Thomas Mott Osborne, 1910.
(Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
No person in the early 1900s rivaled Thomas Mott Osborne’s passion for social justice, particularly in regards to prison institutions. Osborne’s work with prison reform was fueled because he saw inmates themselves as a marginalized group of individuals. He believed that society needed to change its perception of “criminals,” and he challenged others to realize that inmates were as human as university students (Osborne, Society and Prisons, 26). Osborne believed in democracy, and he promoted it as an avenue for social equality. He believed that given the opportunity to make decisions for the best of the group inside institutions, prisoners would capitalize on character building opportunities and be able to reenter society as meaningful, contributing citizens.
Osborne’s activism manifested itself through different occupations throughout his life, most significantly through his involvement at Auburn Prison. Osborne was born in 1859 in Auburn, New York. Auburn at the time was known as a hub for political activity, and Osborne’s family had a history of fighting for social justice: his mother was a lesser-known leader in the feminist movement, his grandmother’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and his grandmother and her sister helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. In 1902, Osborne was elected as mayor of Auburn, and in 1907, the governor selected him as upstate commissioner on the New York Public Service Commission. There, he was exposed to less than satisfactory working conditions and prison living conditions across New York. He wanted to get a first-hand, unbiased view into the reality of the New York prison system, so in 1913 Osborne donned a disguise for 6 days and became “Tom Brown,” an inmate in the Auburn Prison. At Auburn he introduced his famous system of the “Mutual Welfare League,” which established “convict self-government” and “envisaged a convict democracy expressed through self-governing representative bodies and inmate-imposed rules of discipline” (Helfman, 597). This initiative was widely supported by guards and prison staff in New York institutions and others around the nation. He wrote a book about his experiences, and after his book was published in 1914, Osborne became the warden of Sing Sing prison. There, he worked to implement his proposed changes, catapulting him into the position of leader of the New York prison reform.
Osborne believed in democracy for all people, and that democracy allowed people to choose how they would be governed. He believed in the American dream and “the genuine American spirit.” As with democracy in the greater society, people must buy into the values that fuel it. Osborne acknowledged that prisoners had to want to try to change the system. In his book of reflections from his Auburn experience, Osborne wrote, “Reform, I saw clearly, must be the prisoners’ own process; all that officials or outsiders could do would be to promote favorable conditions” (Osborne, Society and Prisons, 158). Promoting this democratic peace inside prison walls suggested that inmates would continue to live in this structure after they were released. “Give the prisoner fair treatment,” Osborne argued in his first book, Within Prison Walls. “Discard your System based upon revenge; build up a new System based upon a temporary exile of the offender from Society until he can show himself worthy to be granted a new opportunity; and then give him a chance to build up his character while in retirement by free exercise of the faculties necessary for wise discrimination and right choice of action” (Osborne, Within Prison Walls, 324). The belief that Osborne stood for was that the more chances prisoners were given to become responsible citizens inside prison walls, the better they would assimilate into society outside the facility.
Osborne used his books to share his experiences and teach others what it meant to be a prisoner in the New York prison system, and how they should see the people confined there. During his incarceration, he met and got to know inmates as the humans they were behind whatever criminal activity had landed them there. When drafting his book, Osborne asks his readers what they gleaned from his experiences. In response to his own question, he wrote what he hoped people would see through his work. Osborne’s ultimate goal of reform was to address prisoners as a misjudged and misunderstood group of individuals. He wrote, “It means just one thing…it means that these prisoners are men–real men–your brethren–and mine. It means that as they are men they should be treated like men” (Osborne, Within Prison Walls, 323). As he continued working for prison reforms, he shared again what he had seen during his week inside. His actions, books, and speeches about prison conditions started the reform that has continued through modern day.
Osborne lived a life dedicated to the American ideals of democracy and equality. Included in the forward to Prison Reform were Osborne’s words for the “dreamers of the ages,” and the hope that he showed for a greater system than the one established. “For we have dared to dream,” he said, “the great dream of democracy–the dream which joins all mankind into a social and political system, built upon the notion of brotherhood–not of special privilege; and as a part of that great dream, some of us have dreamed of the application of democracy even to the prisons, and we are trying to materialize that beautiful dream into reality, and we want you to help us” (Osborne, Prison Reform, ii).
Bacon, Corinne, ed. Prison Reform. White Plains, NY: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1917.
Osborne, Thomas Mott. Within Prison Walls. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1914.
Osborne, Thomas Mott. Society and Prisons. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916.
Helfman, Harold M. “Antecedents of Thomas Mott Osborne’s ‘Mutual Welfare League’ in Michigan.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951). 40: 5 (January- February 1950), 597-600.
Moore, Deborah Dash. Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870-1930. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994.