Late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century prisons were places of unbridled misconduct, overcrowding, illicit activity, and disease. Ironically, within prisons constructed before germ theory, the push for solitary confinement was not affected by the knowledge that human contact spreads disease; rather, the purpose of constructing individual cells was to prevent the spread of moral disease from inmate to inmate. The notion that constant silence and solitude can instill virtue, although it seems draconian, was a driving force behind penal reform that inspired the construction of silent and separate prisons around the world. A prison that was both silent and separate forbade communication between inmates, or speech in general, and housed each inmate in his or her own cell. Comparison of varying silent and separate prison systems gives context to reform taking place specifically within prisons such as Sing Sing.
The foundations for silence and solitude lie in a large body of reform literature. Jonas Hanway, an instrumental British reformer in favor of separation, asserted in 1776 that moral corruption could be eradicated using the “remedy of solitude.” John Howard, another influential British reformer, added to this sentiment the need for silence in his 1777 book The State of the Prisons declaring, “I have now to complain of what is pernicious to their Morals; and that is, the confining of all sorts of prisoners together.” Silent and separate prisons, although they varied in methodology, sought to “put an end to criminal think tanks” by relegating each prisoner to a single cell to prevent any such exchange of immoral ideas.
A great many proponents of silent and separate prisons were particularly fixated on the incorporation of Christian monastic practices into reform ideology. In their cells prisoners were supposed to make peace with God and become restored to a state of grace. In institutions where isolating architecture met strict, religiously-motivated rehabilitative measures, there was a semblance with the older, cellular prison Casa di Correzione. Built in 1703, Casa di Correzione was the most wholehearted attempt to date to “marry punishment to rehabilitation in its routine operations.” Casa di Correzione inmates labored in groups during the day and spent their nights in solitude, commanded to reflect on their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness. This fixation on prisons as correctional facilities for the soul succeeded in revitalizing the popularity of the separate and silent prison. Although the severity of their applications varied, silent and separate systems permeated the administration and design of four particularly influential North American penal institutions: Pennsylvania’s Walnut Street Jail and Eastern State Penitentiary, and New York’s Auburn Prison and Sing Sing Penitentiary.
The separate system in its varying forms at first drew inspiration most heavily from Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail, built in 1773. Administrators at Walnut Street Jail fostered a “sterile” environment kept in place by harsh discipline. Its cells were small and confining, enclosed with thick walls to prevent communication between inmates. Prisoners in adjoining cells, however, had little trouble communicating, and these living conditions were not conducive to efficient labor. Despite such deficiencies, reformers still continued with a mentality that favored the silent and the separate. Later variations of the example provided by Walnut Street were attempts to perfect and refine this system.
At Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which opened in 1829, a “hybrid model” of the silent system was put in place, yet “solitary confinement was something of a misnomer.” Eastern was famous around the world and locally as a popular tourist attraction and was similar to New York’s Auburn Prison in many aspects of its administration. Its inmates were given the opportunity to interact with those outside the prison, thanks to the liberty with which interested individuals could interview inmates or simply visit to “converse” with them. Eastern inmates were viewed as “salvageable and worth salvaging”; the supposed “richness and roundness” of this vision of inmate reform, believed to be rooted in morality, made it difficult to challenge. Both at Auburn and at Eastern, inmates were encouraged to interact with chaplains or anyone who could aid in their moral salvation. Eastern State Penitentiary was significantly more famous than Auburn because of the frequent visits it was paid by tourists and Philadelphia natives. Neither Auburn nor Eastern inmates could form “meaningful relationships with other prisoners,” and both institutions shamelessly used inmate labor to lower their costs of operation. Eastern administrators accepted that labor would be a centerpiece in the lives of all inmates. However, while Eastern inmates carried out labor alone and in silence in their cells, Auburn inmates were part of a system that kept inmates still silent but less separate as they labored.
At Auburn, built in 1818 in New York, each inmate performed intense all-day labor in silence but in the company of other inmates. Auburn treated inmates so poorly that time spent there often led to insanity and inmate deaths in unusually high numbers. When it became overcrowded, as was seen in other prisons built with small, individual cells, Auburn could no longer utilize solitary confinement as it had been intended. The popularity of the solitary system was hampered not only when overcrowding revealed such small cells to be impractical, but also by the condemnation of theorists who viewed solitude in prisons as repressive. The enforcement of solitude found a particularly vocal critic in Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote that “absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.” Although many, including Keeper of Auburn Gershom Powers, agreed that the silent system was harmful, others held onto the idea and argued that silent systems could be made more moderate with the integration of labor, exercise, and larger living quarters.
New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary opened in 1826 after the conceived failure of Auburn Prison, with sharpened focuses on the use of inmate labor and enforcement of silence. Within Sing Sing Penitentiary, every cell was identical: seven feet long by three-feet-three inches wide and six-feet-seven inches high. The walls separating cells were a foot thick and constructed with stone, which made communication between prisoners nearly impossible. All prisoners’ cells were enclosed by iron bars and furnished with the same minimal provisions: “a pinewood bunk, two blankets, two tin cups, a spoon, a comb, a towel, a bucket, and a Bible.” Inmate behavior was restricted as well, and under the first warden Elam Lynds and comparable wardens, the goal was to “stifle any spark of individuality that might threaten [his] control” through use of harsh punishment and constant surveillance. The silent system forbade Sing Sing inmates “to communicate in writing or by exchange of winks or nods, they must never laugh, motion to each other, sing, whistle, dance, run, or jump.” As reinforcement of their separation from society, “inmates would never hear from relatives or friends and would literally be buried from the world.” Despite its complete alienation of inmates, the silent system gained traction because it was seen as a preferable alternative to earlier penal institutions which had been ill-equipped to put a stop to rampant misconduct and perversion within.
The harsh discipline, silence, and solitude specifically identified with Auburn and Sing Sing inspired a wave of reform in the United States. Outside of the U.S., North American silent prisons were generally known better as part of the “Philadelphian System,” after Eastern State Penitentiary. The Eastern model, despite its appeal to tourists and Philadelphians, had not become popular in the United States among prison planners, many of whom thought it too extreme or saw no reason to restructure existing institutions. That being said, the “Philadelphia System” influenced the construction and administration of around 300 prisons globally.
In the specific case of Sing Sing Penitentiary, the silent system was a large part of its structure and function and remained in place until the 1890s. Later, though, some occasional interruptions to systems of isolation and silence came as much-welcomed reforms: the allowance of visitors, windows in every cell, education and recreation, larger living spaces in the new cellblock, more furnishings, and more aesthetically pleasing grounds which the inmates could enjoy. Especially later during the time of Warden Lewis Lawes, whose stay from 1920 to 1941 long outlasted the majority of most wardens’ time at the prison, conditions at Sing Sing were preferable to those at all other New York State prisons. Despite improvements made by Lawes and others, the silent system had lasting effects on Sing Sing, which, until the construction of its new cellblock, could be seen in the confining spaces of the cells themselves. Comparing applications of the silent and separate systems allows us to better understand Sing Sing’s place within penal reform movements of its time.
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