Prisons’ Means for Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication

face of a prisoner

The United States early in the nineteenth century provided operational models of tightly suppressing prisoners’ communication with other prisoners and with non-prisoners. Communicative isolation of prisoners occurred in Philadelphia on a small scale late in the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth-century, the Auburn State Prison in New York and the Eastern State Penitentiary near Philadelphia developed explicit, generally applied regimes for suppressing prisoners’ communications. These regimes were recognized as leading examples for penal practice and were adopted world-wide. The U.S. historically led the world in the development of a free press and an extensive postal system to support free circulation of ideas. The U.S. also led the world in suppressing prisoners’ communication.

The Auburn regime of suppressing prisoners’ communication developed through widely different practices. Prior to 1817, the Auburn State Prison allowed extensive communication among prisoners. From 1817 to 1823, Auburn shifted to solitary confinement for every prisoner and then to allowing prisoners to eat, exercise, work, and worship in each others’ presence, but under a rule of strict silence.^ The latter regime became known as the Auburn System, the Congregate System, or the Silent System.

While allowing congregate activities during the day, Auburn Prison nonetheless strictly suppressed communication among prisoners. Groups of prisoners moved from place to place in “lock-step,” a rigidly spaced single-file line of persons with their heads turned to the right. This formation gave guards a clear view of the prisoner lips and helped them to detect any attempts to communicate. In the dining hall, convicts sat on only one side of narrow tables, “face to back,” “so as to avoid exchanging looks or signs.” Prisoners worked in a common room in strictly supervised silence. While prisoners could see each other’s bodies, a “highly important regulation” instructed officers:

prevent any convict from ever speaking to another convict, without special direction from and under the eye of a Keeper, under all circumstances where such a rule could possibly be enforced.^

One visitor to Auburn noted there during the day “profound silence,” and in the evening, “the silence within these vast walls, which contain so many prisoners, is that of death.”^ Another visitor stated that while the prisoners worked together, “Not even a whisper is heard; though the silence is such that a whisper might be heard throughout the whole apartment.”^

prisoner's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary
Prisoner’s cell at the (no longer operational) Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary was specifically designed to suppress prisoners’ communication. Eastern State received its first prisoners in late October, 1829. The penitentiary suppressed communication among prisoners by isolating prisoners in separate cells day and night. Each prisoner had a cell that included a flush toilet, a small portal through which food could be delivered without the guard being seen, and a skylight. Attached to each cell was a small, individually walled exercise yard that the prisoner could use one hour per day. Prisoners ate, worked, and listened to religious instruction from their individual cells.^ Prisoners were forbidden to attempt to communicate with those in adjacent cells, and they were ordered to “not make any unnecessary noise, either by singing, whistling, or in any other manner; but in all respects preserve becoming silence.”^ Hoods were placed over the prisoners’ heads when they were moved within the prison, so that they would not inadvertently catch sight of another prisoner.^ As an ideal, Eastern State Penitentiary eliminated prisoners’ sense of each other’s presence in prison. It sought to suppress any means for prisoners to recognize each other after they left prison. Eastern State Penitentiary became the leading representative of what was called the Pennsylvania System or the Separate System.

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.

Suppressing Prisoners’ Communication with Family and Friends

face of a prisoner

Both Auburn State Prison and Eastern State Penitentiary, celebrated nineteenth-century pioneers in penal policy, vigorously suppressed prisoners’ communication with family and friends. About 1822, Auburn State Prison established the regulation:

That the convicts shall receive no letters or intelligence from or concerning their friends, or any information on any subject out of the Prison; nor be permitted to write letters themselves: That no relation or friend shall be allowed to speak to a convict, except in some extraordinary case, where the condition of his property or family imperiously requires it, and then only in the presence of the Agent or Deputy Keeper: but that any information concerning the convicts will be furnished to their friends on personal application, or by letter, post-paid, directed to the Agent.^

Reporting on interviews with prisoners being prepared for discharge in 1825 and 1826, Auburn’s keeper noted that the prisoners uniformly agreed that “being deprived of all intelligence of their friends and the affairs of the world” caused great suffering. Prisoners felt that they had brought “disgrace, suffering, and ruin…upon those to whom they are allied by kindred and affection, and of whose condition and fate their ignorance keeps them in a constant agony of suspense.”^ For typical terms of imprisonment of two to three years, and sometimes much longer, a prisoner was thus “literally buried from the world,” to be restored to society “as ignorant of its current events as if he had risen from the dead.”^ ^

Eastern State Penitentiary, like Auburn State Prison, suppressed prisoners’ communication with family and friends. Officials responsible for prison reform in Pennsylvania visited Auburn in 1826. After returning, they requested a written response to eighteen detailed questions. These questions included:

10’th. Are the visits of friends of convicts, and others, permitted in your prison; and under what rules and restrictions? What is your opinion as to the policy of suffering any such interference with prisoners?^

Note the tendentious phrase “suffering any such interference.” Eastern State officials already knew that Auburn State Prison suppressed prisoners’ communication with the outside world. The written questions apparently were the time-honored bureaucratic tactic of seeking predictable documentary support for a preferred policy direction.

When Eastern State began operating in 1829, it allowed no communication between prisoners and the outside world. According to Eastern State’s warden, prisoners “were deprived from all intercourse or knowledge of every kind with either their family or friends.”^ A Pennsylvania law enacted earlier that year formally declared this communicative regime of imprisonment:

None but the official visitors can have any communication with the convicts, nor shall any visitor whatever be permitted to deliver to or receive from any of the convicts, any letter or message whatever, or to supply them with any article of any kind under the penalty of one hundred dollars fine^

Eastern State prisoners suffered greatly from suppression of their communication with their families. Official French visitors to Eastern State in 1831 published notes from their interviews with prisoners. They included these descriptions:

No. 28 – he finds a kind of pleasure in solitude, and is only tormented by the desire of seeing once more his family…

No. 41– sheds tears during our whole conversation, particularly when he is reminded of his family.

No. 85 – If you speak of his wife and child, he weeps bitterly.

No. 00 — He cannot think of his relations without melting into tears; he takes from under his bed some letters which his family has succeeded in sending to him. These letters are almost in pieces, in consequence of being read so often; he reads them still, comments upon them, and is touched by the least expression of interest which they contain.^

The last account indicates that prisoners were occasionally allowed to exchange letters with relatives.^ Nonetheless, such communication evidently was strictly restricted. In 1847, Eastern State’s physician declared:

It might be well under suitable limitations to keep the prisoner informed of his family affairs, and the kind disposition of his friends towards him. At all periods of their sentences I have known husbands and fathers to suffer great anxiety to be informed of the health and circumstances of their wives and children ; and sons and daughters to know whether they will be again received into the domestic circle — on which, in an unguarded moment, they brought sorrow and disgrace — or be for ever denied the protection of a father’s roof.

As the separate system only professes to deprive the prisoner of intercourse with the vicious and abandoned, we may suppose that regular visits from a virtuous and honest relative could be permitted with safety, — nay, with advantage. Of course I would not recommend indiscriminate intercourse between the prisoner and his friends. Only such should be allowed to see him as are known to possess a character above reproach, and even they in the presence of an officer of the Institution.^

Again in 1850, Eastern State’s physician urged:

I believe that we should permit a much freer intercourse between the prisoner and his friends than is now the case. Letters – always passing through the Warden’s hands – and visits from such relatives as are known to pursue a virtuous life, might be made the means of infinite good to both the mind and morals of isolated convicts.^

The Philadelphia Society for alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was actively engaged in visiting prisoners. The Philadelphia Society and other important participants in public deliberation, however, discussed little prisoners’ communication with family and friends.

Prison administrators considered controlling prisoners’ communication with family and friends to be a powerful tool for controlling prisoners. In 1846, a penitentiary keeper argued that allowing prisoners to communicate with family and friends distracted them from prison labor. Other prison officials, to the contrary, viewed such communication as a key motivational tool. About 1860, an English social reformer asked an English prison administrator:

“Do you find,” we asked, “that you have the inmates of the jail under the same control now as in the days of thumb-screws, and gags, and brandings?”

“I think we have greater power over them, sir,” was the answer; “for at present, you see, we cut off the right of receiving and sending letters, as well as stop the visits of their friends; and a man feels those things much more than any torture that he could be put to.”^

Even though suppressing prisoners’ communication with family and friends was claimed to inflict pain more effectively than torture, suppressing prisoners’ communication with family and friends never attracted the public concern that penal torture did.