Following the Revolutionary War, several aspects of American society were in flux as political leaders attempted to create a national framework founded on the ideals of liberty. One such aspect of life in the United States was the manner in which the government punished criminals. Early American lawmakers realized that the corporal methods of punishment employed by monarchs were incongruous with the ideals of the new Republic. They acknowledged that time in the stocks did little to reform a criminal, public beatings made an offender vindictive rather than repentant, and hanging a wrongdoer could even generate sympathy for him.
In a society where liberty was valued above all else, the reasoning went, what better way to reform lawbreakers than by temporarily stripping them of their liberties?[i] Thus, the foundations of the modern prison were laid.
Punishment migrated from the public square to the isolated penitentiary. However, as prison reformers learned through the course of the nineteenth century, bucolic settings and seclusion from everyday vices were not transforming the average prisoner for the better, as evidenced by the prevalence of repeated offenses. In essence, the penitentiary was failing in its ultimate goal—to reform.
The obstacles faced by the reform-minded architects of post-Revolutionary prisons bear striking similarity to the problems that currently plague the modern penal system. This project, a collection of figures, data sets, and essays authored and complied by the members of Fordham Lincoln Center Honors Class of 2019, elucidates some of the flaws that were present in American prisons from their very inception. In particular, these entries focus on the creation and early histories of two New York prisons: Newgate (1797) and Sing-Sing (1826).
The rise of the prison is investigated by essays pertaining to the ideological ties of prison reformers and the ideas behind the prison location and architecture. The experience of prison is voiced by accounts written by released convicts and the chaplains who advised them, as well as the public reaction to these institutions. Descriptions of the harsh realities of prison life like substandard healthcare, disciplinary actions, escape attempts, and the use of silence against the prisoners further illuminate the sufferings of the incarcerated. The stripping of the individual identities of the prisoners, often done under the guise of there being a “scientifically” criminal class, shows the way that these people were further removed from society. Essays that investigate the similarities between the treatment of the imprisoned, the mentally handicapped, and juvenile offenders demonstrate that abuse of marginalized communities extended beyond prison walls. Finally, a section that complies statistics and figures from Newgate records exhibits the intersection of crime, race, age, and occupation, along with other factors.
[i] Mark E. Kann, Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 1-6, accessed November 14, 2016, http://site.ebrary.com.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/lib/fordham/detail.action?docID=10137148.
Paget, H.M. “Perkin Warbeck In The Pillory.” Digital image. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1884. Accessed November 14, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-1d9a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
“Line of prisoners at Sing Sing Prison.” Digital image. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. ca. 1860-1920. Accessed November 14, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-1f30-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99