In April 2003, Auburn prison historian John Miskell (right) presented NYCHS with a NYS Senate volume of 1869 reports on prisons and other institutions (title page left).

Because of the book's delicate condition, the number of excerpts that can be extracted from it is limited.

Here are presented excerpts from reports by chaplains at Auburn, Sing Sing and Clinton prisons.


John N. Miskell
Retired Deputy Superintendent


To the Honorable Board of Inspectors:

. . . . Our chapel and hospital, enlarged and improved, became better suited than formerly, to their appropriate design, as they are made more pleasant and attractive. There is now secured much better ventilation, and purity of atmosphere has more to do than most people suppose with purity of morals.

Low diet and ill-ventilated apartments go far toward nullifying efforts for the benefit of either body or soul. When the law is enacted, as it will, probably, sometime be, that no more than 400 or 600 prisoners shall be consigned to one prison or one corps of officers, then will the way be opened for throwing two cells into one throughout the entire prison, in which case they will be enlarged to a somewhat suitable size, and another stop toward improvement and reform will have been made.

My official duties both in the male and female prison have been performed in about the same routine and after about the same manner as in former years. I have found the inmates of both prisons favorably disposed in every instance to receive advice or instruction, and in the chapel services they have been orderly and attentive. . . .

We have been favored, especially in the male prison, the past year, through crime and misfortune, with some of the best musical talent, giving us a prison choir unsurpassed by few choirs in either city or country, which has contributed much to the general interest of our public services. . . .


NO. 12 TO 48

VOL. 3.


[As received from John N. Miskell, April 2003 ]

Much has been said in disparity of prison reformations; but, in reality, reformatory measures have never fairly been on trial here. The Chaplain, after overseeing the entire correspondence of from 1,200 to 1,500 convicts, having charge of the library where three-fourths of all the convicts regularly draw books, and attending to innumerable wants and woes of convicts, and inquiries and anxieties of their friends in their behalf, has not a superabundance of time left to devote to their moral improvement.

Besides all this there is a great want of moral appliances. Religious books are introduced in their proportion into the general library; but the State appropriation for this object has never been adequate to our needs, and last year was entirely ignored by the Legislature.

Religious tracts and religious papers like the American Messenger and Good News, are read with avidity, and yet there has never been more than a partial supply, and that only as it has been furnished at my own expense or by solicitations through the press or otherwise, to individuals and societies.

We are thus indebted to the American Tract Society, Tract Society of the M. E. Church, the Protestant Episcopal Tract Society, and to several benevolently disposed persons, for donations; and recently a friend has arranged to supply us with 2,500 pages of tracts per month for a year, or one-half enough four-page tracts to place one in each cell every month in the year.

In the male prison we have only one Bible to every five convicts, or 270 Bibles in the entire prison. The Bible societies make no donations to State institutions, and an ineffectual effort was made last winter to secure an appropriation from the Legislature to place a Bible and a hymn-book in every cell.

This matter should be successfully urged before the next Legislature, and it be no longer said, in this christian land, that the State of New York refuses the Bible and its accessory in worship, a Book of Praise, to its prison inmates.

Money has been regarded so much above morals that work, with contractors and the State, must take the precedence of worship to the exclusion of those who would be glad to spend one hour of the week in the payer meeting or for moral and religious improvement.

Considering the want of so many needful moral appliances, the great wonder is that so much is effected as there seems to be, rendering it satisfactory to my own mind that when reformation comes to be considered one of the objects to be secured, and not punishment alone, and means are adopted to secure such an object, our prisons, if they turn not over to the State as much money, will give back to society better men.

One grand object to be aimed at in securing the reformation of men, is to enlist their attention and ally their minds to something which will exalt and ennoble them. Too much attention cannot be given in imparting to them useful knowledge. The teachers' report which will be found appended, shows encouraging results, and yet the manner of receiving and imparting instruction well illustrates the old idea of "the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties."

The teacher stands at the prisoner's cell, outside the grated door, and infuses knowledge through the grates to one person at a time; thus partially effecting, in the course of two or three weeks, what might be effected in a single hour in a school room where all those desiring instruction might be taught, according to their grade, in one class, instead of as now in a class of one.

If, furthermore, once in a week or two weeks, or even twice a week, arrangements could be made to close work an hour earlier than usual, and spend that hour in the chapel, and there have a lecture on some literary or scientific subject, on commerce, trade, or some other general and practical subject, the effect, it seems to me, must be permanently salutary.

It would give the mind something to feed upon, and, perhaps, enlist it for a career of usefulness. It would, at least, take the mind out of the old channels, and that is a great point gained. Those 1,250 prisoners, at one hour each, would make 1,250 hours, or 125 days, of ten hours each, a loss which, it would be said, the State could not afford.


NO. 12 TO 48

VOL. 3.


[As received from John N. Miskell, April 2003 ]

Rather, however, make the reckoning in this wise: this one hour's loss would be equivalent, at the most, to ten cents each for every prisoner, and not many of them but might be profited that amount in an hour by such a course of lectures as proposed; and not only this, but my judgment is that with this arrangement they would accomplish an equal amount of work and do it with a better heart and more of a will for this relief to the usual monotony and tedious round of daily service.

The suggestions under this head, in report of last year, is also concerning prisons of different grade, and a classification of prisoners, adjusting the rewards to well doing, so as to make them commensurate with punishment to evil doing, the extension of the "Commutation Act" to embrace a system of conditional pardons or something-akin to the Ticket-of-Leave system of other countries, after another year's experience have become only the more settled convictions in my own mind.

There may be matters connected with each department of prison management which claim attention, as will probably be developed in their reports; but the great want of the prison after all is the multiplication of moral appliances and reformatory means. Our prisons need to be conducted on the higher and broader principles of making men as well as money, and to be adjusted to some plan which will insure both the highest well-being of the prisoner, and the good as well as the safety of society at large.

Respectfully submitted,
Chaplain --
Sing Sing, N.Y.
October lst, 1868


September 30, 1868

Honorable Board Of Inspectors of State Prisons of the State ofNew York:

. . . I have continued to superintend the prison Sunday school, which convenes every Sabbath morning at a quarter before eight o'clock A. M., in the chapel. We have had from two hundred to two hundred and fifty convicts in the school during the past year (a larger number than we have usually had), which is about all that can be accommodated in the chapel, as the classes must be far enough apart so as not to disturb each other in their exercises.

The convicts, generally, consider it a favor to be permitted to attend the school . . . I have endeavored to get into the school, first, the younger portion of the convicts and, second, those who are in prison for a long term of years. . . .

I feel under great obligations to the students of the theological seminary in this city, and also to several of the citizens of Auburn, for the interest they have manifested and the very efficient aid they have given me in this important department of the Chaplain's work. . . .

I am pleased to say to you that we now have the best choir of singers (all convicts) that we have ever had since my connection with the prison, In addition to the melodeon we have, during the past year, introduced into the choir a violin, flute and double bass. . . .

. . . . a greater number of the convicts have, during the past year, given evidence of a scriptural repentance for their sins and a saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, than during any other of the ten years of my chaplaincy. Yes, men do reform in prison, and go out converted and saved. In my opinion, this would be more often the case were it not for the present contract system, and the great effort all the time to make the prison "pay."

I have, as usual, taken charge of the whole of the correspondence of the convicts. This, in connection with the letters received by the Chaplain from the parents, wives and friends of the prisoners, all of which must be answered, is a very important and sometimes almost an onerous part of the Chaplain's duties. These letters to and from the prison amount to at least two hundred or two 'hundred and fifty per week, all of which are to be carefully read, marked, and delivered, or, properly directed and mailed.

This, in connection with other office duties, such as seeing and conversing with the convicts, say from ten to twenty each day, looking after the library, &c., &c., occupies from three to five hours each day.


NO. 12 TO 48

VOL. 3.


[As received from John N. Miskell, April 2003 ]

It is to be regretted that the last Legislature made no appropriation to purchase library books for this prison. As many as ninety-five per cent of the convicts draw books from the library, and many of them become great readers. There is nothing that so much aids in keeping up the discipline of the prison as a good library. . . .

The instructors are very faithful in their duties, and are really doing a noble work; many of the convicts who could not read or write a word when they came into prison, can now read and write a good hand; and as their ignorance has been the cause of their ruin in very many cases, who can tell how great a blessing the instructions that they have received may be to them? . . .

In some of my former reports I have spoken of the importance of having the "wings" of the prison so lighted that all the men could see to read or study until eight o'clock in the evening; and also in regard to a classification of the convicts, as a preventive to mere boys and young men going out of the prison schooled for crime. I think this is important, also, as an aid to the reformation of the penitent and well-disposed while in prison.

The fact is that many young men get into prison for the first crime they ever committed, and that perhaps under great excitement or circumstances of strong temptation; and it is too bad that they should become hardened and ruined for life, by being brought in contact with those who are sure to have only a bad influence over them. . . .

I think . . . . that under the present humane system of conducting the prisons, more men are reformed while in prison than formerly. And the number, I think, would be greatly increased if all the officers of the prison were always exemplary men -- men of moral and religious character. Officers in such an institution as this, ought at least to be entirely free from all those habits and vices which have caused the ruin of so many of the convicts, such as profanity, Sabbath desecration, drunkenness, etc., etc., and until such is the case, we cannot reasonably expect our prisons to be very reformatory.

Good, and even rigorous, discipline, wisely enforced and tempered with kindness, will also do much to aid in the reformation of the convicts. There must not be a laxity in discipline if the prisoner is to be benefited by his prison life. A disregard to law has brought these men into prison, and if, while here, they can become habituated to living "according to rule," it may be a benefit to them not only while in prison but through life. . . .

Before closing this report, . . . I desire to say that during all the ten years and more that I have been chaplain of this prison, I do not remember that any convict was ever disrespectful to me, or that in all my intercourse and conversations with them, any one of them ever spoke to me in an unkind or unbecoming manner. And I must say that the kind and respectful treatment that I have ever received from these men, has led me to feel more of a sympathy for them, and to look with greater charity upon the errors and wrongs of this class of men than if I had never been connected with the prison or labored among them.

And as I now expect, in a few months' time, to leave this for another field of labor, I shall ever most earnestly pray for God to have mercy upon, and to pity and bless the prisoner in his lonely cell.

I am, gentlemen,
Very respectfully yours, &c.,


Clinton Prison, October 1st, 1868

Honorable Board of Inspectors

Gentlemen -- Having served another year as Chaplain of this prison, I herewith present my sixth annual report.

The significant stars in my last report admonish me to be both cautious and brief.

As the nature of my duties have varied slightly from past years, and as I have few suggestions that will be acceptable even if profitable, it will be easy to heed the admonition. . . .


NO. 12 TO 48

VOL. 3.


[As received from John N. Miskell, April 2003 ]

The question is often asked, ought not religious appliances to be more numerous and efficient? If by this is meant an increase of religious services, more tracts and good books distributed, more private conversations, it might all be well; but the great want would still be the teachings and the spirit of Christ developed and illustrated in the wise, firm, yet gentle and loving spirit of those who are placed over these men, to guide, control, teach and discipline them in their daily duties and toils.

The question whether this class of men can be reformed will never be fairly tested till a wise, intelligent Christian spirit breathes, not merely through the Chaplain and the services of his department, but through all the officers and all the plans of the institution itself.

Let the chief aim be to take the ignorant, debased and criminal, and pass them on, step by step, through that process of mental and moral training which is wisely adapted to give them a self-control and make honest men of them; and then, if failure is the result, it may be time to say they cannot be reformed, but not till then.

This is what society in none of its forms has yet done for this class of men. With rare exceptions they have been from early childhood under just the influence to make of them passionate, headstrong men and knaves; and when in self-defense society shuts them out from her presence, it should be for their good as well as her own.

Indeed, her surest mode of self-defense is to put them under a process of training that shall change all their habits of thought, their modes of life, and their aim in living, and thus remedy in some degree the sad defects of their early training.

No man of judgment will pronounce this an easy task; yet all honest effort in the right direction, I am confident, will produce results that will bring a rich reward.

If it becomes a settled principle, as some contend, that these men cannot be made better, then they should not be discharged; for what good end can be attained by letting them out to run the same round of riot and crime?

The first step essential to reform in our prisons is to relieve them from the control of political partizans and mere place-seekers. It should be enough to condemn the fitness of any man for official position in our prisons, that he seeks it as a reward for partizan service. Let the place seek the man -- not the man the place. . . we shall never have men fit to deal with the criminal class till this radical change is made.

This is a point difficult, and, perhaps, impossible to reach under our present prison system, and if so the fact ought to be fatal to the system. One of our greatest wants is men of character for officers, and the greatest obstacle in the way is the greedy clamor of mere place-seekers demanding pay for party service.

Gentlemen, you may think I speak plain, but you know I speak the truth; and I hope no man will count me an enemy because I tell the truth.

Pursuant with the statute to that effect, the Agent and Warden has freely supplied Bibles, school books and slates for the use of prisoners. Each man that can read has a. Bible placed in his cell, and many not only read but study it with interest and profit . . .

Something over a year since Mrs. Elizabeth Comstock, of the Society of Friends, spent a Sabbath with us, and through her means we have since received of Robert Lindley Murray forty-five volumes of very valuable books for our library. This is the only donation of books to our library since it has been under my charge, except a few Congressional documents.

We shall soon be obliged to appeal to the benevolent for books, or do without them, unless our Legislature is more mindful of our wants than it was last winter. The $250 appropriated one year ago last winter has been carefully expended, adding to our list 244 volumes, which, with the donation of Mr. Murray, made a handsome addition to our scanty library.

Our evening schools have been as successful as could be expected under our present system. . . .

My sincere thanks are due to those who have so faithfully taught in our Sabbath schools; also to the prison officers generally, as well as to your Honorable Board, for all aid rendered in the discharge of my duties as Chaplain.

Respectfully yours,
J. A. CANFALD, Chaplain.

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