Prisons’ Means for Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

The United States early in the nineteenth century provided operational models of tightly suppressing prisoners’ communication with other prisoners and with non-prisoners. Communicative isolation of prisoners occurred in Philadelphia on a small scale late in the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth-century, the Auburn State Prison in New York and the Eastern State Penitentiary near Philadelphia developed explicit, generally applied regimes for suppressing prisoners’ communications. These regimes were recognized as leading examples for penal practice and were adopted world-wide. The U.S. historically led the world in the development of a free press and an extensive postal system to support free circulation of ideas. The U.S. also led the world in suppressing prisoners’ communication.

The Auburn regime of suppressing prisoners’ communication developed through widely different practices. Prior to 1817, the Auburn State Prison allowed extensive communication among prisoners. From 1817 to 1823, Auburn shifted to solitary confinement for every prisoner and then to allowing prisoners to eat, exercise, work, and worship in each others’ presence, but under a rule of strict silence.^ The latter regime became known as the Auburn System, the Congregate System, or the Silent System.

While allowing congregate activities during the day, Auburn Prison nonetheless strictly suppressed communication among prisoners. Groups of prisoners moved from place to place in “lock-step,” a rigidly spaced single-file line of persons with their heads turned to the right. This formation gave guards a clear view of the prisoner lips and helped them to detect any attempts to communicate. In the dining hall, convicts sat on only one side of narrow tables, “face to back,” “so as to avoid exchanging looks or signs.” Prisoners worked in a common room in strictly supervised silence. While prisoners could see each other’s bodies, a “highly important regulation” instructed officers:

prevent any convict from ever speaking to another convict, without special direction from and under the eye of a Keeper, under all circumstances where such a rule could possibly be enforced.^

One visitor to Auburn noted there during the day “profound silence,” and in the evening, “the silence within these vast walls, which contain so many prisoners, is that of death.”^ Another visitor stated that while the prisoners worked together, “Not even a whisper is heard; though the silence is such that a whisper might be heard throughout the whole apartment.”^

prisoner's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Prisoner’s cell at the (no longer operational) Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary was specifically designed to suppress prisoners’ communication. Eastern State received its first prisoners in late October, 1829. The penitentiary suppressed communication among prisoners by isolating prisoners in separate cells day and night. Each prisoner had a cell that included a flush toilet, a small portal through which food could be delivered without the guard being seen, and a skylight. Attached to each cell was a small, individually walled exercise yard that the prisoner could use one hour per day. Prisoners ate, worked, and listened to religious instruction from their individual cells.^ Prisoners were forbidden to attempt to communicate with those in adjacent cells, and they were ordered to “not make any unnecessary noise, either by singing, whistling, or in any other manner; but in all respects preserve becoming silence.”^ Hoods were placed over the prisoners’ heads when they were moved within the prison, so that they would not inadvertently catch sight of another prisoner.^ As an ideal, Eastern State Penitentiary eliminated prisoners’ sense of each other’s presence in prison. It sought to suppress any means for prisoners to recognize each other after they left prison. Eastern State Penitentiary became the leading representative of what was called the Pennsylvania System or the Separate System.

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