Cornell University Library Digital Collections


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About the collection

This digital collection exhibits several documents charting the emergence of the Auburn Prison System. In the early to mid- 19th Century, US criminal justice was undergoing massive reform. The state prisons which had emerged out of earlier reform efforts were becoming increasingly crowded, diseased, and dangerous. Consequently, the “Auburn System” was developed in New York at Auburn State Prison and Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The reformers believed the penitentiary could serve as a model for family and education, so sought a system that was more rehabilitative than harshly punitive. Prohibited from talking at all times, prisoners were confined in separate cells at night and then labored together during the day in workshops modeled on the industrial factory. This regimented work routine and enforced silence issued from American Protestant ethics and the increasingly capitalist logic of the emergent nation. Although this “silent” system was incredibly popular with many reformers across the United States and beyond (de Tocqueville wrote of it in Democracy in America), Pennsylvania had already developed a vying system. The “Pennsylvania System” discounted the industrial factory model of silent labor, emphasizing instead the redemptive and hygienic values of permanent solitary confinement with an artisan labor style. In fact, the Pennsylvania System first inspired the construction and management of Auburn Prison. However, the Auburn System eventually developed several key modifications. Slightly less concerned with the Quaker-inspired principle of non-violence, Auburn embraced a more Puritan ethic of just recompense. Disagreement amongst these reformers about the future of American incarceration was often vociferous and combative. Indeed, “the rivalry between them became one of the defining controversies of the Jacksonian period, through which Americans contested the meaning of citizenship and humanity in the Republic” (Smith 10).