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Auburn Prison and Carceral Modernity: A Performance History

Originally constructed in 1817, Auburn Correctional Facility in Upstate New York stands as the oldest continually functional maximum-security penitentiary in the United States.[1] I doubt that its designers would have predicted that 200 years later the US would come to incarcerate more people than any other country in history. We currently make up only 5% of the world’s population, but confine about 21% of its prisoners. According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rates of whites. If people of color were imprisoned at the rates whites are, it’s estimated that the US prison population would decrease by more than 40%. This prison boom is not only limited to men: rates of imprisonment for women are increasing faster than those of any other demographic group. From the beginning, Auburn has acted as a modern laboratory of punishment. It was initially built at a time when a number of major punishment reforms occurred across the country. Differing slightly from the coeval system established at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, in which inmates were confined all hours in solitary cells, at Auburn the officials enforced two complementary ideals: absolute silence and physical labor. The systems developed in these prisons were adapted and adopted across the nation. In the “Auburn System,” inmates were held in solitude at night, and during the day were forced to work for the profit of local businesses. At all times, they were forbidden from communicating with each other. Inmates marched in lockstep, with their heads facing in the same direction; they were beaten, whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, and tortured with an early form of waterboarding called “showering.”

In its two centuries of operation, what has changed in Auburn prison? And what has remained the same? In what ways is the modernity of the penitentiary complicit in establishing the conditions for mass incarceration? Which performances of punishment are repeated in today’s era, even though we might imagine ourselves as more progressive than we were in the past? These questions guide the following meditations on the performance and media surrounding and penetrating the history of Auburn. Every Friday night since 2013, I’ve traveled with a group of fellow volunteers into the prison to work with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, an incarcerated ensemble of writers and performers. Auburn today is unusually claustrophobic, even for a prison: the windows of the school building in which we rehearse look out onto cement walls, and the main yard we walk through is paved with asphalt and enclosed by towering brick cellblocks. There’s a shivering square of grass adjacent to the weight-lifting area, the remnant of an inmate garden program long since dismantled. And there are nights when hundreds of crows stare from the tops of the fences, walls, and power lines, from time to time erupting in a cackling bloom of black flapping. As I walk through the contemporary prison yard with my fellow volunteers, I sometimes imagine that I’m in the presence of the ghosts that haunt the place. The prison voices that try and speak to us don’t only belong to those locked in their cells, but also call from the past, issuing curses or warnings. I believe that by laying the two times side-by-side, past and present, and by assembling the connections and intersections between these spaces separated by time, we can begin to imagine the experience of that space for the future, and how we might transform it.

Some historical photographs documenting a performance that “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West Show staged in the yard in 1908 form the bedrock of my reflections here.[2] Photography serves to not only preserve a historical moment, but also to frame for the viewer a notion of history itself, setting limits on how we envision the past—and we develop notions of our living selves today in part from how we view our yesterdays. These early photos of a prison performance therefore deserve particular attention from contemporary prison theatre artists like myself, lest we misapprehend the historical context of our practices. The photographer was positioned at the east end of the yard, looking down on the assembly. Two tall lines of trees frame a central stone path. Newly-installed electrical wires crisscross among the treetops, and a pole dangles a round incandescent light bulb above. The audience, composed of hundreds of inmates in shirtsleeves and suspenders, sit in rows on either side. In one action photo, a single rider rears back on his horse as a group of American Show Indians wearing feather headdresses watch from the foreground, their backs to the camera. In a more posed photo, the entire group, audience included, stands and faces the capturing lens. The prison yard today looks nothing like these photos. There are no trees, no path, no large public performances. Yet, at the turn of the twentieth century, the inmate population would already over-represent poor people, African Americans, indigenous peoples, and immigrants.

Figs. 1 and 2. Photographs of a 1908 performance by Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show in Auburn Prison. From the collection of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art.

Looking at these photos, I recall a brief episode from Austin Reed’s memoirs, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, the oldest extant prison memoir by an African American, written 1858-1859.[3] This text describes another intriguing prison performance. Just before Reed finds himself incarcerated in Auburn Prison, he performs as a racist caricature of an Indian assassin in a reform-school production for a group of Philadelphia visitors interested in juvenile delinquency and correction—most likely in an adaptation of John Augustus Stone’s Metamora (1829). This performance was an opportunity for Reed to display his acting chops and “clear silver voice for singing,” winning good favor with the white administration. Reed’s bemused ambivalence regarding the performance—benefiting from it even as he was coerced to do it—must have resembled, I imagine, the feeling in the prison yard when the Wild West Show visited. The conflict and conquest in the Wild West Show legitimized the violence of the white frontier mentality, dramatizing genocide with a simplistic adventure narrative. In prison, its exhibition modeled a perverse and racist rehabilitative logic, which said to prisoners: master your own “savage” inclinations, just as Buffalo Bill defeated these Native peoples.

I’m also interested in the photos of the performance because they foreground the peculiar dehumanizing effect of the photographic lens itself—as myriad thinkers since Walter Benjamin have explored. Drawing on Susan Sontag, we might understand photography as enacting a kind of social control, very much in line with the project of incarceration: “It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”[4] These prison photos therefore signal a technocratic intervention into the realm of penality—a disturbing civilizing narrative much like Buffalo Bill’s performances themselves. In the photos, both Show Indians and inmates are presented either with their backs to the camera, faceless and vulnerable, or slightly behind the more dominant subjects, surrendering space to the white “heroes” of the Western and criminal justice frontiers: Buffalo Bill and prison warden George Benham. At least in the photos I’ve seen, the Show Indians and inmates are grouped together as passive crowds, receptive to the spectacle of bravura horsemanship and the technological marvel of the photographic lens. Both groups are literally arrested in negative by the technology of the camera apparatus—as in the inverse colors of a photonegative—a process that exists on a spectrum with other technologies of punishment, such as isolation, shackles, the cat o’ nine tails, pillory, noose, needle, and electric chair. These technologies all function to render negative their subjects, exercising necro-power and stripping people of living presence.

The modern history of penality is a narrative of technocratic reform. One of the innovators of early photographic technology, Thomas Edison, was also a key player in instrumentalizing electricity for use in execution, a practice first tested at Auburn in 1890. Edison was vocally anti-capital punishment, yet, concludes historian Mark Essig, without Edison, New York State would never have abolished hanging and replaced it with electrocution.[5] Essig describes how Edison helped implement electrocution as a means of scoring points in the “War of the Currents.” In order to prove the deadly force of Nikola Tesla’s alternating current, Edison’s company conducted a series of public experiments at his lab in New Jersey in the summer of 1888. In these experiments, Edison applied alternating current to animals in order to calculate the electrical threshold at which a given body mass died. Dozens of dogs and other animals were tortured and killed. In order to further equate alternating current with death in the public’s mind, Edison wrote directly to the 1888 New York State Death Penalty Commission, recommending Tesla’s dynamo for use in electrical execution.

Fig. 3. Photograph of the first electric chair, used once in 1890 to kill William Kemmler before being decommissioned and replaced with a different model. From the collection of the Cayuga Museum of History and Art.

Shifts in punishment practice signal broader shifts in conceptions of humanity. In 1888, when legislators officially revised how New York State would kill its condemned, they also revised a notion of the modern subject. This legislation was motivated by a more general modernization, characterized in punishment practice by the move from the spectacle of the public square to the inevitability of the private death chamber, and by the concomitant aversion to displays of pain and suffering. Anti-death penalty advocates frequently lean on humanistic discourse that paints the spectacle of suffering as “barbaric”—as something that only the less “compassionate,” “humane” parts of society take part in. In modernity, physical cruelty characterizes savagery; civilized people don’t seek to inflict or feel pain, only the uncivilized, childish, and insensate do that. Sensitivity to pain is viewed as a fundamental virtue of the modern subject; modernity itself can indeed be characterized by this desire for the reduction of pain. This discourse belies the brutal realities of penal practice, effacing entire histories of pain that are fundamental to modernity.

In November 1901 Edison Studios released a short feature film that dramatizes the idealized scene of the modern electrical execution. Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison opens with a slow-pan of the prison walls, captured from across the train tracks in the City of Auburn. The silent film then proceeds to re-stage the electrocution of US President William McKinley’s assassin, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, executed at Auburn a month before the film’s release. Guards lead Czolgosz down a corridor into a room where the electric chair, medical experts, warden and executioner wait. They calmly strap him into the chair, securing the chair’s metal cap on his head. The executioner then checks that the wires powering the chair are connected, and leaves the scene through a door on the upstage wall. After a moment, the warden signals with his index finger to turn the current on, and Czolgosz’s body struggles and strains against the straps holding him down. He lowers back to his seat after about five seconds. Suddenly, he rises again, his hands clenching and unclenching rapidly, and then lowers once again after about five seconds. Once more he rises, bulging against the restraints, then suddenly slumps in the chair after only a couple seconds. Two men listen to his chest with a stethoscope, then turn away, nodding: the chair has successfully killed the condemned. The whole feature gives the impression that the viewer is witness to a dispassionate, calculated execution. Aside from the momentary tension in his fists, there’s no indication that Czolgosz experiences any pain as the electrical current passed through his body and killed him. He’s simply put in the seat and rendered dead.

However, in reality, death in the electric chair was far from the simple extinguishing of life, and could be quite gruesome. The world’s first electrocution, of William Kemmler at Auburn in August 1890, was particularly brutal (Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair, 251-53). After electrocuting him for 17 seconds, officials declared Kemmler dead, and Alfred Porter Southwick, the death penalty reformer and dentist who designed the chair, tellingly exclaimed, “We live in a higher civilization today.” Two minutes later, Kemmler came gasping back to life, and, in a panic, the executioner again flipped the switch, this time electrocuting the body for between one and two minutes. According to witness accounts, Kemmler experienced a tremendous amount of pain before dying, and as they watched his suffering, some onlookers wept and vomited. While it might be argued that the use of the electric chair in Kemmler’s execution was still experimental, and that therefore subsequent electrocutions would have been far less painful for the condemned, Essig establishes that by the end of the twentieth century over 4,500 people across the US had been killed in the electric chair, most of them subject to excruciating pain (277-28).  

Edison Studios’ filmic Execution largely fails to reenact the pain of electrocution in service to the humanitarian performance of modern civilization. The performances of mass incarceration similarly claim to reenact this painless and therefore civilized punishment, while simultaneously inflicting tremendous harm. Today, the evangelists of “law and order” draw on this performance history in order to legitimize upgrades to police and prison crackdowns. For example, to briefly consider the perverse phenomenon of the private prison alongside the Trump presidency, a large number of people in privately-owned, for-profit detention centers are there for crossing the border, pending deportation. This is characterized by proponents as a necessary, and indeed, humane situation. To my mind, Trump ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is directly relevant to this discussion. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already rescinded the Obama-era memo that called for a reduction in federal dependence on private facilities. Two of Sessions’s former aides are now lobbyists for one of the world’s largest private prison contractors, the Geo Group. And according to some sources Trump received around $500,000 from private prison magnates. Without activist resistance, this might mark a shift toward mass private immigration detention—the next phase for a criminal justice system that claims to “make America safe again” with efficiency and innovation.

Regrettably, when the fields of performance and media turn their attentions to the prison, it’s historically in service of a technocratic mission of reform. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the use of penitentiaries like Auburn continued to rise, well-intentioned efforts to improve the project of incarceration have resulted in superficial improvements in the lives of those confined, rather than in substantive transformation of its underlying structures. This rise is tied up with the history of race in the United States; hyper-criminalization and imprisonment have come to replace enslavement and Jim Crow as the preeminent modes of social control of African Americans, and, with an ever-increasing intensity, how the government seeks to control immigrants of color. As was the case with Austin Reed, live performance has been used as just one more false amelioration for the people captured by these structures. A deep and pervasive transformation is necessary for mass liberation, one that seeks to repair the ravages of racial and economic inequalities, as well as offer more robust opportunities to heal the very real human tragedies that occur.

One approach, which the Phoenix Players Theatre Group explores, is to foreground the voices and experiences of those currently living in prison. Though the death camp is, according to Giorgio Agamben, the “nomos of modernity,” life still goes on.[6] Prison theatre and other creative practices have the potential to stage stories about the living human presence of those rendered negative by the technologies of the state. Supporting and attending to the creative lives of incarcerated people complicates the apocalyptic narrative of modernity—and, perhaps paradoxically, performance and media can help uncover moments of humanizing escape. For example, in the words of one of the founders of the Phoenix Players, Michael Rhynes: "Photos are the lifeblood of the prisoner's existence; one would die to retrieve a stolen photograph. Photos are worth more than gold; photos are worth more than a freedom that may never come." I excerpt this from a monologue Rhynes wrote reflecting on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in which he compares his situation of confinement with that of a soldier at war. He describes the transcendent power of photography to extract a prisoner from his cell to the time and place captured on film. Though the inevitable return to physical confinement is painful, the momentary reprieve helps him survive. In addition, he stresses that this photographic transcendence is more valuable to him than “a freedom that may never come,” a turn of phrase with multiple meanings. He refers, of course, to the fact of his serving a life sentence in a maximum-security prison. But he’s also dealing with the complex notion of freedom for black subjects in general. The rehearsal and performance of this monologue recreates for Rhynes his temporary moment of escape, while presenting for the audience the human story of his imprisonment.

On Friday nights, as I walk through the Auburn prison yard, I witness the modern prison as a site of constant struggle for beauty and life. In this way it’s like the theatre, in which light, dark, machines, ghosts, and actors of all sorts jostle and animate themselves. And like the theatre the things the prison contains inevitably change, despite and because the repetition of the performance. It’s our responsibility to examine these repeated images of terror and human cruelty, to meditate in the gaps and overlaps between our own time and the past, and to buttress the struggles of the imprisoned and oppressed where and when we can in order to shape this change.



[1] David J. Rothman, “Perfecting the Prison: United States, 1789-1865,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 100-116.

[2] Eileen McHugh, Images of America: Auburn Correctional Facility (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2010), 42-43.

[3] Austin Reed, The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, ed. Caleb Smith (New York: Random House, 2016), 43-45.

[4] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 4.

[5] Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death (New York: Walker, 2003), 288.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone, 1999), 166.