Saturday, November 7, 2009

Not So Nice Accommodations

© 2007 David Minor / Eagles Byte

English author Jeremy Bentham began proposing prison reforms in the 1780s; dying in 1832 he would not see any results. But his ideas were being discussed, even if implemented only at a glacial pace. We’ve seen James Stuart’s interest in New York’s prison at Auburn back in 1828. Now, two years later, John Fowler’s following right in his footsteps, even taking the same 25¢ tour – apparently inflation hasn’t kicked in during the intervening period. The fee is to help offset operational costs.

On August 24th Fowler was right at the front gate at 6 AM. As he passed into the facility he may have glanced up to the roof of the administration building and seen a wooden soldier in Revolutionary War uniform, that had stood guard there for the past nine years. Eighteen years in the future the weather will have done its work and he’ll need replacing. Prisoners in the foundry there will make a copper version, which soon becomes known as Copper John . If you’re sent there as a resident today it will be said by some locals that you’re, “going to work for Copper John”.

First on the tour were the cells. “These gloomy abodes are about seven or eight feet long, by four feet wide, and perhaps about seven feet in height. . . . all the furniture they contain is a hammock, which is let down in the daytime, a stool, and a Bible upon a shelf in one of the corners.”

Fowler is shown the prison’s workshops where, under contract to local stores, prisoners are engaged in various occupations. Fowler lists, “tailoring, shoemaking, weaving, machine, button, cabinet making, &c; coopering, and smiths’ work . . . “. This was the more benign aspect of what was becoming known as the Auburn System.

The other side of the coin was the strict regimentation and isolation of each prisoner. Fowler, quoting an early travel guide, describes prisoners filing in for breakfast. “. . . moving in a single file, with a slow lock step and erect posture, keeping exact time, with their faces inclined towards their keepers (that they may detect conversation, none of which is ever permitted, ) all giving to the spectator somewhat similar feelings to those excited by a military funeral.” After mentioning that the inmates are at no time allowed the opportunity to speak to each other, he goes on to observe, “Some appeared calm and resigned, or sensible of the guilt and degradation of their situation; others displayed an entire indifference to their fate; whilst in a few I noticed the black expressions of obdurate cruelty, ferocity, and revenge, demonstrating but too plainly the justice of the doom which had overtaken them.” In reporter Michael Doyle’s book The Forestport Breaks”, when he describes a prisoner entering Auburn Prison in the 1890s, he tells us, “. . . he would be keeping his eyes straight ahead during meals, eating on tin plates, submitting to the wordless orders communicated by the keepers’ rapping of a staff.” Doyle adds that whippings and cold showers kept obstinate prisoners in line. They probably hadn’t invented waterboarding yet. Might have considered it barbaric, even back then.

By the 1890s reforms were only beginning to be seriously proposed. In 1830 Fowler approves in general with the methods of discipline, “. . . a decided majority, upon leaving the prison, have become reformed and useful members of society.”

Hang in there, Bentham ! !

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