Book opens doors to Auburn prison's past

Local Author Eileen McHugh revealed some of the many firsts that have come out of the prison in Auburn during a presentation of her book "Auburn Correctional Facility" at Creekside Books and Coffee in Skaneateles June 10. McHugh is director of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art and the city of Auburn's historian.

The prison's roots go back almost 200 years. It opened in 1817 after residents of Auburn did heavy lobbying in Albany.

"As New York State was growing the New York State government started talking about opening a new prison upstate in 1816, " McHugh said. "The leading citizens of Auburn wanted very much for that prison to be located in Auburn. The citizens realized that to have a new state prison there would elevate Auburn's profile."

Over the following years the prison became the starting point for many firsts including:

The first to house inmates in single occupancy cells

The first to use the electric chair

The first to emphasize reform using silence and forced labor

The first to have chaplain on staff

The first to put a female matron in charge of women inmates

The first to wear iconic striped uniforms

The first prison to routinely separate the mentally ill from the general population

Perhaps the most influential concept that came out of the prison was the development of the "Auburn plan."

"It sound very brutal to us today," McHugh said. "The auburn system was based on complete silence and total control of the inmates at all times -- one man per cell and every step they took outside the cell was regulated. The goal was to isolate each man from the other criminals, at the same time teaching him the value of hard work."

Inmates worked six ten-hour days each week and got by on two meals of mush and molasses. For some of the men the brutality of the system was deadly. In the early years several men were whipped to death within the prison.

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