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Voyages


America

New York! The survey of penal institutions
«For the past week we have been living in the small village of Sing Sing, in which the largest penitentiary in the United States is located. And except for sleeping in a cell and being whipped with ropes, we are leading almost the same life as the prisoners. That's what I call throwing yourself into the penitentiary system»
(Letter to Félix Le Peletier d'Aunay, June 7, 1831)

Very quickly, the survey of the American penal system - the required pretext for making their voyage an official one - became a chore for both Tocqueville and Beaumont, which they tried to dispose of as quickly as possible. Thus, for the first few months of their trip, they concentrated most of their investigation on penal institutions in the northeastern part of the States. They were, of course, proud to have been personally invited by the mayor of New York to discover the homes for delinquent minors, whose principle and operation they found very convincing. During their visit to Sing Sing prison, where they were housed with local families, they even found a certain charm and interest. But the penal survey became rapidly relegated to second place in comparison with the interest in studying American society as a whole. Nevertheless, they completed their original task in all seriousness, and did not balk at interviewing prisoners one-on-one. Although they regretted not being able to find statistics about recidivism - a crucial indicator for judging the efficiency of a penal system - their survey was still fruitful. For one thing, it allowed them to re-examine certain prejudices concerning the virtues of American prisons that were popular in French philanthropic circles - although they seemed very inexpensive to run, it was because prisoners were obliged to work from morning to night, and although they worked calmly and in silence, without exhibiting the least rebelliousness, it was because they feared the lash.

« The Americans have tried to isolate the prisoners here from one another to the point where each man can count only on his own individual strength and therefore always feels weaker than the guards who watch over him. They achieve this by means of silenceand constant work. »
(Letter to Félix Le Peletier d'Aunay, June 7, 1831)

This was the secret of the American system, that Tocqueville thought would be difficult to transpose onto French soil. He was also interested by the principle of solitary confinement, which was practiced by certain establishments, and which seemed to him to have several distinct advantages: by isolated prisoners from each other and forcing them to confront their own thoughts in silence, it kept prisons from turning into schools of crime. This, according to Tocqueville, was the principal lesson that France could learn in order to improve its own penal system.

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Sing Sing Prison and Tappan Sea

Sing Sing Prison and Tappan Sea, anonymous
© BNF

Layout of the Pennsylvania Prison

Layout of the Pennsylvania Prisone, Private collection © AD Manche

Archives

Draft report by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Draft report by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont © CHAN

Letter from the French legation to Dannery, consul at Philadelphia

Letter from the French legation to Dannery, consul at Philadelphia
© Archives diplomatiques de Nantes

Letter concerning the mission of Beaumont and Tocqueville

Letter concerning the mission of Beaumont and Tocqueville © Archives diplomatiques de Nantes

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