The Origins of Silence in the Penitentiary

The Climate for Penal Reform

In 1776, the United States had just declared independence from Britain and was going through a period of change. A new nation needed new laws, and thus, during this pivotal time in American history, there was a scramble to discover the most efficient way to deter crime. American penal reformers wished to depart from the old forms of punishment: public humiliation, floggings, beheadings, and various barbaric practices associated with the irrational monarchies of the old world.[i] Following experiments in penal reform in Philadelphia in 1790, America would pioneer new methods for incarcerating.[ii] With the advancement of theories from reformers who studied penitentiaries around the world and through simple trial and error, by the mid 1820s, one New York penitentiary in Cayuga County would develop an efficient system that utilized silence to keep inmates under control.

John Howard

Reformers viewed traditional jails of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as places that bred crime: old hardened criminals were free to communicate with and corrupt young novice criminals. By forcing the jailed to be silent, reformers believed they could prevent this sort of corruption and perhaps even create an environment where prisoners could reflect upon their actions. One English reformer, John Howard, was a proponent of such silence in the penitentiary. Howard traveled Europe, taking note on foreign prisons with the intent to improve English prisons. In 1775 Howard visited an Italian prison, unlike the ones in England or America at the time. This prison, the Casa di Correzione, was a silent house of correction.[iii] Built in Rome in 1703, the House of Correction housed each juvenile offender in his own individual cell at night.

The jail was known for attempting to rehabilitate as well as punish its inmates through silence and reflection. This motivation was best reflected in epitaph hanging in the middle of the prison “Parum est coercere imborbos poena nisi probos efficias disciplina,” or translated, “Repressing villains with punishment is worth little if we do not render them good with discipline.”[iv] Inmates, about fifty boys, would work silently together during the day in a room where an inscription was hung that read: Silentium (the Latin word for silence).[v] The policies of the juvenile prison were most likely based on the cloistered abnegation of Catholic Monasteries, where “men and women of the cloth” sought penitence to atone their sins in silence.[vi] See the figure below for his illustration of the House of Correction floor plan.

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Figure 1

Experiments in Silence and Isolation at the Walnut Street Jail

Howard’s work, in addition to the theories of other European reformers would go on to influence early penitentiaries in America.[vii] Walnut Street Jail (opened in 1773), considered old and filthy: a place where prisoners contaminated each other with disease and corrupted each other with social intercourse, would be transformed into the first United States cellular penitentiary. The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded by Benjamin Rush in 1787, would help redesign the jail.[viii] Benjamin Rush was optimistic about reforming convicts. In the attempt to move away from the barbaric punishments of the past, Benjamin Rush and the Society would attempt to change the jailhouse into a place of penitence and rehabilitation.[ix]

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The Society received permission from the Pennsylvania legislature to experiment with silent isolation at Walnut Street Jail. By 1790, sixteen nine-by six-by-eight foot isolation cells for males and fourteen for females were constructed and thus was the beginning of a five-year trial period.[x] By the time the five years had elapsed, the method of experiment became Pennsylvania law, the Legislature granting the courts to inflict solitary confinement in a cell during the day and night for those convicted of a capital crime.[xi] This new law would give rise to one of two American systems for rehabilitating prisoners: the Pennsylvania (or silent separate) system. In the Pennsylvania system, prisoners were confined to their own individual cells for 23 hours a day (prisoners were permitted outdoors for an hour of exercise a day), where they slept, ate, and went to the bathroom. Prisoners were given work to do to keep them occupied during their solitary days.[xii] By 1832, the Walnut Street experiment would be imitated by Maryland, Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey, and Virginia.[xiii]

 

Newgate: The Stepping Stone to Auburn

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Figure 3: Thomas Eddy

Shortly after the experiments at Walnut Street, in 1796, Thomas Eddy, a Quaker reformer, secured the construction of two New York Penitentiaries; however only one, Newgate, would come into existence. Thomas Eddy would also desire to create a penitentiary of silence. Quakers, like Eddy, believed that inmates could benefit from silence because it would lead inmates to igniting their “inner light.” Newgate’s design would draw directly from Howard’s ideas, however, Eddy would ignore Howard’s recommendation to separate prisoners by night. At Newgate prisoners were neither forced to be fully silent or subject to corporal punishment.[xiv]

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Figure 4: Newgate

In 1801, Eddy prophesized that the Greenwich Village Prison would become a great achievement for Justice, however, from its beginning, the prison staff had difficulty maintaining the order Eddy had dreamed of.[xv] In 1799, guards would have to open fire on rioting inmates and in 1803 when twenty inmates attempt to escape, four inmates were killed, one an innocent bystander.[xvi]

The Rise of the Auburn System

By 1817, New York had a new penitentiary, Auburn, built to alleviate Newgate’s overcrowding.[xvii]  Initially, Auburn’s methods of discipline were the same as those in Newgate, but very quickly these proved to be ineffective. In the mid 1820s, New York would pass legislation to allow for Auburn to begin experimenting with new methods of controlling prisoners, leading to experiments in solitary confinement at Auburn similar to the Pennsylvania system. [xviii] During these experiments in solitary confinement, prisoners not subject to isolation would undergo a regiment that would later develop into the second of the two American silent systems: the Auburn system. This system separated prisoners at night, but allowed them to work together in silence during the day, as seen in the Casa di Correzione.[xix]

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Figure 5: Elam Lynds

In order to keep inmates silent prison administrators, like Elam Lynds, would develop new techniques to control prisoners and keep them silent. The ultimate aim of the tactics of Prison administrators at Auburn like Elam Lynds would be to reduce the inmate into a “silent and insulated working machine.” Silence would transform from a tool meant to facilitate inmate self-reflection into a tool used to break an inmates spirit. New York State Legislature would go on to pass laws that facilitated the spread of the Auburn system. Stephen Allen and Samuel Hopkins, legislatures in the early nineteenth century, in particular would work together to pass laws that allowed for more rigid discipline in Auburn, as well as helping to shape the public opinion in favor of these new methods (administrators would after all have to use methods of coercion in the form of corporal punishment in order to keep order at these silent penitentiaries.)

The development and spread of the Auburn system came from a different energy than previous developments for silence in the Penitentiary. Legislatures, like Stephen Allen, were against the “the enthusiasm of theorists, and those who have only studied the world of mankind in their closets.” [xx] This system would eventually prove to be more effective than previously seen in penitentiaries.

-Daniel Magaldi

Works Cited

[i] Kann, Mark E. Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

[ii] Buxton, Thomas Fowell. An Inquiry, Whether Crime and Misery Are Produced or Prevented, by Our Present System of Prison Discipline: Illustrated by Descriptions of the Borough Compter … London: Printed for J. and A. Arch, J. Butterworth and Son, and J. Hatchard, 1818. pp. 88-91

[iii] Howard, John, T. Cadell, Joseph Johnson, Charles Dilly, and William Eyres. The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals. Warrington: Printed by William Eyres, and Sold by T. Cadel, J. Johnson, and C. Dilly, in London, 1784.

[iv] O’Donnell, Ian. Prisoners, Solitude, and Time. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 6

[v] Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales.

[vi] O’Donnell, Prisoners, Solitude, and Time. p. 6

[vii] Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora; the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965. p. 31

[viii] Kann, Mark E. Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic. New York: New York University Press, 2005. pp. 103-108

[ix] Kann, Mark E. Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic. New York: New York University Press, 2005. pp. 103-108 p. 91

[x] Buxton. An Inquiry. p. 90

[xi] 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. pp. 1-2

[xii] Johnston, Helen. Punishment and Control in Historical Perspective. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

[xiii] Buxton. An Inquiry. p. 91

[xiv] De Beaumont. On the Penitentiary p. 46

[xv] Lewis, W. David. From Newgate to Dannemora; the Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1965. Pp. 29-31

[xvi] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora. p. 40

[xvii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora. p. 54-55

[xviii] Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora. p. 26

[xix] Johnston, Helen. Punishment and Control.

[xx] Allen, Stephen, and William Roscoe. Observations on Penitentiary Discipline, Addressed to William Roscoe of Liverpool, England. New York: Totten, 1827. p. 65   Lewis. From Newgate to Dannemora. p. 79

Images

Figure 1 taken from: Howard, John, T. Cadell, Joseph Johnson, Charles Dilly, and William Eyres. The State of the Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons and Hospitals. Warrington: Printed by William Eyres, and Sold by T. Cadel, J. Johnson, and C. Dilly, in London, 1784.

Figure 2: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New YorkPublic Library. “Goal [i.e., jail] in Walnut Street Philadelphia.” New YorkPublic Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-7f13-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 3: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Thomas Eddy.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-938d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 4: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “State Prison Greenwich Village” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 25, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2355-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 5: Elam Lynds, 1784 – 1855. From Charles R. Henderson, ed., Correction and Prevention: Prison Reform and Criminal Law. (New York 1910)