Posts Tagged ‘adolescence in history’

“‘Jolly Cat Gang’,” Hamilton Spectator. December 12, 1918. Page 01.

Police Have Been Receiving Complaints About It.

The police have been receiving numerous complaints from residents of the north end about some young men who have banded themselves together under the name of the ‘Holy Cat Gang.’ It was said at headquarters this morning that the ‘gang’ consists of about 25 chaps between the ages of 15 and 20 years. During the last few days the gang has directed its attention to Chinese restaurants, and has caused considerable trouble. ‘Headquarters’ of the gang was said to be at the foot of James street, and citizens in that quarter are asked to notify the police immediately if they notice any future congregations.


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was more consistent in the criminal records of Coxsackie inmates than
convictions for petit larceny and burglary, which together account
more than one-third of the case file sample (if youthful offenders
whose original charges were petit larceny and burglary are included,
the total becomes closer to one-half of the case sample). Petit
larceny was a serious misdemeanour that could result in a reformatory
sentence, and burglary was a felony crime; both offenses were heavily
over-represented by adolescent boys. In 1950, for example, 16-to
18-year-olds accounted for 17.2 percent of all major crime arrests,
but 35.7 percent of all burglary arrests. 

the most critical factor in most of the petit larceny and burglary
arrests was theft as a form of work and survival among young men. One
16-year-old explained his offense: ‘I was hanging around the block
and they said did I want to go out and get some money. I said all
right. We went to a house and got some lead pipe. We did it about a
week before I was caught. The others got away.’ To ‘get some
money’ was the eternal quest of the Coxsackie’s inmate’s life
before prison. Whether caught stealing from cottages on Ballston
Lake, apartments in Auburn, or mailboxes in Binghamton, young men
arrived from across the state from burglary and larceny convictions. 

larceny and burglary arrests are best understood as the legal tip of
a much larger iceberg of police and community interactions with
adolescent boys living between school and work. In a survey of
Coxsackie inmates, most reported that their time prior to the
reformatory was spent ‘just hanging around’ with friends and
‘goofing off.’ Hanging around, young men became well known to the
police; as a consequence, a burglary or petit larceny charge was
often just the culmination of a long series of encounters. Jerry O.
Was sentenced to Coxsackie after being caught breaking into a
building and stealing a typewriter, but he was already well known on
the streets of Rochester as a ‘petty thief and tough, a corner
loafer and the leader of a gang of tough street urchins.’
While in school, Jerry had appeared in school court three times, for
truancy, insubordination, and fighting. After leaving school at 16,
Jerry worked irregularly as a messenger boy but mostly spent his time
roaming the streets with his friends. Picked up and released numerous
times by the Rochester Police Department, the causes of Jerry’s
contacts with the police give a sense of how he spent his time: for
walking on the railroad tracks; for stealing; for hanging around
girls’ houses; for swimming in a forbidden river; and for morals
violations. Only one of these police contacts resulted in a formal
adjudication of delinquency, before the theft of the typewriter led
Jerry to Coxsackie. For most reformatory prisoners, the police were
simply a part of everyday experience; their Coxsackie sentence just a
culmination of a process of control and discipline deeply embedded in
their lives.”

–  Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp.84-86.

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“The place
of crime and delinquency in the lives of the adolescent boys who
served time in Coxsackie and similar reformatories has never been
given a full accounting. If the educational reformers were reasonably
clear eyed when it came to educational and work histories, they
generally missed the significance of criminal histories. That this
should be overlooked is not entirely surprising, after all, the chief
selling point for the state’s focus on the adolescent male offender
was the promise of early intervention – that confinement at the
first signs of serious criminality would interrupt the start of a
potentially serious criminal career. Through youthful offender laws
New York simultaneously suppressed and denied serious criminality
among teenage boys.

critical histories of the reformatory tend to share this notion of
the naive youthful offender, arguing that progressive reforms tended
to have a ‘new widening’ effect, as the state expanded its reach
over otherwise stable patterns of youthful behavior. New York’s
intensified focus on the adolescent offender did
widen the net of
surveillance and control, but
there is no reason to assume that underlying patterns of adolescent
behavior were static. The ability of young men to cause troubles has
a historical specificity that, combined with criminal justice system
behavior, produced the patterns of adolescent criminal careers.

case files reveal that most of Coxsackie’s prisoners had been
arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to the reformatory. In
the case file sample, more than four of every five prisoners arrived
with prior arrests – far more than the general population of
adolescent criminal defendants. The average number of prior arrests
per inmate was quite stable over time, as was the relative
distribution of the number of arrests. There may have been a slight
rise in the proportion of never-arrested inmates in the post-war
years, although this difference may well be accounted for by a
decline in ‘unknown’ cases that could generally have been cases
of no record of arrest.

prisoners had far more previous institutional experience than the
designers of the reformatory could have imagined. The case sample of
Coxsackie inmates shows 118 (31.8%) having some prior institutional
commitment, a number that does not count jail time that might have
accompanied previous arrests. Unlike prior arrest patterns, the
experience of institutional commitment clearly declines over time in
the sample The percentage of Coxsackie prisoners with no prior
commitments rises with each five-year group, capturing part of what
may have been an even longer historical decline – fully one-half
of new commitments to the House of Refuge in 1925 had already spent
time in another institution

decline has two plausible explanations. One possibility is that the
opening of the Elmira Reception Center in 1945 diverted prisoners
with institutional experience from Coxsackie. A second possibility,
made more likely  by the House of Refuge data, is that young men
after World War II were simply less likely than previous generations
to be committed to an institution before they turned 16 years old.
Certainly this is most plausible in the case of private institutional
confinement, as the numbers of children in foster care began to
surpass the numbers in institutional care. To the extent that these
developments may have also depressed public institutional
commitments, it may help explain the decline…

case file sample does suggest, however, that Coxsackie inmates with
institutional experience frequently found themseves in a kind of
revolving door of placements within the complex of public and private
institutions that governed New York’s adolescent boys. Willie .,
growing up in New Rochelle with his immigrant parents, first
encountered the legal system just after his thirteenth birthday, when
a juvenile court judge sentenced him to probation because of
persistent delinquency. Two months later, Willie made another
juvenile court appearance, again because of his refusal to attend
school regularly. Six months passed before the next court appearance:
this time, the judge sentenced Willie to the Children’s Village, a
private juvenile institution where he lasted only four months before
being returned to the courts as ‘ungovernable.’  Unwilling to
return the young man to his parents, the court adjudicated him a
neglected child and sent him to St. Benedict’s home for Colored
Children in Rye, New York. He lasted two months before the
administrators of St. Benedict’s returned him to the court, where
he was adjudicated delinquent again and sent his first ‘state’
institution, the New York Training School at Warwick. At Warwick,
Willie made three escape attempts before being released. Following
this, he was adjudicated delinquent yet again (at age 15) and sent to
Industry, where he was paroled in February 1940. His freedom lasted
just six weeks before an arrest for assault sent him to Coxsackie.”

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp.81-84.

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the basis of fully realized life history, Karl’s case file has
clear limits – as do all the case files sampled for this
study…Case files record the lives of penal and welfare subjects,
and they include only those elements of young lives that would have
seemed relevant to a prison counselor, a youth court judge, or a
school principal. There are many silences in these files, but none
more obvious and important
than the voices of the young men themselves. We will never know just
how Karl felt about a life defined by institutions, though running
away and escaping tells us just how much effort he expended in trying
to make himself heard. Still, these case files do help reconstruct
three critical points along the road to Coxsackie.

for many of the young men who were sent to Coxsackie, their most
significant points of social interaction – family and school –
were also sources of sustained personal conflict. Written out of
socially disorganized lives, the prison’s case files were packed
with the sort of material that would have filled (and did fill) the
pages of mid-century social scientific studies of the urban slum and
to understand that the prisoners of Coxsackie were the products of
difficult circumstances is to grasp only a portion of their reality.
Like many other young people in the communities from which they came,
they devised creative and adaptive ways to manage the social reality
of their environments. The crimes these 16-and 17-year-olds committed
generally occurred at this complicated intersection between their own
expressions of autonomy and the continued authority of family,
school, and the state.

second common point of experience is the criminal justice system. If
this seems an obvious point to make about state prisoners, it is by
no means well developed in the historical literature. Prison studies
tend to begin at the prison gate and ignore the fundamental truth
confinement was merely the final step in a longer process of criminal
justice. In fairness, the reformers tended to ignore this point
themselves, rarely taking time to consider how the experience of
arrest, interrogation, jail, and trial might have affected their
subjects. Looking more closely in retrospect, we can see that the
criminal justice system offered adolescent offenders cruelty,
and arbitrary decision making, all wrapped up in a process that was
largely incomprehensible. Prisoners arrived at Coxsackie deeply
hostile to criminal justice authority, convinced that they were
victims of an unjust system, and suspicious of the motives of those
who claimed to have their best interests at heart.

case files also reveal, finally, the sorting process by which the
courts sent young men to Coxsackie. Predictable
through the outcome of imprisonment might seem
in light of long histories of family instability, educational
failure, and institutional entanglements. Coxsackie received only a
small fraction of New York’s adolescent criminal offenders. This
final game of chance confused defendants and troubled reformers, but
it persisted in the face of every effort to remake the state’s
prison system. In its first decade, Coxsackie received prisoners
based solely on the varied judgments of the state’s criminal court
judges; after 1945, the creation of the Elmira Reception Center gave
the reformers greater control over institutional assignment – but
left prisoners as bewildered as ever about the decisions that would
shape their lives.

Adrift – Family, School, and Work

1955, Glenn Kendall looked back on the more than twelve thousand
young men who had passed through the Elmira Reception Center in the
first decade since its opening. Trying to capture some sense (his
sense, in any event) of their life experiences before the
reception center, and how it influenced their behavior. Kendall
offered this gloomy portrait: ‘And so they become the empty ones,
the disinherited, with  no ties to any constructive group or
activity, with no standards or goals, with little hope, covering
their discouragement and despair with bravado or happy-go-lucky
clownishness. They feel wanted by no one, they know no one whom they
can call friend in the true sense of the word. I call them
‘Adolescents Adrift’ – no rudder, no compass, no motive power, no
beckoning harbor.’

young men would not have shared Kendall’s portrait of their
interior states of mind, but his assessment of their life experiences
would probably not have raised many objections. Kendall belueved that
most young men had experienced some form of family disruption or
conflict, that ‘in school these boys either could not or would not
respond to ordinary procedures and
methods,’ and that ‘having rejected school, or been rejected by
it, they either loaf or get part-time or low-level jobs of which they
soon tired and in which they find little satisfaction.’ That
critical confluence of family, educational, and work conflicts
appears time and again in the case histories of Coxsackie inmates and
offers some important context for comprehending just what young men
brought with them to the reformatory.


Alfred C. was in Coxsackie, prison officials confiscated an incoming
letter from his older ssister, who had also run away from home. In a
letter Alfred would never read, she reached out to him with a mix of
anger and hope: ‘What in the world happened to you? Aren’t you
ashamed…Did Pa turn you in? Ma doesn’t know yet that you are
gone. I don’t know what it will do to her when she does find
out…learn something good while your [sic] there so you can be a
good boy when you come out.’ Letters like these remind us that at
least some families placed their faith in Coxsackie to ‘turn
around’ adolescents’ lives, particularly through the exercise of
a strong masculine influence. The mother (nearly all correspondence
sent to the institution came from mothers) of Alfred D. Wrote to
Superintendent Helbin in 1940, full of regret: ‘He is of weak will
and strong head. By that, I mean that he can be easily influenced to
do the evil or weaker things, than the good and strong or finer
things…he is lacking fatherly love since he was a baby he had had
the love of a father. It is possible that all this trouble is due to
that.’ The mother of Melvin D. Struck as a similar note: ‘He
needs someone to take an interest in him or be sort of a father or
big brother to him…his father died three years ago and he needs
someone to teach him to do what is right and to work.’

greatest irony of Coxsackie – an irony that, in fairness,
correctional educators fully acknowledged – was that the
‘correctional school’ housed students for whom school had been
the most notable failure of their lives to that point. The case files
frequently contain assessments from teachers and school
administrators, collected by the court before sentencing, and they
are universally critical. A small sample of the summary terms from
the case file sample tells the tale: ‘lack of ambition’;
‘indifference’; ‘smart aleck’; ‘lazy and indifferent’;
‘untruthful and undependable’; ‘quite anti-everything connected
with school’; ‘persistent truant, lazy and indifferent’;
‘sullen, careless, disobedient, and untruthful’; ‘insolent,
impudent, lazy and truant’; and ‘a real menace.’ Max N. Had
been asked to leave his Buffalo parochial school where, ‘because of
his annoying behaviour, his teacher is supposed to have suffered a
nervous breakdown.’ Sent to publicc high school, Max fared little
better. An ‘impossible’ student, he was eventually expelled from
school. His principal wrote directly to Coxsackie officials: ‘We
tried hard to do something to change his attitude’ but ‘could not
appeal to him, neither reason nor threat were effective.’ Inmate
Willie G. Summarized his school experience succinctly: ‘They
couldn’t do nothing with me so the stopped trying.

Coxsackie inmates were active enrolled students at the time their
most recent offense had been committed. The largest number in the
case file sample (33%) ended their school careers sometime during the
ninth grade, usually coinciding with their sixteenth birthday, when
they were no longer subject to compulsory attendance laws. An even
larger number (44%) of Coxsackie inmates had never even attended high
school, leaving school at grades before ninth. Only 23 percent of
prisoners had attended school past the ninth grade (not surprising,
given the young age of prison commitment). It should be noted that
the young inmates at Coxsackie did have longer records of
schooling than the older inmates at New York’s maximum-security
prisons, at least initially – an educational survey of prisoners
conducted not long after Coxackie opened showed that 21 percent of
all Sing Sing inmates had never made it past the fourth grade, while
only 3 percent of Coxsackie inmates left school that early.

many ways, the adolescents of Coxsackie were one of the earliest
generations of state prisoners for whom a majority possessed some
high school experience, consistent with the general expansion of high
school attendance among American teens in this era. The salient point
for correctional educators, of course, is that the experience had
left prisoners ‘almost universally resistant to school.’ They
described school attendance in terms not unlike prisons. Part of that
resistance derived from a strong sense that the school system was
indifferent or hostile to them. One survey of the state’s
adolescent male offenders under confinement revealed that their
primary complaint about school was not excessive discipline or
academic rigor, but teachers with ‘no interest in students.’
Returning the favor, prisoners reported that being ‘bored with
school’ was the primary reason for leaving. One former prisoner
described the ‘monotonous memories of instruction’ that had
characterized his days spent at vocational high school (attended by
many Coxsackie inmates), places ‘where all the rejects were sent.’
George H. Offered the simplest summary: ‘I just didn’t like it.
That’s all.’

educational reformers understood that adolescent offenders carried
with them records of educational failure, they were also correct in
assuming that these young men had been only loosely attached to the
labor market prior to entering the reformatory. Coxsackie opened in
the midst of the Great Depression, at a point when ‘young men left
school and became available for employment far, far more quickly than
the clogged labor market could extend jobs to them.’ Kingsley
Davis, author of 1935’s Youth
in the Depression
recorded that the machinery by which young people [were] drawn in the
work of the nation had broken down; and youth, bearing the burden of
this breakdown, was seeking blindly for some way out.’ The case
file sample reveals a fairly even three-way split in work experience:
one-third had never worked at all, one-third had worked irregularly
at odd jobs, and one-third had some experience with regular,
unskilled employment – consistent with a published study of
Coxsackie parolees that found over half (461 of 829) had never had
‘regular’ employment.

Reformatory inmates had a
complicated relationship to work. On the one hand, they disdained the
world of work as constraining and uninteresting. Coxsackie inmates
generally expressed the sentiment that ‘only saps work’ and that
those who did were ‘working stiffs’ who lacked a spirit of
independence. The case files are replete with spotty work histories.
Ernest N.’s working career began at a Brooklyn bakery, at a job
secured for him by father when Ernest left school (seventh grade) at
age 17. He lasted just three weeks before quitting because he ‘did
not like to be bossed.’ Ernest spent five weeks in Connecticut
remodeling a house, work that ended when the remodeling was finished.
Following that, he picked up a job at a manufacturing enterprise but
left the job ‘in a huff’ after less than one month of employment
– Ernest’s own stated reason for leaving is that he was ‘working
too hard.’

all their resistance to the working life, Coxsackie inmates like
Ernest were constantly returning to work – even for short periods –
as a way of supporting themselves and obtaining the things they
desired. Eric Schneider, in his study of postwar New York gangs,
makes the same observation: ‘They expressed their distaste for the
low-skilled, low-wage jobs available to them, but, driven by poverty,
they desperately hunted for work.’ The only trade experience
Coxsackie inmates brought with them was the small number who worked
as helpers for carpenters, painters, mechanics, and electricians.
Most of the jobs young men located, in contrast, were to be found at
the fringes of the labour market, working as delivery boys, farm
hands, stock boys, messengers, dishwashers, busboys, and shoe shiners
– and the case file catch-all term, laborers. Essential and
objectionable, the world of work they had experienced held little
appeal for the young men who arrived at the reformatory as subjects
for vocational training.

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 64-70

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