Auburn Penitentiary: Silent and Congregate Correctional Facility
Throughout the nineteenth century, penology was characterized by a debate between two 'schools'. The first was the system of "solitary" and "segregation" proposed by the Pennsylvania penitentiary. The second, that of which will be discussed in this paper, the "silent" and "congregate" system was designed for the Auburn penitentiary in New York State.
The Auburn State Prison was built in 1816, occupied in 1821 and soon after became the model for succeeding American prisons. Quaker thinking, in that "repentance for one's wrongs was best attained through private contemplation, which was facilitated by the penitentiary concept", influenced the Auburn prison. (Carney, 1977: 7)
In the beginning, the idea of total solitary confinement of prisoners was introduced and based on a belief that criminal habits were learned from and reinforced by other criminals. However, after prisoners had several suicide attempts and mental breakdowns, the decision was made to substitute an alternative system known as the 'silent' or 'congregate' system. Under the Auburn "silent" system, inmates were kept in separate cells at night and required to maintain complete silence while during the day, they worked in communal shops with emphasis placed on convict labour. Although meals were communal, consisting of meat and vegetables, and religious instruction on Sunday was given to the convicts in a group, there was an absolute prohibition of any conversation. Prisoners were not to communicate with each other except by permission of the keepers. "The strictness with which these rules have been enforced is such…that among thirty or forty working together for years, in the same shop, no two of them know each other's names." (Oliver, 1998: 109) The Auburn system permitted visual contact but no conversation among prisoners, so they could work and exercise together, thereby requiring much smaller cells than the ones in the Pennsylvania system.
A number of procedures were devised to prevent communication in any form. In the dining halls, for example, "prisoners were seated with their backs toward the centre so that each looked only at the backs of others; in movement, the 'lockstep' formation was exclusively employed." (Cloward et al., 1960: 26) The lockstep formation entailed "marching in single file, placing the right hand on the shoulder of the man ahead, and facing toward the guard." (http://www.britannica.com) Constant activity when out of the cells was key to prisoners adhering to the rules. These devices may be understood as instruments used to suppress interaction among prisoners.
Prisoners not abiding by silence or working rules were punished. Punishments ranged from diets of bread and water, banishment to the 'dark hole' or whippings with a cat-o'-nine-tail. (Johnson & Wolfe: 135)
Auburn's idea of congregate labour paired with its architectural plan won the country to its idea of the...