Monday, May 28, 2012

Early Days at Sing Sing, 2: Studying a Society and Its Prisons


      In 1797, the first state prison opened in New York City. Although officially named the State Prison of the City of New York, it was more commonly known as Newgate, after an infamous prison in London.
               From its opening, it was plagued with thorny problems. Built to house 432 inmates in 54 eight-person cells, it soon became overcrowded, dirty and violent. Women made up about 20 percent of Newgate’s prisoner population.
      So common were riots and jailbreaks, the city formed a special squad of armed watchmen to patrol the neighborhood around the prison at night.
      In 1824, a state commission recommended abandoning Newgate and building a larger prison farther from New York City, the source of most prisoners. The legislature appropriated $20,100 to buy the 130-acre Silver Mine Farm near the village of Sing Sing on which to build the new prison.
      Elam Lynds, warden of the state prison at Auburn, was selected to set up the prison at Sing Sing. A strict disciplinarian, Lynds had developed the harsh Auburn system. Arriving from the upstate prison with one hundred convicts, he found himself "without a place to receive or a wall to enclose them."
      After erecting temporary barracks, a cook house, and carpenter and blacksmith shops, they leveled the steep hillside on which to erect the first cell block. Under the twin disciplines of silence and the whip, prisoners cut the gray-white dolomitic limestone in a nearby quarry by day and slept in tents at night.
      Working 11-hour days as stone masons, carpenters and painters, the inmates literally built their own penitentiary. By the winter of 1826, 60 of the proposed 800 cells were completed. Modeled after Auburn's north wing, this first cell block would grow to be 476 feet long, 44 feet wide, and four tiers high. Each cell was seven feet deep, three feet three inches wide, and six feet seven inches high.
The first cell block was completed by October of 1828. With Sing Sing officially open, male inmates were transferred upriver from Newgate. (This historic building still stands within the prison walls and can be seen from Metro-North trains. An empty shell, it was gutted by fire on February 5, 1984, during a snowstorm.) 
On May 29, 1831, French visitors Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont packed their bags in New York City and headed north to Sing Sing, where they found lodging at a large house not far from Main Street. This was the country home of James Smith, a New York lawyer. Still standing on State Street, it would later become part of the Printex Building.
The idyllic Hudson was "covered with sails; it penetrates to the north and disappears between high blue mountains," he noted. Arising at five each morning, they took a short walk; after breakfast at 8:30, another walk. In the evening at seven, they went swimming in the Hudson, where Tocqueville taught Beaumont to swim.
Shortly after arriving in Sing Sing, Tocqueville described it in a letter to his father as “a town of 1000 to 1200 souls that has been rendered famous by its prison, the largest in the United States.”
“We have come here with the intention of examining it from top to bottom; we have already been here a week, and we experience a well-being you cannot conceive. The extreme agitation in which we were obliged to live in New York, the number of visits we had to make and receive each day began to weary us a little.
"Here we have the best employed and most peaceful existence. We live with a very decent American family that holds us in great consideration. We have made the acquaintance in the village of several persons whom we go to see when we are free."

Sing Sing Prison
Turning their attention to the prison, Tocqueville and Beaumont pursued their investigation. Elam Lynds was gone, and the pair asked questions of new warden Robert Wiltse on every aspect of the prison: its administration, the keepers' salaries, what food was served, what work was done, how many floggings were administered. The latter number turned out to be five or six a day.
They pored over archival records, examined architectural plans, poked into every corner, and quizzed everyone they could find. They even sat in classes at the prison school and attended Sunday religious services. They were amazed to discover that 34 keepers controlled hundreds of convicts. The prisoners were "free" during the day. They wore no chains and no walls kept them in, yet no one tried to escape.
Tocqueville's diary entry for May 30, 1831, reads:
"We have seen 250 prisoners working under a shed cutting stone. These men, subjected to a very special surveillance, had all committed acts of violence indicating a dangerous character. Each . . . had a stone cutter's axe. Three unarmed guards walked up and down in the shed. Their eyes were in continuous agitation."
After a week of prison visits, Tocqueville decided he would not recommend the Sing Sing system. Beaumont wrote to his mother that he, too, was surprised:
“So many inmates were all around the unfinished cell block, unrestrained by chains and all engaged in hard labor, and yet, despite the absence of a wall (a few guards were stationed around the perimeter), they labor assiduously at the hardest tasks. Nothing is rarer than an escape. That appears so unbe­lievable one sees the fact a long time without being able to explain it."
Nevertheless, Tocqueville saw portents of trouble:
"The system at Sing-Sing seems in some sense like the steamboats the Americans use so much. Nothing is more comfortable, quick, and--in a word--perfect in the ordinary run of things. But if some bit of apparatus goes out of order, the boat, the passengers and the cargo fly into the air."
In their subsequent report, the two Frenchmen concluded ominously:
"One cannot see the prison of Sing-Sing and the system of labor which is there estab­lished without being struck by astonishment and fear. Although the discipline is perfect, one feels it rests on a fragile foundation.
“The safety of the keepers is constantly menaced. In the presence of such dangers, avoided with such skill but with difficulty, it seems to us impossible not to fear some sort of catastrophe in the future."

American Idiosyncrasies
The two French visitors were also intensely interested in every aspect of America life: the structure of its free society, politics and the court system, its vast geography, and its cruel treatment of Indians.
Tocqueville described a state dinner in their honor as representing “the infancy of art: the vegetables and fish before the meat, the oysters for dessert. In a word, complete barbarism.”
Commenting on Americans’ attitude toward nobility, he wrote, “In this republican country they are a thousand times fonder of nobility, of titles, of crosses, and of all the inconsequential distinctions of Europe than we are in France.”
In a letter home, Beaumont described the peculiar tendency of American women to break into song:
"They haven't the taste for it, it's only a matter of fashion; they sing in a screamingly funny way. There is in their throat a certain gentle cooing that has a particular character that I could never render, but which has nothing in common with the laws of harmony. If one says to them, 'You sing wonderfully,' they reply with rare ingenuousness, 'It's very true.'
“They study piano for three months, then they play without the least reluctance, admitting always with good grace they are mad about music and they have a real talent.
"What's more, this love of praise crops up everywhere with the Americans, and one could never praise them enough to satisfy them."
On June 7th, Tocqueville and Beaumont returned to New York City by steamboat, stopping briefly at Greenburgh (an alternate name for Tarrytown, according to Washington Irving). They remained in the city until June 30th, when they took a sloop to Yonkers, starting their epic journey across the length and breadth of America.
Tocqueville and Beaumont later investigated penitentiaries at Auburn, N.Y., Charlestown, Mass., Wethersfield, Conn., Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. At Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, they took the unusual step of interviewing each prisoner.

The Aftermath
By the time they returned to France in June of 1832, Toqueville and Beaumont had become ardent admirers of America’s democratic institutions. Tocqueville found himself unable to concentrate on writing their joint report on prisons. In the end, that task fell to Beaumont, who is listed as the principal author. Tocqueville's contribution was limited to the statistical notes in an appendix.
Du Système Pénitentiaire aux États-Unis, et de Son Application en France appeared in 1833 and influenced prison reform and the science of penology. In it, the authors urged France to copy one of the two American penitentiary systems.
Translated into English by Francis Lieber and published in Philadelphia in 1833, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France remains the single best study and description of the two contrasting American penitentiary systems of the 19th century.
Tocqueville's failure to contribute much to the prison report is understandable. His eyes were on distant horizons of memory. And he was turning over in his mind the treasure trove of information he had gathered about the larger themes of American society and institutions.
Two years later he would publish the first volume of his remarkable two-volume Democracy in America, today regarded as one of the great books of the western world. But the story of that enduring work will have to wait for another day.
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