Official Communication with Prisoners at Auburn and Eastern State

face of a prisoner

While in the nineteenth century Auburn State Prison and Eastern State Penitentiary strictly suppressed communication among prisoners, both provided for official communication with prisoners. The prison warden and prison physician could communicate with prisoners, perhaps visiting each prisoner once every two weeks. Legislatively appointed prison inspectors visited each prisoner about once per month in the course of reviewing prison conditions and monitoring the treatment of prisoners.

Religious officials also interacted with prisoners. Auburn State Prison paid a full-time chaplain to provide services in the Chapel, teach Sunday school, and visit prisoners in their cells. The Pennsylvania legislature, in contrast, initially stipulated that a religious instructor serving Eastern State Penitentiary had to provide service gratuitously. The reluctance of the legislature to fund a chaplain seems to have been related to sectarian conflict.^ From 1829 to 1838, Eastern State thus had no religious instructor. A subsequently funded Moral Instructor visited each Eastern State prisoner roughly monthly.

Members of civic organizations assumed responsibilities for visiting prisoners. In Pennsylvania, a well-established philanthropic organization, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, was authorized to have its members visit prisoners. Philadelphia Society members visited Eastern State Penitentiary weekly from the beginning of Eastern State’s operation.^ In New York State, the Prison Association of New York provided a similar, but less formal and less active, visiting service.

The small number of persons authorized to communicate with prisoners and the large number of prisoners meant that prisoners in Auburn State Prison and Eastern State Penitentiary about 1850 spent on average little time communicating with physically present human beings. Even after Eastern State had hired a full-time moral and religious instructor, prisoners there probably spent on average less than fifteen minutes per day in the physical presence of another person.^ In Auburn, prisoners’ authorized opportunities to speak probably averaged less than fifteen minutes per day.

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