Takeaways from the Reports
Escapes and Security:
Persistent escapes and an increased need for security measures had a significant impact on the power dynamics between the guards and those incarcerated at New-Gate. Despite claims of the inescapability of New-Gate at its conception, the underground housing proved insufficient as a mechanism for preventing breakouts. Each escape highlighted the vulnerability of the prison’s security, raising questions about the effectiveness of the guards’ authority and control over the inmates. The incarcerated population’s ability to successfully break free with the help of external individuals demonstrated their resourcefulness and determination to challenge the power of the guards and overseers.
As a result of the escapes, the overseers– supervisors who managed and disciplined the prison population with the guards and reported their findings back to state authorities– faced pressure to improve the direct oversight of the mine, leading to increased vigilance and surveillance over the incarcerated men. This was accompanied by stricter disciplinary measures, increased restrictions on prisoner activities, and heightened surveillance, all of which further emphasized the power of the guards over the imprisoned. The overseers made a point to construct a guardhouse over the mine and secure shafts which had previously been used to escape in order to deter further attempts. These measures served to intimidate and maintain control over the prison population.
On the other hand, the successful escapes also bolstered the incarcerated population’s sense of agency and their perception of vulnerabilities within the prison system. Each successful escape would have encouraged the agency of incarcerated people at New-Gate, as they demonstrated that the guards’ authority was not absolute and that there were potential avenues to challenge their power. The impending frustration felt by those who were imprisoned is also evident in their use of violence during escape attempts: many resorted to attacking guards or causing injuries (the most prominent example being the 1781 escape). The incarcerated men used these forceful escapes as ways of resisting the guards’ control, but also as shows of their discontent with their treatment, leading to a constant struggle for power within the prison environment.
The ongoing cycle of escapes and security improvements likely created an adversarial atmosphere within the prison. The guards would have become more suspicious of the prisoners, while the inmates may have become more desperate to find ways to evade their observers. This heightened uncertainty and the threat of escape could have further reinforced the power dynamics, with the guards attempting to maintain control through strict measures, and the incarcerated individuals seeking ways to assert their autonomy and challenge the authority of their captors.
The harsh conditions at New-Gate had profound and lasting effects on the wellbeing of the incarcerated individuals and played a critical role in shaping the power dynamics between them and the guards/overseers. The uncomfortable and unsanitary living conditions exposed the inmates to constant discomfort, lack of privacy, and increased health risks. The physical toll of shackles, solitary confinement, the dark and damp environment, and the absence of proper bedding contributed to physical ailments and suffering, leading to a sense of powerlessness and vulnerability among the inmate population.
The deteriorating physical and mental health of the incarcerated individuals made them more susceptible to the authority of the guards and overseers, who held significant power over their daily lives and wellbeing. The guards’ control over resources such as food, medicine, and clothing further reinforced their dominance, while the prisoners’ dependence on the overseers for their basic needs reinforced the imbalance of power among the parties. At New-Gate, the plight of its imprisoned people was exacerbated by the lack of oversight and isolation from the public eye. The overseers’ ability to exert control towards imprisoned people housed underground without public scrutiny opened up the potential for abuse of power and limited accountability for their actions. As a result, the grievances and complaints of the incarcerated were primarily voiced through riots.
In addition to unsafe environmental factors, Connecticut’s industry relied in part on labor sourced from New-Gate, particularly in manufacturing products like nails. This labor arrangement placed the incarcerated men in positions of economic dependence, as they were required to work to cover the expenses of the prison and generate revenue. The overseers’ control over the prisoners’ work assignments and wages further solidified their authority, as they held the power to decide the nature of the labor and its associated benefits. This economic power imbalance gave the guards and overseers significant leverage over the incarcerated population, reinforcing their authority and control within the prison, which expanded with the integration of the treadmill for unskilled workers. The commodification of New-Gate’s residents with overseers’ control over labor became integral to shaping its power dynamics, perpetuating an environment where the prisoners were reliant on the authorities, and the authorities wielded significant influence over the livelihood, output, and activities of those incarcerated.
The unkempt environment, lack of oversight, and economic use of forced labor created an oppressive atmosphere where the guards wielded significant authority that would continue as a common thread in prisons today. This power imbalance and adversarial relationship had profound consequences for the overall treatment of the incarcerated people and their ability to find relief from their suffering within the confines of New-Gate, reflected in America’s modern use of prison labor, solitary confinement, and armed guards as the primary source of disciplinary enforcement.
The eventual closure and relocation of New-Gate Prison to the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield, supplement the power-related factors and demonstrate a shift in the management and governance of correctional facilities, further reflecting changes in societal attitudes toward punishment and rehabilitation. From a twenty-first-century lens, the Overseers’ Reports paint a still-relevant picture of a prison system grappling with security concerns, discontent among incarcerated people, and the implementation of disciplinary measures while striving to maintain control and promote reform. The internal struggles within New-Gate are evident in the guards’ and overseers’ attempts to assert authority and the prisoners’ efforts to circumvent or resist said control. Such a system remains in our modern prison system as imprisoned people continue to endure physical labor, the threat of solitary, and oppressive conditions.