Auburn Prison classroom, c. 1915. The Mutual Welfare League greatly increased educational opportunities for inmates.

A wooden soldier in the uniform of the Revolutionary War was placed on the decorative peak of the administration building in 1821. By 1848, he was so decayed that he was taken down. Convicts in the prison foundry hammered a replica out of sheet copper, which gave the new statue its name, Copper John.


Pages 8 & 9 of exhibit brochure. All rights reserved to Cayuga Museum.

When the old administration building was razed in 1938, Copper John was taken down, repainted, and measured for his "Bertillon," the exacting record of measurements that was taken of every inmate. Copper John weighed in at 600 pounds. His skin is 1/4 inch thick. From his boots to the tassel on his hat, he stands 8', 8 1/2" tall. His rifle, weighing 100 lbs., is slightly more than 11' tall. When the new administration building was completed, he returned to his post.

At the invitation of the first warden, William Brittin professors and students from the nearby Auburn Theological Seminary began to visit the prison and deliver sermons on Sunday mornings. Rev. Jared Curtis was sent to Auburn Prison in 1824 by the Prison Discipline Society in Boston. Curtis established Sabbath School in the prison in 1825, using students from the seminary as teachers. Curtis became the first prison chaplain in the United States when he went on the State payroll as full-time chaplain in 1827. His salary was $200 a year.

The first legislation governing education was passed in 1847, directing the employment of two part-time teachers under the direction of the chaplain. The teachers tried to give lessons on the galleries at night, after the prisoners had worked a 10-hour day. With the prisoner locked behind a latticed door and the teacher outside with a lantern and a Bible, the lessons did not go very far. It was not until after the first electrocution took place in 1890 that the prison was electrified, with artificial light in cells and shops. This hastened the progress of the educational program.

By 1900, there was a successful program for the Americanization of foreign-born prisoners. The education program was greatly expanded through the work of Thomas Mott Osborne and the Mutual Welfare League.

Copper John was originally made of wood in 1821.

After the League was disbanded in 1930, education in the prison declined again.

In 1958, at the request of Warden Robert E. Murphy, the old buildings which had housed the women's prison were razed to make room for a new educational building. The new school opened in January 1961. The Osborne School, named in honor of Thomas Mott Osborne, was fully accredited by the State Education Department and provided primary and secondary academic programs, high school equivalency and college programs, as well as specialized vocational training. The school became quite popular with inmates. By 1970, an average of 35 men annually graduated with a Regents high school diploma and another 150 men obtained high school equivalency diplomas. Both types were issued by the State Education Department and did not indicate that they were earned in prison.

In the 1970s, after the deadly riots in Attica State Prison and other penal institutions throughout the country, a number of programs were introduced in the prison at Auburn. There was an active art program, writing workshops, the creation of what became an award-winning inmate newspaper, The Auburn Collective, and a college program for inmates. Men could earn an Associate's degree, a Bachelor's degree, even a Master's degree behind bars. SUNY Auburn's motto was "You can graduate, but you can't leave." Public sentiment against inmates receiving a "free" education doomed the program, and SUNY Auburn was discontinued in the 1990s.

Today, the academic options at Auburn Correctional Facility include Adult Basic Education for non-readers, a pre-high school program (through 8th grade reading level), and a General Equivalency Diploma program. English as a Second Language is available when necessary. Vocational education programs include computer repair, electrical, barbering, masonry, upholstery, building maintenance, drafting, custodial maintenance and welding.

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Cayuga Museum of History and Art 4/12-8/31 2003 exhibit brochure:
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Both Sides of
the Wall

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this presentation of the "Both Sides of the Wall" exhibit brochure authored by Eileen McHugh, Cayuga Museum of History and Art director.
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All Cayuga Museum of History and Art rights to its Both Sides of the Wall exhibit brochure material presented above are reserved to and retained by it.