NY Prison Association Emerges As Rival to Prison Inspectors

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In New York State, political and civic institutions occupied similar positions for creating public knowledge about prison conditions. From the opening of the first New York State Prison in 1797, politically appointed inspectors reported to the New York legislature about prison conditions. Some of these inspectors in 1844 invited “the attention of the benevolent” to forming a society to aid discharged prisoners.^ The following month concerned citizens formed the Prison Association of New York.

The Prison Association of New York assumed a broad role in relation to prisoners. In addition to relief of discharged convicts, the Prison Association included as its purposes “amelioration of the conditions of prisoners” and “the improvement of Prison Discipline generally.”^ The Prison Association followed earlier, similar associations in Philadelphia and Boston in encompassing these purposes. These purposes directly concerned the primary activities and interests of the politically appointed prison inspectors.

The first annual report of the Prison Association described inspection difficulties. The report noted “difficulty in inspecting the prisons of the State, arising sometimes from the reluctance of their officers to submit to what they deemed unauthorized intrusion.”^ Punishment is a public function. In a democracy, civic institutions and citizens in general should be concerned with prisons. At the same time, civic concern is not the same as direct administrative responsibility. The Prison Association and prison officials differed over who was authorized to inspect prisons.

Evidently responding to questions of authority, the Prison Association secured extensive authority under a legislative act of incorporation. The Prison Association’s Act of Incorporation, passed on May 9, 1846, stated:

The said executive committee {of the Prison Association} by such committees as they shall from time to time appoint, shall have power, and it shall be their duty to visit, inspect and examine, all the prisons in the state, and annually report to the legislature their state and condition, and all such other things in regard to them as may enable the legislature to perfect their government and discipline.

The Act of Incorporation explicitly gave the Prison Association committees the same rights to inspect prisons that the official prison inspectors had under statute:

And to enable them to execute the powers and perform the duties hereby granted and imposed, they shall possess all the powers and authority that by the twenty-fourth section, of the title first, chapter third, part fourth of the Revised Statutes are vested in the inspectors of the county prisons, and the duties of the keepers of each prison that they may examine shall be in the same relation to them, as in the section aforesaid, are imposed on the keepers of such prisons in relation to the inspectors thereof^

Prison Association members were required to secure a judicial order prior to inspecting a prison. The first president of the Prison Association, W. T. McCoun, was a New York State Vice Chancellor. A leading founder and the Vice-President of the Prison Association, John W. Edmonds, was a circuit judge. Since Prison Association members included such judicial officials, securing a judicial order was probably quite easy. The Prison Association became potentially as powerful as the politically appointed prison inspectors for creating public knowledge about prison conditions.

Conflict Between NY Prison Assocation and Prison Inspectors

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Within a year after the Prison Association received authority comparable to that of the politically appointed prison inspectors, the Prison Association and the prison inspectors were harshly criticizing each other. The Prison Association in its annual reports provided to the public and the New York State legislature a large amount of formerly unavailable information about conditions in all four New York State prisons and some county prisons. The Prison Association published information about prison finances, prison discipline, prisoner population statistics, and discharged convicts. Moreover, the Prison Association documented abuses that had not been previously publicly reported. In its report of Dec. 2, 1847, the Prison Association’s Executive Committee compared the Prison Association favorably to the official state prison inspectors:

The inspectors however honestly they may be disposed to discharge their duties, are always more or less interested in particular offices, they are instruments of their own appointment, friends perhaps of long standing, and it may be, men of considerable political influence; besides, as supervisors of the prison, the presentation of any serious charge against the officers is in fact a censure upon themselves, impeaching their vigilance, care and discretion. Thus many abuses are yearly overlooked, which if they had been properly represented to the Legislature might have led to investigations which would have formed a basis for desirable improvement in our prison discipline or at least furnished important lights to guide us through its scarcely illumined mazes. The power therefore vested in the Prison Association appears to be wisely devised, and limited as it is, to examining and reporting, of the utmost importance. ^

The State Prison Committee of the New York Senate, however, expressed concern about the Prison Association’s actions. In a report to the Senate on Dec. 14, 1847, the Senate’s State Prison Committee stated:

its influences have tended to impair the discipline of the prison. The convicts are said to be “in daily communication with the prison association, or some officer of the prison in the interest of the association, and are informed that the Legislature has given this society power to regulate and control the affairs of the prison;” that there is “intense feeling and sympathy entertained for the poor creatures, and a watchful eye will be kept upon all the acts and conduct of the keepers, &c., &c., which has a tendency to make the convicts restless, impudent, and to doubt the authorities of the prison.” This is the testimony of one who knows well its effects. They seem to act in the character of spies on the discipline generally and particularly, being permitted to converse alone with the prisoners, without the presence of the keeper; and the results above alluded to, your committee are of opinion, are the natural consequences of such minute and constant interference with the particular management of the prison, and must be very annoying to the keepers in their attempts to preserve a mild but healthy discipline.^

The actions of the official prison inspectors did not generate such concern. Apparently the Prison Association members were inspecting prisons more actively and more independently than were the official state prison inspectors.

Legislative Action in 1847 to Reduce the NY Prison Association’s Inspection Authority

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About a year after the Prison Association of New York gained authority comparable to that of the politically appointed prison inspectors, the New York legislature challenged the Prison Association’s inspection authority. In 1847, the legislature considered a bill to abolish the Prison Association’s inspection authority. Prison Association officials objected strenuously, and the bill did not pass.^

The New York legislature then indirectly undermined the Prison Association’s legal authority. On December 14, 1847, the legislature passed an act for better regulating prisons. Regarding prison inspectors, the act declared:

The following persons shall be authorized to visit at pleasure all county and state prisons: The governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, comptroller and attorney general, members of the legislature, judges of the court of appeals, supreme court and county judges, district attorneys and every minister of the gospel having charge of a congregation in a town wherein any such prison is situated. No other persons not otherwise authorized by law shall be permitted to enter the rooms of a county prison in which convicts are confined, unless under such regulations as the sheriff of the county shall prescribe, nor to enter a state prison except under such regulations as the inspectors shall prescribe.^

The Prison Association was omitted from the list of explicitly authorized visitors, but arguably included in the phrase “otherwise authorized by law.” The act incorporating the Prison Association, passed on May 9, 1846, gave the Prison Association the same rights as prison inspectors under the Revised Statutes of 1829. The 1847 act repealed those provisions of the Revised Statutes of 1829, but did not address the Prison Association’s incorporating act. The Prison Association’s statutory authority thus became a matter of controversy between the Prison Association and the prison inspectors after passage of the 1847 prison law.