Auburn System


This is a “penal method of the 19th century in which persons worked during the day and were kept in solitary confinement at night, with enforced silence at all times (EB).”  In fact, the word “penitentiary” comes from the idea that prisoners, through silent reflection on their crimes, might become penitent.  Thus imprisonment under the Auburn System could be seen as penance.

Some of the purposes of this system were “to destroy the identity of the inmate (and thus make him easier to control) and to crush the ‘criminal subculture’ that flourished in densely populated prisons (Wikipedia, “Separate System”)” and to discourage prisoners from learning criminal habits and having them reinforced by the existing prison population (EB, “Auburn System”).  (“Destroying the identity” reminded me of military boot camps, which also seek to destroy individuality through conforming appearances and behavior.)

“In certain prisons such as Pentonville, in London, even during communal exercise, prisoners were required to wear masks in silent isolation.  Prisoners incarcerated in separate system prisons were reduced to numbers, their names, faces and past histories eliminated. The guards and warders charged with overseeing these prisoners knew neither their names nor their crimes, and were prohibited from speaking to them. Prisoners were hooded upon exiting a cell, and even wore felted shoes to muffle their footsteps (Wikipedia, “Separate System”).”

In addition to being known for silent isolation, the Auburn, New York correctional facility achieved several other firsts (Wikipedia, “Auburn System”):

1)  the first prison to gain money as a profit for the labor of the prisoners.

2)  the first to institute the “lockstep”: The prisoners marched in unison and had to lock their arms to the convict in front of them. The prisoners had to look to one side and were not allowed to look at the guards or the other inmates.

3)  the first to give prisoners a distinctive garb familiar to us today, a grayish material with horizontal stripes.

In addition, the prison permitted tours by sight-seers.

A method of punishment sounds familiar to those of us who have read about waterboarding and the ALS Challenge.  “The shower bath consisted of a barrel about 4½ feet high with a discharge tube at the bottom. The prisoner was stripped naked, bound hand and foot, with a wooden collar around his neck to prevent him moving his head. The barrel, with the inmate inside, was placed directly under an outlet pipe, where water, sometimes iced, would pour down (Wikipedia, “Auburn System”).”

The article raised several interesting questions for me:

1)  Solitude and silence can be used for spiritual purposes by monks and nuns.  When it is forced upon people, however, is there any spiritual benefit?  (On a related parenting note, is there any point in forcing children to apologize for wrongs they have committed?)  Does penal isolation in fact create mental illness, as some claimed the Auburn System did?

2)  Do human beings have an inherent psychological need to do some acts of penance to assuage their guilty consciences?  (The Catholic church may be tapping into something fundamentally human here.)  Should we give prisoners opportunities for penitential acts and even formal ceremonies to mark their significance?

3)  How is it that dehumanization is used in prison camps, boot camps, and concentration camps for such different purposes: to break group identities, to form group identities, and to make the murder of an outgroup easier?

4)  Given the use of the shower bath in prisons and the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, was waterboarding prisoners in Guantanimo really that immoral?  It certainly is not unprecedented.

5)  I’ve always found it interesting that God’s system of justice in the Old Testament made no mention of imprisonment.  Criminals either made restitution for the less serious crimes or were executed for the more serious crimes.  Would our society be better off replacing imprisonment with restitution and the death penalty?  Besides lowering costs and giving prisoners a chance to do penance, this might also provide a useful test for whether a law is needed.  If a restitution is hard to define, either because what should be given back is hard to define or the person to whom it should be given is hard to identify, then perhaps any law with such difficulties is inherently unjust.

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