Monday, May 28, 2012
Early Days at Sing Sing, 2: Studying a Society and Its Prisons
LOWER HUDSON VALLEY
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 on which to build the new
prison. village of Sing Sing
Elam Lynds, warden of the state prison at
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
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
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 Hudson, where Tocqueville taught
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
, 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."
The two French visitors were also intensely interested in every aspect of
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
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.
Eastern State Penitentiary, they took the unusual step of interviewing each
By the time they returned to
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
in 1833 and influenced prison reform and the science of penology. In it, the
authors urged France France
to copy one of the two American penitentiary systems.
Translated into English by Francis Lieber and published in
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.
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.