Monday, March 5, 2018

A Cure for Criminality

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

The Elmira Reformatory, opened in 1876, was founded based on the premise that criminality was a disease which could be cured through mental, moral, and manual training. Under the leadership of Warden Zebulon Brockway, the prison would take first-time offenders between the ages of 16 and 30 and mold them into productive citizens. 

 In many ways, the Elmira Reformatory offered youthful offenders opportunities they would otherwise not have had at other prisons. While the traditional incarceration practices of the day involved either forced labor or solitary confinement, the Elmira Reformatory offered all that plus marching drills, religious instruction, vocational training, and traditional academics. Starting in the 1880s, they even had sports teams, a library, and a newspaper. 
Brockway inspects prisoner drills
Under Brockway’s leadership, each prisoner’s treatment followed a standard procedure. First, incoming prisoners spent a few months in solitary confinement on reduced rations in order to get them in the right frame of mind to be cured. Today we understand forced solitary confinement to be a form of torture which can cause a range of psychological symptoms including psychosis and suicidal ideation, but, at the time, it was believed to be good for forcing moral reflection. After a period of isolation, prisoners would be released from their cells for morning drill, classes, and some sort of labor. Their behavior would be studied closely. Bad behavior might send a prisoner back to solitary, while good would hasten their release. Once a prisoner had been declared ‘cured’ or their maximum sentence had been reached, they would be released back into society under the supervision of a parole officer. During the first eleven years of the prison’s operation, they had a recidivism rate of 10 percent.  
Prisoners arriving, ca. 1890s
Sounds good, right? Well, in addition to the whole solitary confinement business, there was some other, let’s say problematic disciplinary techniques being used. In 1893, Frank Wallace, a parolee, testified that he had been brutally beaten by Brockway while at the reformatory and was afraid to return. Other former inmates backed up his claims, and even Brockway confirmed that ‘spanking’ was a common punishment for minor infractions like tobacco use. In September 1893, he showed a group of reporters where these spankings generally took place. Prisoners would be chained to the bars of a window 6 feet off the floor and then beaten with a paddle or strap. A reporter from The News of Andover offered to be spanked as a demonstration of the procedure, but was declined.

The New York State Board of Charities investigated Brockway and judged him to be inhumane and abusive, but he was not disciplined. He remained reformatory superintendent until he retired in 1900. In many ways, his ideas about ‘curing’ criminality by providing prisoners with education and vocational skills they could use to get honest employment was a great idea. In execution, his methods left a lot to be desired. 

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