Constructed in 1816 as Auburn Prison, it was the second state prison in New York (after New York City's Newgate, 1797-1828), the site of the first execution by electric chair in 1890, and the namesake of the "Auburn System," a correctional system in which prisoners were housed in solitary confinement in large rectangular buildings, and performed penal labor under silence that was enforced at all times. The prison was renamed the Auburn Correctional Facility in the 1970s. The prison is currently the oldest prison still in use today.
The current front of Auburn Prison. Note the two guard towers on either side and Copper John on top
The prison charged a fee for tourists in order to raise funds for the prison. Eventually, to discourage most visitors, the fee was increased.
Besides the history of the place, it is best known locally for the statue of a colonial soldier atop the apex. For disputed reasons, this figure is called "Copper John." 
In contrast with the purely reformatory type prison instituted in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia System introduced by the Quakers, the "Auburn System" modified the schedule of prayer, contemplation, and humane conditions with hard labor and work.
Prisoners were compelled to work during the day, and the profit of their labor helped to support the prison. Prisoners were segregated by type of criminality into different locations within the prisons and by the use of special clothing. The traditional American prison uniform, consisting of horizontal black and white stripes, originated at the Auburn prison. The prisoners had their heads closely cropped and walked in lockstep, keeping step with their heads bowed. Each prisoner placed a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him to maintain a rigid separation.
There was a communal dining room so that the prisoners could gather together for meals, but a code of silence was enforced harshly at all times by the guards. Thus the inmates worked and ate together, but in complete silence. At night the prisoners were kept in individual cells (even though the original plan called for double cells).
For several decades, this system was adopted by other jurisdictions. This system was also called the "Congregate System." The Sing Sing Correctional Facility, also in New York, was built using this system under the supervision of the former warden of the Auburn prison, Elam Lynds.
Copper John as he is today.
The original Copper John
Copper John is a statue of an American Revolutionary Warsoldier that stands atop the Auburn Correctional Facility in Auburn, New York. It has entered the local lexicon as a reference to the prison and aspects of it, e.g., getting sent to Auburn Prison is "going to work for Copper John."
"John" was originally a wooden statue that was erected atop the administration office of the prison in 1821. In 1848, the statue had weathered so much that it was taken down and a new statue was made out of copper by the prisoners in the prison foundry. In 2004, the New York state government became aware that the statue was fashioned to be anatomically correct and ordered the statue to be "incorrected". Some correctional officers made an impromptu protest by passing out T-shirts showing the iconic statue and reading "Save Copper John's Johnson"; but the statue was nonetheless removed, his penis was filed off, and remounted in August.
^See New York State Archives, Record Group B0048, New York (State). Dept. of State, Respites and commutations, 1854-1931, Friday, May 16, 1884, Commutation of Sentence, Vol. 2, p. 31. He was not pardoned and thus still a convicted criminal but out of prison by reason of old age and various promises, later broken. He was subsequently convicted and incarcerated in Kings County Penitentiary until shortly before his death in 1889.