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What Was the Auburn System?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Auburn system, named after the Auburn prison in New York, was a variation on the Quaker-run Pennsylvania penitentiaries of the 19th century. Combining hard labor with solitary confinement, the prison system sought to rehabilitate criminals while using them to offset the expenses of running a jail. While many of the brutal disciplinary practices used in the Auburn system have been replaced, its foundations remain the model for many prisons throughout the world.

Until the late 18th century, jails in America were typically used for confinement prior to trials and sentencing. Most punishments were either execution, or public penance of some kind, such as whipping. The idea of using jails as a criminal punishment was popularized by the Quakers of Pennsylvania, who disapproved of the constant executions due to their religious beliefs. In the Quaker system, prisoners were kept in total silence and solitary confinement for the duration of their sentence. The goal was to reform people who had become criminals, and prisoners were eventually allowed access to the Bible to help them return to a law-abiding life.

Taking its cue from the Quaker system, the Auburn system also kept prisoners in solitary confinement most of the time. Not speaking was meant to help make inmates compliant, while enforced labor was a tool for rehabilitation. In principle, the labor prisoners were forced to do was for their own good, to teach them the value of hard work. Of course, the labor of the prisoners also brought profit to the prison system, leading some to believe that the prisoners were exploited for free labor.

Criticisms of exploitation were hardly unjustifiable, given the practice of charging admission for tourists to enter the prison throughout the 19th century. While this did help to spread similar prison systems across the world, it was also used as a tool of humiliation for the prisoners. Seeing people freely enter and exit the prison on a daily basis could only emphasize their own lack of choice.

Many of the stereotypical prison images come from the Auburn system. It was here that the horizontally striped uniforms were introduced. These garments were meant to be humiliating and clearly identify prisoners for all to see. The Auburn system also pioneered lockstep, the practice of forcing inmates to march together, with their eyes down and one arm linked to the person in front of them.

For most of the 19th century, punishments in the Auburn system were swift and severe. A temperamental warden named Elam Lynds enthusiastically used flogging as a routine punishment, leading to the death of at least one prisoner. By the turn of the twentieth century, most forms of corporal punishment had been abolished, as a vocal minority gained ground in insisting that prisoners should have some rights.

Today, the Auburn system may seem barbaric in nature, but at the time it was actually an advance in humanity. Prior to the existence of long-term imprisonment, hundreds of offenses carried the death penalty, including denying God’s existence and homosexuality. The aim of prison systems was to rehabilitate inmates through labor and enforced solitude. While carrying brutal consequences, it also gave people the chance of redemption, a humanistic concept in an often unforgiving world.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for America Explained. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon306663 — On Dec 01, 2012

I was doing a 5 to 10 at Auburn back in late 60s. I did my C R and released in six to eight. The system may have flaws but, the problem is us. I've been out for over 45 years with no trouble.

By Renegade — On Feb 08, 2011


I think that the foundations of good civilization prove otherwise. Allowing for a second chance, and even a third or fourth chance, has positive results more often than negative ones. People are motivated to try to lead a good life when they've been shown that they were formerly in the wrong. This is a big part of growing up and learning to do well in life.

By GigaGold — On Feb 06, 2011


The issue with barbarism in jails keeps people from wanting to go to jail. Imagine if jails weren't such a scary place. People would probably be willing to commit crimes left and right! You can't trust people. "Redemptive" thinking just doesn't work on humanity, we all just want to get what we can out of life, and a lot of people would be willing to commit crimes to get an edge.

By BioNerd — On Feb 03, 2011


I think that the system is flawed. Oftener than not, people who go to jail get out of the barbaric system and are respected on the street, causing them to be leaders in the criminal community rather than forces for good. There is a fundamental problem with our way of dealing with criminals and with the gang culture that is flourishing in our culture.

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 02, 2011

It seems redemptive to have a system wherein people are allowed to have a strong second chance. The goal of jails should be for equipping criminals to renew their lives and become a benefit to their society. I think examples of the potential positive qualities of the Auburn system abound.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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