Monday, May 07, 2012
Early Days at Sing Sing, 1: Two Visitors from France
LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
Today, the average new book has a shelf life somewhere between milk and yogurt. Yet a book published in 1835 continues to command the attention of scholars, politicians, students of government and the reading public.
, by Alexis de Tocqueville, remains a
penetrating and astute picture of American politics, manners and morals 177
years ago. Unfortunately, the greatness of Tocqueville's book overshadows the earlier
joint report on the penitentiary systems of the America United
States largely written by his companion on their joint
trip to . America
Tocqueville, 26, an assistant magistrate at the law court of Versailles, would later briefly be
's minister of foreign
affairs. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, 29, also a magistrate, arrived
in the France
early in May of 1831. United States
Commissioned by the French Minister of the Interior, they came to study American penitentiaries. Their interest in prisons was actually a cover for a private purpose: to understand the social and political institutions of the young republic.
In July of 1830, Charles X, the last Bourbon king of
was overthrown in a revolution that installed Louis Philippe, initially called
the ‘Citizen King." Tocqueville and Beaumont were unhappy with the new
king and wanted an excuse to leave the country. Prison reform was in the air,
so they proposed to study American prisons. French government officials
demanded they make the trip at their own expense. France
Much of the more than nine months the two spent in the
was devoted to other matters, but they carried out their prison investigations
faithfully. Despite their subordinate status in the French bureaucracy, they
were lionized everywhere they went in United States --much to their surprise and
R.I., on May 9, 1831, after a 37-day voyage
from . With
a crew of 18, their ship carried 165 passengers, a cow, and a donkey. Both
Frenchmen worked hard to improve their knowledge of English by conversing with
as many English-speaking passengers as they could. Le Havre
The food on board having almost run out, the enterprising duo convinced the captain to put them ashore at
. From there they
caught a steamboat for Newport .
Arriving the next day, they found lodging in a boarding house at 66 Broadway,
diagonally across from New York City . Trinity
The Mercantile Advertiser and New York Evening Post of May 11, 1831, both carried the following notice of their arrival and predicted they would find American prison authorities cooperative.
"We understand that two magistrates, Messrs. de Beaumont and de Tonqueville, [sic] have arrived in the ship Havre, sent by order of the Ministry of the Interior, to examine the various prisons in our country, and make a report on their return to
“The French government have it in contemplation to improve their Penitentiary system, and take this means of obtaining all proper information. In our country, we have no doubt that every facility will be extended to the gentlemen who have arrived."
Welcome New York
They were royally entertained and shown some of the city's places of detention. The House of Refuge for Delinquent Minors, housed in the old arsenal near the northwest corner of what is now
was of interest to them because a similar institution along the same
architectural plan was being constructed in Melun, a suburb of . Paris
Traveling in five carriages, the party next visited the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, located in remote farmlands at what would become the
campus at Columbia
University 116th Street and
Broadway in 1894.
On the return trip, the official party stopped at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on the south side of
50th Street between Fourth and Fifth
avenues. Another stop was at the Bellevue Almshouse for the care of the poor
and indigent on First Avenue
between 27th and 28th streets. Its infirmary ward would later grow into the
oldest public hospital in . America
Their tour ended with a visit to a city prison holding 400 inmates on Blackwell's Island in the East River (later called Welfare Island and now
After two hectic weeks, the two young Frenchmen were looking forward to escaping from the city. "You can have no conception of the activity of our existence,"
wrote to his father. "We
haven't time to breathe. It's a creeping barrage of agreeable invitations,
useful occupations, official presentations, etc., etc." Beaumont
The state prison at the
village of Sing Sing
in Westchester was the largest in the . Tocqueville and
Beaumont decided to make it the first institution studied on their trip. United States
Thanks to their nine-day visit and close examination of both the prison and the village, we have a clearer picture of this part of
Westchester in the 1830s. [The
village changed its name to Ossining in 1901
to distinguish itself from the prison.]
The Bad Old Days
The English colonists of
brought with them the harsh 17th and 18th century criminal code practiced in England and . Under that rigorous system,
many offenses were punishable by death--the easiest way for a society to get
rid of its objectionable criminals. Scotland
In the words of historian Edward Channing, “Lesser offenders were treated with pitiless publicity combined with bodily pain--flogging, mutilation and branding or public exposure to the taunts and missiles of the populace.”
The latter took place in the stocks--a heavy timber frame with holes for confining the ankles and sometimes the wrists. Little concern was expressed for the rehabilitation or reformation of criminals.
There simply was no prison problem. The dead needed no confinement. Those who were punished harshly were returned to society maimed and bruised--but alive. There was no middle ground. In the mother country, debtors and those awaiting trial were held in local jails.
In the colonies, such practices became unpopular. Religious freedom gave rise to calls for changes in the system.
Prison Reform Begins
One religious group in particular--members of the Society of Friends, known as "Quakers"--opposed the harsh punishments of the mother country. With a frontier requiring settlement and exploitation, the growing feeling was that human resources were too scarce and too valuable to waste.
The American Revolution accelerated the growth of these sentiments. With freedom from
came a reduction in the
number of capital offenses. Punishment for lesser offenses veered away from the
infliction of pain and humiliation to imprisonment. Britain
Results, however, were not what were expected. Prisoners of all ages, sexes, colors or criminal experience were incarcerated together in large, unventilated, unclean and unhealthful rooms. The overcrowded pestilential prisons soon became veritable training schools of crime and vice.
One logical solution was detention in individual cells, a movement begun by Quakers in
. Rather than kill or punish
criminals, they argued it was a Christian duty to reform them. They believed strict
solitary confinement, night and day, would cause prisoners to repent. This new
kind of prison was called a "penitentiary," or house of penitence. Pennsylvania
New York State decided to test the penitentiary theory on 80
convicts at the recently constructed Auburn Prison in the Finger
Lakes region. It soon became obvious that solitary confinement
broke the health and the spirit of prisoners. Within three years, so many had
died or became ill or insane the governor pardoned the survivors.
Penology was still an infant science, but clearly it was better to employ convicts at useful labor. Accordingly, during the day prisoners at
were brought together in shops to work
in absolute silence with others at various tasks. Auburn
To maintain their isolation, inmates were not allowed to talk or communicate in any way. The whip enforced this rule; welts on a prisoner's body left by a whipping were called "stripes." The practice of solitary confinement by night and group work by day--always in silence--became known as the
By contrast, the principle of total solitary confinement was maintained in
but with a significant difference: Inmates were provided with work in their
cells, each of which had a small, walled backyard where individual exercise
could be taken. Pennsylvania
Opened in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount section of
system of "solitude and labor," and carried the principle of
isolation to an extreme. Pennsylvania
To attend a religious service or lecture, at a signal each convict in his cell placed a pillowcase over his head and stood by the cell door. Keepers then unlocked the doors; the convicts stepped out and turned. With bodies pressed close together and one hand on the shoulder of the man in front, they were led single file into the auditorium. The peculiar shuffling gait required in this maneuver was called the “lockstep."
The auditorium was constructed with enclosed seats and a small opening so each inmate in the audience could see only the stage. After the event, the inmates donned their pillowcases again and locksteppd their way back to their cells.
had two competing philosophies and two systems of imprisonment: the Auburn
system and the
On May 28, 1831, Tocqueville wrote to Abbé Lesueur, his former tutor in
"We are going tomorrow to Sing-Sing, a village ten leagues from
York and situated on the North River.
We shall stay there a week to study the discipline of a vast penitentiary
system recently built there.
“What we have seen up to now suffices to prove to us that prisons attract general attention here and that in several respects they are much better than those of
“We are delighted to go to Sing-Sing. It is impossible to imagine anything more beautiful than the North or
Hudson River. The
great width of the stream, the admirable richness of the north bank and the
steep mountains which border its eastern margins make it one of the most
admirable sights in the world."
On this hopeful note we take leave of our two intrepid visitors until Part Two.