Accounting for Spectator Revenue at NY State Prisons

face of a prisoner

In the mid-nineteenth century, Auburn State Prison in New York State carefully accounted for its spectator revenue. Auburn Prison led state prisons in collecting revenue for exhibiting prisoners to the public. In 1826, the Keeper of Auburn prison described the administration of spectators’ admission:

The guard, at the front gate, admits, at the proper hours, all decent persons who request it: and if they wish to visit the Prison, are directed to the Clerk’s Office, where they are furnished with Tickets, at 25 cents, each person, from a Ticket Book, similar to a Bank Check Book, in the margin of which are entered the date, number and amount of Tickets.

The guard, at the inner door in the Keeper’s Hall, allows no one to pass into the Prison, without the permission of the Keeper or Deputy, unless there is a Turnkey to go with him, and he has a Ticket, which the guard slips on a wire, though a hole, into a close box, which is opened every month, and the Tickets compared with the margin of the Ticket Book, to guard against fraud or mistake.^

From Oct. 1831 through Apr. 1862, the monthly reports of the Auburn Prison Clerk, which were included in the annual reports of the prison inspectors, always included a line itemizing “visitor” revenue.

Other prisons provided less complete reporting of spectator revenue. Inspectors’ reports for New York’s Sing Sing State Prison typically did not include monthly spectator revenue and in some reports combined spectator revenue with “sundry revenue.” New York’s Clinton State Prison provided even sparser reporting of spectator revenue. State prisons in other states reported yearly spectator revenue at least in some years. Differences in accounting control on spectator revenue might have significantly affected differences in reported spectator revenue across prisons.

Legislative action apparently led the Auburn prison inspectors to stop reporting spectator revenue. On April 22, 1862, the New York legislature passed a law that reduced the minimum sentence to state prison and gave prisoners the opportunity to earn a commutation of sentence through fixed “good time” credits. The law also included a provision regarding spectator revenue:

The funds arising from the fees charged to visitors at the state prisons and penitentiaries may be applied under the direction of the Inspectors of Prisons by the warden to the use and benefit of convicts upon their discharge, provided that no convict shall receive any greater sum than ten dollars in addition to the amount now allowed by law, and also that the condition of the allowance of such additional sum shall be the good behavior of the convict during his imprisonment.^

In 1864, the Prison Association of New York reported:

since May, 1862, a gratuity of $5 has been added {to the previously established $3} from a fund furnished by the fee of twenty five cents paid by visitor and by donations. New, or good second-hand suits of clothes are also given to prisoners at the time of their discharge.^

The state treasury was responsible for the over-all financial balance of the prison. Tying spectator revenue to a new, discretionary use obscured the fiscal cost of the change. The 1862 law prompted the clerk to stop reporting monthly spectator revenue immediately after the passage of the law. Yearly spectator revenue was reported on an ad hoc basis through fiscal year 1864. Subsequently all reporting of spectator revenue ended. Perhaps this accounting change was part of an implicit political bargain to secure support for the 1862 prison law.

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