Auburn Prison – Where humanity once meant the whip

Early this morning we left Utica for Ithaca. To be fair, Tocqueville never went to Ithaca. He stopped at Syracuse and continued to Auburn to see the prison. This prison was considered the most modern of its kind in the early 19th century. And since the original purpose of Tocqueville’s trip was to write a report about penitentiary reform, he was exited to finally come here.

Tocqueville wrote to his mother: “Here I am at last at Auburn, at this famous Auburn of which we have spoken so often and about which all those who live on the Penitentiary System in France have said things so fine and so false. Not that the institution is not really very fine, but it is other than it is imagined by our excellent friends, the philanthropists of France.”

When Tocqueville walked through the prison, he was surprised to learn what the supposedly revolutionary instrument was that the guards used to discipline the inmates: a whip (or how Tocqueville called it: a fouet).

The Cornell Prison Education Program

Auburn prison still exists. It’s now euphemistically called Auburn Correctional Facility and they hopefully no longer whip the inmates. Instead, they offer university classes to some of them. The classes are part the Cornell Prison Education Program. Here’s what the program is about:

Our work supports a regional collaboration that brings together Cornell faculty and graduate students to teach a free college-level liberal arts curriculum to a select group of inmates at Auburn Correctional Facility and Cayuga Correctional Facility. The credits can be applied toward an associates degree from Cayuga Community College.

The Cornell Prison Education Program is dedicated to supporting incarcerated persons’ academic ambitions and preparation for successful re-entry. (…)

The privately-funded program was initiated in the mid-1990s when tax-funded college programs were ended by an act of Congress.

At 10 o’clock this morning, we had an appointment with Jim Schechter, the Executive Director of the program. In our video, he explains what it’s like for inmates to be enrolled in the program, how they benefit from it, and how education generally helps with re-entry into society.


  1. Interesting programme. A point that came to my mind is how lucky the participating prisoners are that probably by coincidence came to Auburn prison instead of some other prison.

  2. Actually, there are similar offers of education programs in other prisons. There just has to be a donor, who finances the program. Some inmates make an application to be transfered to Auburn, but this is rather the exception.

    Liebe Grüße,

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