The Auburn Prison System: History & Reform

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Since the colonial times to the present, the methods of criminal punishment have changed dramatically. In this lesson, we will look at the early Auburn Prison System and learn its role in prison reform in the United States.

Early Punishment Methods

Levi stared at the shackles on his wrists. The guard would be here soon, and he'd then find out his fate. Would they brand a ''T'' into his hand for thief, or would he die on the pillory tower after 50 lashes and no food or water for three days? Levi heard the clank of the outer door. It was time. What punishment awaited Levi?

Pain and public humiliation were wrought on pillory towers such as this one.

By today's standards, punishment for breaking the law in early colonial times seems barbaric. There was no thought of rehabilitation, or hope of reform, just retribution (to give someone their just desserts). Murder and other infamous crimes were punished with death, while smaller offenses, such as lying, conjuring, adultery, skipping church and existing without means, resulted in branding, floggings, maimings and other forms of physical torture.

Early Reforms

William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony, ushered in the colonies' first significant penal reforms in 1680. Death was outlawed except for murder, and physical punishment was replaced by hard labor. Prisoners were kept in workhouses where they learned a trade as part of their reformation. Free food and rudimentary health care was provided.

The Pennsylvania Prison System

In 1787, a group of Quakers formed a group that came to be the Pennsylvania Prison Society, and they lobbied for and got significant reforms. A separate system (isolation and solitude) where the prisoners would have time to reflect on their crimes and become reformed. Thus the Pennsylvania Prison System was born and the focus went from retribution to rehabilitation where efforts were made to change the prisoner into an honest citizen.

Genesis Of The Auburn Prison System

Opening in 1817 and with final completions in 1823, the Auburn Prison, in Auburn, NY, was built with a new model in mind. It used a congregate system, which meant the inmates worked and ate together, but went into isolation at night. The inmates engaged in hard labor and worked on bridges, ditches, quarries, and other difficult and tedious work. Floggings, though outlawed as a sentence, became the primary means of discipline. This soon became known as the Auburn Prison System, which owes many of it's attributes, such as better food and health care and an increased emphasis on rehabilitation, to the Pennsylvania system.


Silence was the over-riding theme of the Auburn system. John D. Cray, a deputy warden at the Auburn Prison, said silence took away the prisoner's 'sense of self', which made them more obedient. Thus the prisoners did everything without talking. The congregate system had them together for many activities and meals, all of which were done in silence. At night, they were in their cell, alone.

Despite the silence, the inmates worked together as they made items like barrels, buckets, clothes, shoes, boots, tools and saddles. These were sold at a profit making the Auburn system the first to wade into the prison manufacturing industry that became popular in the 1800s.

The prisoner's sense of self was also diminished by the uniform, which consisted of white with broad horizontal stripes. When they moved anywhere, thye had to walk lockstep with their hands grabbing the side of the prisoner in front and their elbows at their sides covering the hands of the prisoner behind. If one stumbled, many would fall and later be flogged.

Prison Punishment

Reforms came to punishment within the prison as well. When the Auburn prison opened, Elam Lynds was the warden. He instituted the rules and the punishment for breaking those rules. In 1839, a prisoner died from being flogged, which caused the Auburn Theological Seminary to petition for reforms. Soon a law was passed that limited a flogging to ''six blows on the naked back with the 'cat' or six-stranded whip.''

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