designed to accomplish, their labors were certainly unattended with any benefit to the State, the prison, or the convicts. At that time the prison was found to be nearly fifty thousand dollars in debt, and upwards of three hundred convicts were without productive employment. Notwithstanding the lash was freely used, and sometimes to an inhuman extent. the cruel lacerations of which were witnessed by officers and members of that association, yet the discipline could scarcely have been in a worse condition. … Iterant phrenologists were introduced to examine the heads of convicts by way of ascertaining if they had been rightly convicted, and the entire prison seemed to have been surrendered to the wild and senseless speculations of sham philanthropists and hollow hearted fanatics.

The inspectors spoke highly of prison conditions established under their authority:

We doubt if there is a penal institution in the world, in a better condition in every point of view, than the Sing Sing prison at this time. In the moral department, our chapels are crowded upon the Sabbath by attentive, and apparently interested congregations, and the bible, prayer-book, and useful standard works have been substituted for French romances and essays about association and fourierism.^

This exaggerated contrast vastly overstates the influence of the Prison Association. It indicates primarily the inspectors’ antagonism to the Prison Association’s efforts to create public knowledge about prison conditions.

The Prison Association warned the legislature that the state prison inspectors’ interests affected the public knowledge that those inspectors produced. The Prison Association stated:

whatever of good they {the inspectors} have performed will be extolled beyond its desert; while the wrongs they have permitted, the duties they have neglected, and the abuses they have suffered, are reported as the necessary adjuncts of discipline, or what is more likely, passed over in silence. …we believe no instance can be furnished in which the Inspectors have ever reported their own failure in duty. But can it be supposed that no such exists?^

The Prison Association noted that its reports had documented abuses that the prison inspectors had failed to report. While the prison inspectors accused the Prison Association of lacking responsibility, the Prison Association asserted that the absence of independent sources of knowledge about prison conditions allowed the inspectors to act irresponsibly:

The contumacy of the Inspectors effectually frees them from all responsibility to the great court of final resort – Public Opinion. It is the peculiarity and the glory of our form of government, that it knows no secrets. Alike in theory and practice, the right of every citizen to a knowledge of the acts and doings of those in office, is recognized. …Our three State Prison Inspectors thrust themselves upon the public gaze, as the sole monopolists of secret and irresponsible power. Of their own acts, are they to be considered competent investigators?^

The Prison Association understood itself to be providing the public with knowledge about prison conditions. They in effect sought to act as inspectors of the prison inspectors’ work.

The Prison Association emphasized that, to function effectively, it must examine prisoners without prison officials present. This was a practical component of the dispute between the Prison Association and the prison inspectors. The Prison Association argued:

The only appearance of even a momentary suspension of authority is while the prisoner, confined in his cell, with all the bolts and bars in their places, converses for some two or three minutes with a member of the committee. Is this abstracting him from the control of the officers?^

According to the Prison Association, excluding prison officials from conversations was necessary to bring information to the public:

The prisoner dare not disclose all his knowledge and tell all his grievances before a keeper. The very cruelty and oppression of which he might have been the victim, would visit him with a vengeful weight for his disclosures. In his keeper’s presence therefore his mouth is sealed; or rather, by the hope of favors and indulgences, he is tempted to conceal and gloss over, unpalatable truth.^

Although we attach but little value to the uncorroborated testimony of convicts, we still believe that it will afford a clue, and perhaps in many instances, the only clue, by which abuses can be discovered and exposed. We therefore insist on the importance of a personal and private examination of every prisoner

The Prison Association’s style of communicating with prisoners, an “examination,” emphasized knowledge acquisition:

an examination, to be sure, which in nine cases out of ten, perhaps, may be commenced by the question, Have you anything you wish to communicate to the committee? and terminated by the answer, No, nothing.^

This is not the style of ordinary communication among friends and family. At least according to the Prison Association’s expressed understanding of its work, its members did not communicate with prisoners as a friend would. In their “personal and private” communication with prisoners, Prison Association members functioned as authoritative, alternative media bringing hidden information to the public.

The New York prison inspectors from the beginning of 1848 prevented Prison Association members from meeting with prisoners without a prison official present. This failure dispirited members of the Prison Association:

Debarred for four years by the opposition of the Prison Inspectors, from the exercise of their rights and duties of Independent examination of the State Prisons, some of the gentlemen formerly devoted to the work contemplated by our organization have withdrawn from the Association, preferring other fields of philanthropic labor, where their time and energies would not be wasted in fruitless litigation and contest with those who should be aids and advocates.^

The Prison Association nonetheless “resolved to do with their might what their hands find to do, for the rescue of the fallen and friendless, and their restoration to themselves and to society.” Most prisoners probably were not friendless, although their friends generally were not among the mighty. Suppressing prisoners’ communication with their friends made it more difficult for prisoners to maintain friends to whom they would be restored upon release.

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