Shining our spotlight on: Auburn Correctional Facility

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Located in Cayuga County, New York, Auburn Correctional Facility is a maximum security prison for men ages 21 and older. 

Auburn, historically

Built in 1816, Auburn is the second oldest prison to be constructed in New York State, after New York City’s Newgate. It is the site of the first execution by electric chair in 1890.

The prison is also the namesake of  the “Auburn System,” a form of incarceration in which people worked in groups during the day, were housed in solitary confinement at night and lived in total silence.  The system also included corporal punishment, striped uniforms and lockstep marching.

The Auburn System was widely replicated across the country. Many of the harsher elements eventually were phased out by the end of the 19th century, including an extreme form of punishment called “shower baths.”

Similar to waterboarding, during a shower bath, a man would be stripped naked, bound with a collar around the neck, placed under an outlet pipe where water (sometimes iced) would be poured down on him, preventing him from breathing.


Image of man being showered to death at Auburn Prison

A story in  Harper’s Weekly, Dec. 18, 1858, featured an illustration of a man being killed by a shower bath at Auburn, entitled  “The Negro convict, More, showered to death.”   “. . . all the water that was in the tank — amounting to from three to five barrels, the quantity is uncertain — was showered upon him in spite of his piteous cries; a few minutes after his release from the bath he fell prostrate, was carried to his cell, and died in five minutes.”



Auburn, modern day

On a recent visit to Auburn, members of the Correctional Association’s Visiting Committee — comprised of CA staff and board members, medical and psychiatric professionals, formerly incarcerated people and criminal justice experts — branched out to all corners of the prison to record observations, conduct interviews and collect data.

Our team noted a few positive developments at the facility:

  • A wide selection of mental health services were available for those in residential treatment programs.
  • Incarcerated people were organizing to bring additional volunteer and educational forums to the prison.

However, we also noted:

  • The men at Auburn reported a high number of threats, retaliation and verbal harassment by staff.
  • Significant levels of gang activity and drug use inside the prison.
  • We observed a large number of people with mental illness being housed in solitary confinement (known in NY as Special Housing Units, or SHU).  System-wide, we have serious concerns about the effectiveness of the mental health services for people in the SHU.
  • Many people reported being idle.
  • Many had serious concerns about access to and quality of medical care.

As with many facilities throughout the state, due to the challenging fiscal environment Auburn is missing staff from many of its key programs.  Due to the size and needs of the population, these vacancies adversely affect the ability of the remaining program staff to provide adequate services.


Download the Correctional Association’s full report on Auburn