In 1914, Dr. Amos O. Squire accepted a full time position as chief physician at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Thanks to public fascination with the prison system, Squire became a minor celebrity in Ossining and began to record his experiences in writing following his retirement. Through numerous newspaper interviews and the final manuscript of his autobiography published in 1935, Sing Sing Doctor, Dr. Squire offered little known insight into prison healthcare in the early 1900’s.
Crime in 19th Century New York City was often executed out in the open. One of the greatest threats to day-to-day life was posed by young pickpockets who thrived in crowded, busy streets in broad daylight. The public nature of the offense made it all the easier to incarcerate those who committed it. Similarly, William M. “Boss” Tweed, leader of Tammany Hall, exerted his corrupt political influence via holding highly visible public office, making no effort to obscure the massive gains he and his ring were able to make as a result of their thriving power. However, because of both Tweed’s personal wealth and the focus the criminal justice system had on eliminating low-lives such as pickpockets, Tweed was sentenced to disproportionately light sentences in comparison to the gravity of the many crimes he committed. This is reflective of the difference in treatment of crimes committed by “high criminals” (criminals with great power and wealth) and “low criminals” (criminals with no power who have little choice but to commit crime to get by).
Toward the end of the nineteenth century the New York State Penal System underwent a fundamental change. Bowing to pressure chiefly from unions and heeding the findings of state-run special committees, the New York state legislature enacted a series of laws from 1888 to 1894 that phased out the lucrative prison contract labor system. With that came the end of nearly a century of exploitive, profitable prison labor that the Correctional Association of New York’s 1885 special committee report found to be “slave.” Without contract labor, prison officials scrambled to find ways to ward off the dreaded scourge of inmate idleness; American prison philosophy necessitated inmate industriousness and occupation and now inmates had nothing to do. By the end of the nineteenth century prisoners were filling orders from state institutions under the state-use system in addition to a haphazard collection of makeshift fixes: work slowdowns, road construction, parole, exercise, and internal repairs. Continue reading The End of Contract Labor and its Effects on the New York State Penal System in the Nineteenth Century→
During the nineteenth century labor unions did not oppose prison labor in general, but rather the highly competitive contract labor system which allowed prison labor contractors to undercut the prices of free labor due to prison labor’s lower cost. New York’s prisons functioned as factories until 1894, when a constitutional ban ended the lucrative prison contract labor system. Under the contract system, contractors paid the prison for the use of prison labor and supplied the prisoners with work. Prison contractors bid on the same contracts as free labor, but prison contractors undercut the prices due to the lower cost of prison labor. This put downward pressure on the wages of free laborers in order to remain competitive, and drove certain industries out of the state entirely, as they could not compete. On moral grounds, labor unions opposed aspects of the contract labor system which they saw as exploitive and contrary to reform; prisons sold prison labor at below-market wages, which labor unions opposed as it outcompeted free labor.
Three of the fundamental goals of the nineteenth century American penitentiary were the convict’s moral reformation, his employment, and the economic self-sufficiency of the penitentiary; in practice these goals conflicted and at Sing Sing the latter two took precedence over the former. Sing Sing during the nineteenth century practiced a version of the Auburn prison system corrupted by contractors incentivized by profits and prisoners who beat the system. During the day prisoners would work together in a congregate factory setting while at night they were separated and to be silent. In reality silence was haphazardly enforced and privileged or well-connected prisoners were able to avoid the harsh application of prison discipline. The factory labor system stripped away Sing Sing’s reform-oriented mission to reveal a single-minded pursuit of profits. Sing Sing as a penitentiary was punitive rather than penitent, and “treat[ed] the convict as a slave” who the wardens, superintendents, and contractors cynically forced to work in the pursuit of profits. Prison guards tortured prisoners who did not work satisfactorily; prisoners worked long hours at grueling labor; Sing Sing was a nineteenth century industrial plantation. Continue reading Sing Sing as a Factory 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. Continue reading American Prison Factory Systems during the Nineteenth Century→
According to Thomas Byrnes, in the late 19th century, the “ways of making a livelihood by crime [were] many”, and as a natural consequence of this, New York was rife with “professional criminals,” ranging from bank burglars to shoplifters to pickpockets. Byrnes describes pickpockets in particular as “an interesting class of thieves”, and Timothy J. Gilfoyle emphasizes that most of the members of this class had a “lack of access to education or more formal employment opportunities” as a result of their low-income or immigrant backgrounds. George Appo was a member of this “criminal class”, which I define here as a community of criminals forced into a life of crime by their socioeconomic standing. Appo shared with the rest of the “criminal class” a lack of education, a teenaged beginning to a life of crime, a sense of identity, and an arcane language which ultimately made it all the easier for law enforcement to identify and arrest them, with no warrant, under far-reaching vagrancy laws. As a result of the prevalence of criminals (reaching into the thousands in New York by 1886), their homogeneity, and the simultaneous limited resources and unlimited power of law enforcement, by 1880, New York City police began to systematically arrest and incarcerate lower-class people who were “unable to find a secure footing in the boom-and-bust urban industrial economy, especially those excluded by background, race, unemployment, or misfortune”. Thus, the life of George Appo coincides with and parallels that of the rest of the “criminal class” at this time, in which membership — and therefore likelihood of incarceration — is determined more by appearance, socioeconomic standing, and bias from law enforcement than a proven predilection for crime.
The “criminal class” in late 19th Century, as defined by Timothy J. Gilfoyle, consisted of “professional criminals whose livelihoods derived exclusively from illegal activity.” Yet, this label did not apply to wealthy professional criminal figures such as Boss Tweed, whose crimes were “an open secret in political circles.” Instead, the low-life “‘rats, ‘gamins’, ‘Arabs’, ‘urchins’, and ‘gutter-snipes’” were actively sought and incarcerated in prisons such as the Sing Sing Penitentiary. The distinction between these two types of “professional criminals” was not based on the magnitude of the crime, but the power and background of the criminals themselves. Since making an honest living “was predicated on access to certain social networks,” the impoverished were significantly more likely than others to resort to a life of crime. For example, pickpocket George Appo grew up in “probably America’s most impoverished urban neighborhood”, Donovan’s Lane — part of the infamous Five Points ghetto. The neighborhood of Five Points, throughout the 19th century, was “rife with vice, crime, and misery” and hence served as a neighborhood harboring the “criminal class” — that is, poor, desperate youths who engage in criminal activity to make a living as a result of both limited resources and early exposure to an environment in which other criminals exist.
The deplorable conditions of the Five Points neighborhood in 1829, the low-life impoverished criminals which resided in it, and the increasingly powerful corrupt figures seeking to take advantage of that situation coincided in the 19th century, thereby expediting the formation of gangs at that time. In a sense, the “criminal underworld” as described in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York was a self-sustaining machine: the Five Points neighborhood fostered criminality, the low-level criminals sought asylum in one form or another from corrupt officials, and the corrupt officials utilized the low-level criminals to achieve their own ends, thereby solidifying the criminality of the Five Points neighborhood. This environment of structurally supported crime allowed for the development and advancement of formalized gangs in the Five Points neighborhood. The dynamic served to help the gang bosses both to profit more extensively from crime, and distance themselves from the actual acts, for which the lowest-status criminals tended to be prosecuted.