Monday, May 07, 2012

Early Days at Sing Sing, 1: Two Visitors from France


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.
Democracy in America, 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 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 France's minister of foreign affairs. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont, 29, also a magistrate, arrived in the United States early in May of 1831.
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 France, 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.
Much of the more than nine months the two spent in the United States 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 America--much to their surprise and delight.
They reached Newport, R.I., on May 9, 1831, after a 37-day voyage from Le Havre. 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.
The food on board having almost run out, the enterprising duo convinced the captain to put them ashore at Newport. From there they caught a steamboat for New York City. Arriving the next day, they found lodging in a boarding house at 66 Broadway, diagonally across from Trinity Church.
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 France.
“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."

A New York Welcome
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 Madison Square Park, 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 Columbia University campus at 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 Roosevelt Island).
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," Beaumont wrote to his father. "We haven't time to breathe. It's a creeping barrage of agreeable invitations, useful occupations, official presentations, etc., etc."
The state prison at the village of Sing Sing in Westchester was the largest in the United States. Tocqueville and Beaumont decided to make it the first institution studied on their trip.
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 America brought with them the harsh 17th and 18th century criminal code practiced in England and Scotland. Under that rigorous system, many offenses were punishable by death--the easiest way for a society to get rid of its objectionable criminals.
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 Britain came a reduction in the number of capital offenses. Punishment for lesser offenses veered away from the infliction of pain and humiliation to imprisonment.
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 Pennsylvania. 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.

The Auburn System
In 1821, 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 Auburn were brought together in shops to work in absolute silence with others at various tasks.
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 Auburn system.

The Pennsylvania System
By contrast, the principle of total solitary confinement was maintained in Pennsylvania, 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.
Opened in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia epitomized the Pennsylvania system of "solitude and labor," and carried the principle of isolation to an extreme.
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.
In effect, America had two competing philosophies and two systems of imprisonment: the Auburn system and the Pennsylvania system.
On May 28, 1831, Tocqueville wrote to Abbé Lesueur, his former tutor in France:
"We are going tomorrow to Sing-Sing, a village ten leagues from New 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 France.
“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.

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