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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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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