Illicit Communication in Auburn and Eastern State Model Prisons

face of a prisoner

Eastern State Penitentiary and Auburn Prison were world-famous models for suppressing prisoners’ communication. Despite large investments in physical plant and extensive administrative efforts, neither prison actually succeeded in completely suppressing communication among prisoners.

Eastern State Penitentiary was designed to keep prisoners physically separate at all times. To serve that purpose, it featured innovative building services:

each prisoner had his or her own private cell, centrally heated, with running water, a flush toilet, and a skylight. Adjacent to the cell was a private outdoor exercise yard contained by a ten-foot wall. This was in an age when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.

These extraordinary architectural investments made Eastern State Penitentiary one of the most expensive buildings in early 19th-century U.S. It had a per-prisoner cost seven times greater than other contemporary prisons.

Yet even within the bounds of Eastern State, prisoners found ways to communicate. An authority on Eastern State Penitentiary noted:

It is quite certain that prisoners were able to communicate by means of tapping on pipes, floors, and walls…. As one reads the journal of punishments kept for a time by the wardens, the number of cases in which the offense was “talking with another prisoner” exceeds all others. Inmates obviously went to great lengths to contact those near at hand by means of water pipes, tapping on cell walls, by communicating with others while in exercise yards, and by actually shouting in their cells.^

Prisoners also domesticated a rat and used its ability to crawl between cells to convey messages.^ In 1834, the convicts communicated through sewer pipes extensively enough to plan a general insurrection.^ In the summer of 1838, sewer pipes in one prison block were modified to prevent such communication. Similar changes in the other prison blocks were planned for 1839.^ The contraction and expansion of hot-water pipes also created cracks that provided communication media. Monitoring by the Prison Keeper from within Eastern State’s corridors apparently was also necessary to suppress communication.^ Even Eastern State’s highly expensive architecture was not sufficient to suppress prisoners’ communication.

Auburn Prison, which allowed prisoners to congregate in silence, likewise struggled to suppress communication in practice. Some prisoners developed an alphabet of finger motions. Observers worried about a prisoner who was a professional ventriloquist.^ Even convicts who were not ventriloquists were reportedly able to communicate, without moving their lips, by speaking “in a low tone from the throat.”^ Prisoners were innovative, shrewd, and resourceful in attempting to communicate:

Stopping communication at night was especially difficult; inmates would make intelligible noises and, if caught, tell the keepers that they had been talking in their sleep. Besides, it was extremely hard to identify the precise cells from which sounds were emanating in the darkness. If word-of-mouth contact was impossible, prisoners scratched notes on leather, wooden chips, or anything else that was available. Hiding scraps of paper, pencils, or even bits of coal, they tied strings around messages written with these materials and threw them from door to door.^

At the Auburn prison in 1845, 173 whipping were administered “for offenses consisting of or including conversation.”^ About 40% of instances of punishment at the Auburn and Sing Sing prisons in 1845 were for talking.^ The frequency of such punishments indicates great practical difficulties in suppressing prisoners’ communication.

Most County Prisons and Local Jails Never Suppressed Communication

face of a prisoner

Many prisons that had little prominence in public deliberation never attempted to suppress prisoners’ communication. In the U.S. in the early nineteenth century, the penal system included county prisons and local jails in addition to state prisons. The transnational penal-policy consensus in favor of suppressing prisoners’ communication did not change how most county prisons and jails operated. The Warden of the internationally famous Eastern State Penitentiary attempted to direct attention to this problem:

In our penitentiary, this great evil to which I have alluded {communication among prisoners}, is prevented; or, I should rather say, its progress arrested; but in the county prisons, whence we derive our inmates, it exists to a deplorable and disgraceful extent.

The Warden suggested that the failures of county prisons hurt the performance of his institution:

Convicts received by us from such country prisons, may indeed frequently be reformed by our discipline; the lessons of vice which they have learned, when placed in a confinement which the law intended should be salutary, may sometimes be eradicated afterwards; but the great, the irremediable evil, has already been effected. … Hence our institution cannot produce all the advantages of which it is susceptible, until the county prisons are reformed by the same plan of separate confinement, &c. which we pursue.^

The need for comprehensive reform is a common excuse for failure. Such comprehensive reform never occurred. A Pennsylvania prison inspector, describing the Alleghany county jail (encompassing Pittsburg) in the early 1860s, declared:

it was most distressing to see convicts, burglars, murderers, young and old, guilty and innocent, black, and white, all having unrestricted access to each other’s cells, many of whom were amusing themselves by playing cards, smoking cigars, and doing whatever else they chose for passing away the time.^

Extensive communication among prisoners was also common in other jails. In New York State in 1847, 46 out of 49 country jails placed more than one prisoner in a cell. Only 15 out of 49 of those jails claimed to prohibit conversation among prisoners.^

A similar lack of comprehensive reform existed in England. Despite the Select Committee on Gaols and Prisons’ resolutions in 1835 that urged highly restrictive communication policies, communication policies varied widely across English gaols. Some gaols allowed extensive communication between prisoners and family and friends.^ Despite the consensus in favor of it among penal authorities, suppressing prisoners’ communications was never a policy implemented comprehensively in practice.

Prison Economics Favored Congregate over Separate System

face of a prisoner

Prison economics favored the congregate system of prison discipline relative to the separate system. As technological change shifted jobs away from handcrafts and towards a more capital-intensive division of labor in manufacturing, congregate labor became more economical than labor in separate cells. Congregate eating and exercising for prisoners was also more economical and administratively simpler. In addition, the congregate system made it simpler to have prisoners work in prison operations such as preparing food, washing clothes, and building maintenance and construction.

In the U.S. by 1860, every state that had adopted the separate (Pennsylvanian) system, other than Pennsylvania, had shifted to the congregate system.^ Many prisons in Europe, however, retained the separate system into the twentieth century.^ This may reflect less political pressure to reduce fiscal cost and greater professional solidarity in upholding the existing, separate-system administration.