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During the early 1840s, at a prison in west central New York "a system of prison administration arose that for over a century wielded an enormous and preponderate influence upon prisons and reformatories throughout the country." The silent system of the Auburn Prison in New York exerted a profound influence in penal theories and practices throughout the United States, including Montana. For over a hundred years the silent system represented the cornerstone of prison discipline.

Ideally, the silent system entailed the nightly solitary confinement of each inmate with a daily work routine among groups of prisoners. Prison officials rigidly enforced a doctrine of perpetual silence during all prison activities. Hard work and silence were the two inseparable ingredients of the Auburn system.

By the late 1860s, as Federal officials planned and built the Montana Territorial Penitentiary, the Auburn system was hailed as the national model. For prison discipline and prisoner rehabilitation, Montana's Territorial Prison did not escape from this system's pervasive impact upon prison development. Yet the relative isolation and uniqueness of Montana's Prison altered and consequently weakened the all-encompassing Auburn system.

For example, the original architectural plans adhered to the Auburn plan of cell construction. But, as demonstrated, financial constraints radically reduced the original plans of the Federal architect. The modifications of A. H. Mitchell, though warranted by circumstance, violated a basic tenet of the Auburn system. The construction of just fourteen cells virtually guaranteed overcrowding making solitary confinement an unacceptable luxury. Inadequate facilities also strained the Prison's ability to enforce the silent system or to develop prisoner work programs. Despite the construction of additional cells, the middle building, and the south wing, overcrowding and poor facilities curtailed the strengthening of the Auburn system. Nevertheless, aspects of the silent system endured and resurfaced throughout the Penitentiary's history.

Completion of the south wing of the Deer Lodge Penitentiary in 1886 marked the beginning of the ninety year history of the facility. It was to the credit of one individual, Frank Conley, that during the next thirty years the penal institution at Deer Lodge served the law enforcement needs of the state's citizenry.


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