Silence as Observed in Auburn


Figure 1: Auburn Penitentiary


In the early nineteenth century, criminals convicted in New York were generally sentenced to one of two penitentiaries: Auburn State penitentiary in Cayuga County New York or Mount Pleasant at Sing-Sing. Of the eight “Senate-Districts” of New York at the time, convicts convicted in the New York City district or the two surrounding districts were generally sentenced to Sing-Sing, the remaining five state districts would send convicts to Auburn. See the figure below for a visual representation of these districts.


Figure 2

The construction of Auburn State Penitentiary began in 1816 after legislation was passed to reduce the overcrowding at Newgate.[1] By the winter of 1817, the institution would be ready to house criminals.[2] Originally the planners would have no intentions to innovate a new penal system: the design and plan for the prison originally mimicked those of previously established institutions, namely Newgate and the Walnut Street Jail. But by the mid 1820s, through trial and experimentation, Auburn would go on to develop a more efficient penal system: a system that would allow criminals to work in the same rooms during the day and bring them back into solitude by night. During these days and nights, the prisoners were expected to remain silent.[3] The development of this Auburn system came from the perceived failure of the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners were continuously kept isolated from each other.

Experiments at Auburn in Solitary Confinement

On April 2nd, 1821, the New York Legislature directed the agent at Auburn Prisoner to select the most hardened criminals to be locked up in solitary confinement, similar to the convicts in Pennsylvania, except these criminals would be denied the privilege of work to keep busy. By December of 1821, the experiment of solitary confinement would begin with the completed construction of 80 cells for 80 convicts.[4] These isolated convicts were to remain completely silent except to speak to the Chaplain or to notify the officer if they were sick. They would only be moved from their cell if they needed to be taken to the hospital wing of the prison and they were not permitted to lie down during the day.[5]

Initially, Gershon Powers, Agent and Keeper at Auburn, stated that the solitary confinement experiment appeared to be working. Powers expressed a view held by many New York penal reformers: that the severity of a solitary punishment was better than the chaos seen in penitentiaries like Newgate or the jails of the past.[6] Soon, the experiments would prove to be a failure. Within a year of starting, five inmates would die; the rest would become emotionally disturbed.[7] By 1822, an act was passed that directed the inspectors to report to the Supreme Court on the convicts in solitary confinement including the convicts’ crimes, character and conduct, and duration of their sentence in solitary confinement. The act required the Justices to review the report and determine from their own notes on the trials of said convicts whether they should be pardoned from such punishment.[8]   The Legislature would later pass an act requiring the Inspectors to report to Governor Yates, who would visit the prison and determine whether the mode of punishment was too harsh. After consulting with the inspectors and Agent, the governor would reduce their punishments, pardoning 26 and allowing the remaining to leave their cells by 1823.[9]


Development of the Auburn System and its implementation at Auburn

During the experiments in complete solitude at Auburn, the administrators were working to devise a system for the other inmates.[10] By 1825 the prison would have 550 completed solitary sleeping cells (each seven and a half feet long, three feet eight inches wide, and seven feet high) placed back-to-back and stacked on top of each other in 5 stories. The arrangement of these cells can be seen in the figure below.


Figure 3


Figure 4: Part of Crawford’s plan for Sing Sing (cells are similar in structure to Auburn)

Prisoners were only isolated in these cells at night. During the day, they worked in the same room. In order to maintain order at the penitentiary, keepers would attempt to cut off all forms of communication between prisoners using methods of coercion and intimidation. Inmates would need to be under constant surveillance (or, at the very least, feel as if they were under constant surveillance) in order for this newly developing system to work.[11] The success and creation of this new system is often attributed to Captain Elam Lynds, Agent of Auburn from 1821-5, and later Agent of Sing-Sing. Lynds was noted for having the personality necessary for controlling and silencing. He would assemble the convicts together, and explain to them the rules that they would have to follow under his system. Simply put, convicts were to work diligently and quietly or get flogged.[12] De Beaumont and De Tocqueille mention in their 1833 report on penitentiaries, that in order to maintain silence at penitentiaries under the Auburn system, it would be necessary to have threats of punishment.[13] John Luckey pointed out that at first, inmates would perceive Lynds’ rules as optional and threats as empty, but the man was filled with such determination about keeping his prisoners in line, the prisoners were eventually subordinate to the agent’s rigid rules.[14]

The Auburn Schedule and How Prisoners were Kept Silent

At sunrise, prisoners were awakened with a bell and let out of their cells by the turnkey, who had to unlock each cell door individually.[15] The keepers would then march prisoners out of their cells to their workstations making shoes, combs, and other objects. Prisoners were also assigned to cook, clean,  and work in the prison hospital. One technique utilized to prevent communicating while marching was the lockstep, likely created by John D. Cray, a deputy keeper at Auburn. Keepers Assistants, the prison employees tasked with moving prisoners, forced convicts to march in single file, keeping an erect posture at all times. They would place their hands on the shoulder of the inmate in front of them. There faces would remain visible to keepers who would stand beside the line of marching prisoners, watching for any mouth movements.[16] The figure below shows this march at Sing-Sing.


Figure 5


Once at their workstations, prisoners were under the surveillance of the Keeper’s Assistants. In the State Commissioner’s Report, it is noted that the Keepers Assistants, in particular, played a great deal in maintaining the order and silence.[17] The keeper’s assistants walked among the men as they worked during the day, using their sticks or rattans to intimidate the prisoners and keep the order. If a prisoner needed correcting, an assistant could administer a blow right on the spot.[18] Prisoners were also kept silent through their arrangement and separated from each other as much as possible facing away from each other.[19] An example of this can be seen in the figure below with woman held at Auburn working in the prison factory.


Figure 6

After the signal of a bell for a 7 or 8 o’clock breakfast (depending on the season), the prisoners would be lead in the same fashion and order as before, from their workstations to the common hall to eat a 20 to 30 minute meal in silence.[20] Prisoners sat at one side of a long table and were arranged in such a way so that the absence of a prisoner would be noticeable to the guards. The arrangement also prevented them from being able to make facial gestures at each other.[21] After their breakfast, they returned to work until a mid-day bell signaled them for their noontime dinner. After this meal the bell would signal them to return to work. At sunset, the prisoners would be marched back to their cells, after eating their final meal.[22] Their night ended with the instructions to close their cell doors in order to allow the turnkey to lock them in.[23]

At night, communication was easier to prevent. The assistant keeper patrolled the halls checking the cells to make sure no inmates were conversing. They would even wear moccasins on their feet to muffle their steps. Since the doors at Auburn were recessed into the walls, inmates were unable to spot patrols until directly in front of their cells. This particular structural design also made it harder for sound to carry from one cell to the other, making it particularly difficult to talk without consequence.[24]

Communication between Convicts

Observers of the prisoners reported that these methods of keeping the silence were overall successful. In their report on the penitentiary, De Beaumont and De Tocqueville, would recount there times spying on the inmates in their workstations at Auburn (each workshop was surrounded by a gallery where observers could view prisoners without being seen.). In their report, they claim that not once did they catch prisoners conversing or communicating.[25] Gustave Beaumont and Alexis De Tocqueville also interviewed some of the officers, and these interviews further the notion that prisoners for the most part maintained silence. One particular Auburn officer reported that while in the beginning of his career he would regularly see 19 men whipped in an hour, by the time of the interview he had gone four and a half months without a whipping.[26]

But the actual frequency of communication between inmates is unknown. Reformers have various accounts of the actual amount of communication at Auburn. In 1842, Fred Packard (a proponent of the Pennsylvania system) visited the inmates at Auburn and claimed that according to a reliable source the inmates knew each other names, crimes, sentences, and even the courts they were sentenced in.[27]

De Beaumont and De Tocqueille discovered from a former penitentiary director, that occasionally prisoners would talk in their workstations. Prisoners were able to whisper to each other without moving their lips, which made it difficult to decipher which prisoners were whispering. A convicted ventriloquist could have even possibly trained prisoners to communicate in this fashion. [28] Gershon Powers, in his 1826 account, mentioned enfeebled men serving long sentences at Auburn who were able to communicate through a sort of finger alphabet.[29]

Communication very likely occurred between the prisoners with cellmates. On December 17th, 1831 Auburn had 622 prisoners including those transferred from Sing-Sing. Only 550 of those had a single cell in the north wing. The rest were paired up in the South Wing of the Prison. By doubling prisoners up, guards were completely unable to ensure that prisoners were kept in complete silence.[30] Even the prisoners in solitary cells were possibly communicating through the institution’s ventilation system.[31]

While the Auburn system was certainly an improvement on the jails of the past, the system was not without its flaws. While the theory behind reforming prisoners required that they remained isolated from each other, achieving this would prove to be a challenge. Ultimately the Auburn system would go on to influence Sing-Sing in fundamental ways.


Figure 7: Auburn

-Daniel Magaldi

Works Cited

[1] Crawford, William. Report of William Crawford, esq., on the penitentiaries of the United States / addressed to His Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department. London, 1839. p. 23

[2] Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora; the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965. p. 54

[3] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. p. 56

[4] Luckey, John. Life in Sing Sing State Prison: as seen in a twelve years’ chaplaincy. New-York, 1860.

379pp. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. Back to the New York Public Library Databases. 13 November 2016. pp. 9, 10

[5] Powers, Gershon. A Brief Account of the Construction, Management, & Discipline, &c. &c., of the New York State Prison at Auburn. Auburn, NY: U.F. Doubleday, 1826.

[6] Powers, A Brief Account. p. 34

[7] Luckey, Life in Sing Sing.

[8] Powers. A Brief Account. p. 34

[9] Powers. A Brief Account. p. 35 Luckey, Life in Sing Sing.

[10] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. p. 81

[11] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. p. 81

[12] Luckey, Life in Sing Sing.

[13] De Beaumont, G. and A. De Toqueille On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and its Application in France, translated from the French with an Introduction Notes and Additions by Franz Leiber, Philadelphia: Carey Leah and Blanchard. 1833.

[14] Luckey, Life in Sing Sing.

[15] Crawford, Report of William Crawford, p. 24

[16] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. Powers. A Brief Account.

[17] Powers, A Brief Account.

[18] Powers, A Brief Account.

[19] Crawford, Report of William Crawford, p. 25

[20] Powers, A Brief Account.

[21] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. Powers. A Brief Account.

[22] De Beaumont, On the Penitentiary System.

[23] Crawford, Report of William Crawford. p. 25

[24] Crawford, Report of William Crawford. p. 25

[25] De Beaumont, On the Penitentiary System. p. 26

[26] De Beaumont, On the Penitentiary System.

[27] Lewis, Newgate to Dannemora. p. 133

[28] De Beaumont, On the Penitentiary System. p. 291.

[29] Powers, A Brief Account. 71

[30] New York State. Legislature. Documents of the Assembly of the state of New-York, 55th session, Volume I, No. 2, Albany NY, In Assembly January 3rd 1832.

[31] Crawford, Report of William Crawford. 23



Figure 1: Kotepho. The front of Auburn Correctional Facility. Digital image. May 19, 2006. 19 May 2006.

Figure 2: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. “State of New York : in Senate Jany. 7th, 1836” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 22, 2016.

Figure 3 and 4 taken from: Crawford, William. Report of William Crawford, esq., on the penitentiaries of the United States / addressed to His Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department. London, 1839.

Figure 5: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Line of prisoners at Sing Sing Prison.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 14, 2016.

Figure 6: Review of Reviews and World’s Work. Digital image. New York Review of Reviews Corp, n.d. Web.

Figure 7: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Prison front yard from top of wall.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 22, 2016.