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Competing Prisons

Claire Romaine's picture

There is such controversy in modern society about prisons: what’s wrong with them, how they should be changed, and generally the omnipresence and seeming uselessness of such institutions in the modern world.  Arguments rage endlessly across political, social, religious and economic boundaries about the prisons themselves while neglecting what inspires our individual opinions about penal theory: the prisoners themselves.  How the prisoners are viewed by society and individuals is largely responsible for how prisons are designed and up kept.

John D. Cray, a man instrumental in the creation of the Auburn System of imprisonment endorsed absolute silence among prisoners, humiliating tasks and uniforms, as well as harsh discipline for violators.  Although he, similar to the Quakers, wanted solitary confinement of prisoners at night, during the day they were gathered together and “engage[d] in constant activity when outside their cells” (Eileen McHugh 2) laboring for public and private ventures alike.  Within the Auburn example, prisoners were not seen as useful members of society, but rather a degenerate population, which must be contained and separated.  This prison system was an attempt to derive some productivity from an otherwise pointless portion of individuals.  As a means to contain the rabble of society, the Auburn System was known for its humiliation and dehumanization of its residents.  Cray even believed that since communication “was necessary to maintaining a sense of self” (McHugh 2), it must be abolished in order to destroy morale, rebellion, and even desire to rebel.  According to Cray’s perception of prisones, the Auburn system was phenomenally successful.  Not only were the worst of society safely sequestered away, but they were also able to contribute to the general good through their labor. 

This system even gained support over the Quakers’ prison reforms, which manifested themselves as Eastern State Penitentiary.  This now crumbling monument to long abandoned ideals, began as bastion of optimism, for the Quakers’ relentlessly “aimed to redeem the offender” (Cyndi Banks 4) and believed that everyone had the potential to attain salvation.  Prisoners were nothing more than misguided individuals who needed to be temporarily removed from society and provided with a quiet, stable environment for reflection.  In peaceful, solitary rooms, penitents would come to realize the error of their ways before being reintroduced as fully functional members of society.  Even today those restored rooms reflect the good intentions of their original creators.  They have all of the necessities of life, from sunlight and fresh air to running water and a place to sleep, but much like the ideals upon which they were built so too did those rooms crumble under the weight of time and progress.  Solitary confinement was realized to be inhumane, a psychological form of torture, and was slowly replaced by the Auburn system and its successors.

The penitentiary as it was when in finally closed in 1971, however, reflects neither long-forgotten system, but rather a permutation of both and a response to the growing flood of inmates needing to be contained.  Walking the halls, I see the hastily built cell blocks and once small exercise yards broken open into larger fields.  Eastern State, like many other prisons still do today, once professed a desire to reform and reintegrate inmates into society, but it became little more than a containment, like the Auburn system, for those with whom society did not know how to cope.  Indeed, it is a vacillation between different modern perceptions of prisoners that causes the inoperability of so many prisons today.  Public opinion and influential media cannot decide whether prisoners are hardened criminals devoid of morals or people to sympathize with and guide from the path of wrong-doing.  Modern society alternatively encourages and prevents prison reform and leaves the prisons themselves in a state of limbo, unable to change and yet unable to survive in stasis as they become overcrowded and expensive. 

The ‘stable ruins’ of Eastern State Penitentiary serve as a testament to the ongoing conflict and a reminder of the disastrous past.  More importantly they pose a question about where our history and contradictory ideals and arguments could possibly lead us next.



Banks, Cyndi. "legal punishment." American Government. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

McHugh, Eileen. "Both Sides of the Wall." Correction History. Cayuga Museum of History and Art, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.