Arguing about the Effects of Silent vs. Separate Penal Regimes

face of a prisoner

Beginning in the late 1820s, fierce debates raged about the relative merits of the silent (Auburn) system and the separate (Pennsylvania) system of suppressing prisoners’ communication. Authorities directly associated with the founding and administration of the Auburn prison and of the Eastern State Penitentiary naturally tended to support their respective sides. Other prison discipline authorities readily chose sides and argued vociferously for one system or the other.^ For example, the Rev. Louis Dwight, a founder and long-time secretary of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, championed the silent system. In a report to the Boston Prison Discipline Society in 1846, Samuel Gridley Howe, a well-born Boston physician, abolitionist, and advocate of education for the blind, vigorously endorsed the separate system. He thus directly challenged Dwight and other Boston-based supporters of the silent system.^

Claims that the separate system produced death or insanity weren’t arguments for allowing ordinary communication among prisoners. Producing death or insanity were arguments for shifting to the silent system of suppressing prisoners’ communication. For example, prison officials in New Jersey and Rhode Island early in the 1840s argued that their prisons, operated under the separate system, were hurting prisoners and causing some to go insane. Rhode Island switched to the silent system about 1844, and New Jersey switched to the silent system between 1846 and 1849.^ In retrospect, this shift appears relatively insignificant and may have been motivated by prison over-crowding.

U.S. prisons operating under both the silent and separate systems of suppressing prisoners’ communication had prisoner death rates more than double that of the civilian population. In U.S state prisons from 1840 to 1843, the average (population weighted) death rate was about 2.7% of prisoners per year. In the U.S. in 1850, about 1.2% of males ages 20-49 (the most typical ages for prisoners) died per year. Differences in death rates between individual prisons, between black and white prisoners, and between male and female prisoners were much greater than death-rate differences between the silent and separate systems. Nonetheless, those differences attracted little public attention.

Deliberative competition between the silent and separate systems implicitly supported suppressing prisoners’ communication. In 1845, one participant in the public arguments observed:

What we desire to have borne in mind by the reader is, that the groundwork of amelioration has constantly been urged by all parties to be the prevention of communication amongst prisoners. Other things being equal, the extent to which this is secured in any penitentiary would be a fair test of the degree of perfection which that institution had attained^

About this time, Johann Ludwig Tellkampf, a German scholar and professor at Columbia University, read to the Prison Association of New York a scholarly analysis of the difference between the separate and silent systems.^ Proponents of the separate system sharply criticized his work:

He thinks a hundred persons, occupying the same apartment, but maintaining strict silence, are as truly separate, the one from the other, as if each individual occupied an entirely distinct and separate apartment. The Philadelphia system works “by means of bodily separation in partitioned cells,” and the “Auburn system” by enforcing silence during the day and separation during the night;” … so it seems that, by a ruse of the Professor, our system has lost its distinctive name and feature, and henceforth, the separate system which has always been silent, is to be identified with the silent system, which has never been separate! … the Auburn discipline cannot, by any possibility, prevent intelligible intercourse by signs. The plain truth on this point is, that the Pennsylvania system, be separating the convicts ENTIRELY, utterly precludes the opportunity of mutual corruption. The Auburn system, by silencing them when at work, and separating them at night, PARTIALLY prevents corruption in some of its worst forms, and certainly makes a great advance on the former condition of our prisons. …

If would be, indeed, an inexplicable phenomenon, if two systems of prison discipline, so diverse in principle and administration, as those adopted at Auburn and Philadelphia, should produce any thing like the same amount of reformation.^

With one sentence and a footnote, a proponent of the separate system condemned the widespread practice of exhibiting prisoners to the public for a spectator admission fee.^ Most persons arguing about the separate and silent systems did not mention prisoners’ communication with family and friends not imprisoned. Vociferous, decades-long public debates about how best to suppress communication among prisoners also largely excluded serious consideration of whether such suppression actually promoted reformation.

The extensive, antagonistic, and inconclusive deliberation about the Auburn and Pennsylvania systems eventually attracted other interests. In 1850, a knowledgeable member of the Prison Association of New York’s Prison Discipline Committee noted:

The experiments which the two prominent systems of Prison Discipline have been undergoing for the last twenty years, have not as yet resulted in any definite and very decided conclusions in favor of either. …the confidence of either party in the superiority of their system, seems not on the whole to be a whit abated. …In fact, the contest which has been so long waged between these opposing systems, seems to draw no nearer to a conclusion than it did some years since.^

Part of the deliberative problem was to disentangle effects of the different disciplinary regimes from other differences, such as different prisoner populations. The Prison Association member advocated further research to advance deliberation:

There seems, indeed, to be a fundamental difficulty in the way, which can only be satisfactorily removed by combining the two under one administration. Such a measure would afford us the opportunity of testing the comparative merits of each system under the same latitude, and as nearly as possible under the similar circumstances.^

The means for a such a test was constructing a new prison. The member stood ready with detailed plans: “working plans can be procured by those wishing to build, showing in detail the arrangement and construction of the building by addressing…”^ Supplying these “working plans” probably was related to personal, material interests.

Prison officials sought middle ground and additional facilities while making pragmatic decisions. In 1866, they generally favored supplementing the Auburn (congregate) system with solitary cells like those in the Pennsylvania (separate) system:

The theory of the congregate system of imprisonment is a rigid prohibition of inter-communication between the prisoners…. The opinion was very generally expressed to us by prison officials that it is, in all cases, desirable to supplement the congregate system with a number of solitary cells, sufficiently large, well-lighted, and well-aired to serve for workshops as well as sleeping rooms.^

By 1866, Eastern State Penitentiary was confining more than one prisoner per cell. In 1869, Pennsylvania passed a law allowing congregate work in its state prisons. Officials associated with the Eastern State Penitentiary began to refer to their system as “the individual treatment system” rather than “separate method of confinement with labor and moral instruction.”^ While they continued to proclaim the special merits of the Pennsylvania System up until the early 1890s, in practice they accommodated larger prison populations and prisoner work that offered a greater pecuniary return.

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