American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century

American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century
Prisoners are a capitalist’s ideal labor force: they cannot change jobs, unionize, or move. The prison as a factory serves as a workplace where the boss has complete control over his workers. Strict discipline, enforced by brutal punishment unthinkable outside of prison, enabled Sing Sing and other prisons run on the Auburn system to function as productive factories. In 1897, according to Sing Sing’s Warden Sage, “[t]here is nothing more efficacious as work for keeping up the spirits of convicts and preserving discipline…those of the convicts who are idle become restless and quarrelsome, with a tendency to subordination.” Reformers and prison officials agreed that productive work was an essential key to reforming a prisoner; businessmen were more than happy to supply that work in the form of a contract system in which contractors paid the prison below-market wages for prisoner labor. Sing Sing’s factory system during the nineteenth century was a perversion of the Auburn system and exploited by businessmen at the expense of the prisoners, taxpayers, and factory workers. The rise of the Auburn system and the decline of the Pennsylvania system suggests that prison officials were willing to compromise their reform-minded intentions in order to maximize the efficiency of prison labor and create a prison system that paid for itself. The Auburn System implicitly acknowledges the effectiveness of the Pennsylvania system by incorporating as much of the Pennsylvania system’s use of silence and isolation as possible; the notable exception, however, is the Auburn system’s use of industrial factory-style labor methods, rather than the Pennsylvania system’s solitary craft-style system. The Auburn System allows contractors to harness prison labor in a lucrative factory setting, but at the expense of convict rehabilitation. 
The Two Philosophies of Penance and Production: Pennsylvania and Auburn
Before the introduction of the Pennsylvania system in 1826, early American jails ran on haphazard, brutal, “unscientific” methods. Conditions in American prisons shocked American prison reformers such as Richard Wistar, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and William Bradford, and spurred their reform attempts. A group of reformers led by Richard Wistar formed the Philadelphia Society for Assisting Distressed Prisoners in 1776, while the latter reformers formed The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787 after the former group dissolved following the Revolutionary War. These groups lobbied for reforming legislation, which led to the passage of legislation in 1790 marking the “legal origin of the Pennsylvania system.” This law’s implementation, however, was flawed, and it was not until 1826 that the Pennsylvania system “was finally established” by another piece of legislation. Quakers had a disproportionate influence and role in early prison reform, and put their values into practice in the Pennsylvania system; the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia was the site of their early attempts at prison reform..
Self-reflection, solitary confinement, silence, and solitary work were the defining characteristics of the Pennsylvania system and reflected its Quaker influence. The system deprived an inmate of all human contact and given work suitable for solitary confinement that “required time, purely manual ability and the minimum of tools.” Without anything else to do, the prisoner was drawn to work and used it to pass the time. The work, however, “was not oriented around economic goals” but rather used as a tool for reformation that taught inmates a craft, in contrast to the later factory-style Auburn system. The system saw the outside world as a corrupting influence and as such removed all contact with it, leaving the prisoner alone with “terrible phantoms” brought on by solitary confinement. The Quakers created this system with good intentions in order that the principles they cherished, such as silence and contemplation, could be put into practice in the solitude of the prisoner’s cell. The later Auburn system tried to incorporate this system as much as possible while creating an efficient, factory-style production in a congregate work setting; these would turn out to be conflicting goals.
The Auburn system developed as an alternative to the Pennsylvania system which still stressed discipline and contemplation while also offering high production capacity. The Auburn system differentiates itself from the Pennsylvania system in that, in addition to reformation, “convict labour [acts] as a productive activity for private exploitation.” The Auburn system is a “practical compromise”: “day-association” allows convicts to work together in a factory setting conducive to industrial production while still attempting to incorporate Quaker reform methods aimed at “maximum prevention of contamination” through “night-separation” and the “silent system.” The system maintained silence and solitude as much as possible, giving inmates the chance to reflect on their misdeeds. In theory, prisoners only interacted in silence in the context of work and did not function as corrupting influences; in practice, prisoners conspired together despite harsh enforcement of the prohibition against speech.
Prison officials contracted out prisoners to contractors for labor; businessmen gladly paid to use one of the largest reserves of “cheap and compliant labor” available. Contractors would fulfill work orders they had using prison labor. The Auburn System turned prison labor into “a productive activity for private exploitation.” The Auburn system was an adaptation of the Pennsylvania system which conformed to the realities and demands of an industrial society; in light of the corruption and greed of the nineteenth century American penal system, the Auburn system had in mind the best interests of the contractors looking to make a profit and wardens trying to run a cost-efficient prison.
The Auburn system came to displace the Pennsylvania system in America “because it was [better] suited to the new and changing industrial conditions of the time… team work in prison industry…became more productive than isolated employment.” This implies that labor itself was changing during the time period, and that wardens wanted prisoners to be as profitable as possible in their work. This was not, however, the case universally, as in Europe the Pennsylvania system was more popular. Therefore other factors besides penal methodology must have influenced the choice of which system to implement: in the United States the exploitation of a labor force at the mercy of its overseers was irresistible to business interests and ensured the implementation of the Auburn system.
The practical application of the Auburn system revealed many of its inherent flaws and conflicting interests in a way that the purer Pennsylvania system did not suffer from. The Pennsylvania system used work as tool for reformation, whereas the Auburn system created the competing goals of reform and profit. Private prison contractors and wardens shared in these profits: the contractors sold cheap goods and the wardens ran prisons that paid for themselves. The potential for profit increased dramatically when prisoners worked in a factory setting, but this came at the price of potential reformation: the de facto goal at Sing Sing and other Auburn system prisons was profit, not penitence.