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Pier on the Hudson, Coxsackie, New York. c. 1905. Source.

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“Nothing
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. 

Perhaps
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. 

Petit
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.

Subsequent
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.

The
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.

Coxsackie’s
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

The
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…

The
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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“As
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.

First,
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
ghetto.
But
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.

The
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
that
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,
mistreatment,
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.

The
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.

Adolescents
Adrift – Family, School, and Work

In
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.’

These
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.

Family

While
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.’

School
The
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.

Few
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.

In
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.’

Work
If
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.’

For
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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“The
Division of Education became the center of rehabilitative programming
leadership within the Department of Corrections, directing the
educational experiments already under way and extending the reform
influence into other institutions. As Wallack, Kendall, and Briggs
saw it, ‘the relationship of the Division to an institution is very
similar to that of a staff or supervisory department in a public
school system.’ The division gained authority over all appointments
to educational programs. The three men logged thousands of miles and
spent six months of the year on the road visiting each state
institution, meeting with wardens and teachers, inspecting schools,
and reviewing educational materials and records. The director of
education position became the link between the division and
institutions as well as between the educational program and other
institutional dimensions.

There were limitations to the
influence of the Division of Education within the Department of
Corrections. The division was largely frozen out of the
maximum-security, old-line institutions for adult male offenders –
Attica, Auburn, Clinton, Great Meadow, and Sing Sing. Albany-based
reformers simply could not exercise effective influence over every
institution in the ‘confederation of autonomy’ that was the New
York prison system. Raymond Corsini described Auburn prison, circa
1942, as ‘an old-line, repressive, unprogressive institution, with
a minimal treatment program and a minimum in the way of professional
staff…The warden, an ex-police chief, was almost completely
unapproachable by the prisoners and discipline was very strict. The
men were kept under constant surveillance and a comparatively large
percentage of their week was spent locked in cells.’

As
the Division of Education struggled for influence at these prisons,
its staff complained (to little effect) that institutional education
directors were frequently shut out from assignment decisions, inmates
were regularly and easily allowed to drop out of educational
assignments, and the local prison administrators failed to provide
institutional support for educational directors’ annual budget
requests. The same report concluded that no ‘valid’ vocational
training was offered at the high-security institutions. In fact, the
Department of Corrections employed more than 75 percent of its
civilian educational staff in just four of the state’s twelve
correctional institutions. In the old-line, big house prisons,
inmates taught other inmates in a handful of remedial courses, while
everyone else worked on prison industries and maintenance. While
Wallkill, Elmira, and Cosackie enrolled 69, 89 and 86 percent of
inmates in educational programs, Attica, Auburn, and Sing Sing
enrolled just 18, 31 and 23 percent of their prisoners. Most of the
Attica inmates assigned to ‘class’ were ‘men assigned to the
groups who were usually unfit for other services.’

Within
‘reform’ institutions, the creation of service units was an
attempt to strengthen the relative position of rehabilitative
interests. The first such unit emerged at Wallkill Prison in 1936,
followed somewhat later by Elmira and Coxsackie. The service unit –
Walter Wallack selected the name because inmates were prone to
shunning programs too closely connected with treatment – aimed to
consolidate all prison services in a central location and to
integrate those services with parole decision making. The unit became
the surveillance apparatus for the reformers, collecting reports from
classrooms, shops, and custodial personnel as well as helping to
promote like-minded staff. Walter Wallack described the unit director
as the ‘liaison officer of the Warden in his relationship to all
activities which in any way relate to training, or the social and
general welfare.’

Few
efforts at directing the prison bureaucracy toward reform were more
ambitious than the attempt to train new prison guards to become part
of the educational program. Opened in November 1936, the Central
Guard School remains of the most innovative and pioneering aspects of
New York’s reform regime. Begun at a time when formal job training
for prison guards was virtually nonexistent in the United States, the
Central Guard School put recruits through an eight-week residential
training program and offered extensive in-service training for
members of the existing guard force. It remains one of the most
far-reaching programs ever designed to produce a custodial force
oriented toward rehabilitative interventions.

The
origins of the Central Guard School idea can be traced to the
evaluative stages of the Wallkill Prison programs sponsored by the
Engelhardt Commission. Presiding over a Commission meeting at
Columbia University in 1935, Engelhardt  had quizzed Walter Wallack
and the other representatives of the Wallkill program about the
response of the guards to the new educational programs. Finding a
general concern that prison guards were not adequately prepared to
accept, much less participate in, rehabilitative work, the commission
created a committee on personnel training. As Wallack observed,
‘Inasmuch as the guard is the man who comes into closest contact
with the prisoner, it is highly essential that he should be carefully
chosen, that he should possess the right traits of personality.’
The Division of Education followed up this interest with a proposal
for a Central Guard School, responsible for training all new
recruits.

The
proposal likely would have gone nowhere, however, without a
concurrent development in the state legislature, which finally
adopted an eight hour workday law for station prison employees in
1935 (effective July 1, 1936). For more than a decade, prison guards
had been pressing for an eight-hour workday law, many worked
twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. In order the fulfill the law’s
mandate, the Department of Corrections estimated that it would be
necessary to hire approximately five hundred new prison guards in the
coming twelve months.

The
school opened with its first group of eighty recruits at Wallkill
Prison on November 7, 1936, graduating the class the following June.
The Division of Education placed the school under the supervision of
Walter Wallack, who designed the training curriculum around the
rehabilitative program. Prospective guards took a ten-course training
sequence, with most the courses designed to introduce custodial
officers to the latest in modern penologial thought. Supplementing
the regular course sequence were a parade of well-known reform
figures: criminologist Nathanial Cantor from the University of
Buffalo, Engelhardt from Teachers College, MacCormick from his
position as commissioner of corrections in New York City. MacCormick
advised the trainees to take an enlightened approach to their work,
saving their prisons and themselves in the process: ‘You can
brutalize yourself if you want to…but it won’t get anywhere and
it won’t get the prison anywhere…Be the right kind of guard, not
just a club swinger.’ Elmira superintendent Frank Christian warned
the recruits to be mindful of prisoners’ humanity: ‘Don’t say
anything to a man that will in any way humiliate him.’ Reformers
sensed that the school presented a unique opportunity to shape the
future of corrections; in the words of Glenn Kendall, named the
supervisor of general courses, the new venture into guard training
packed ‘all the thrills of pioneering.’

The
Central Guard School is one of the great forgotten chapters in the
history of prison guard-training programs. By 1940 two-thirds of the
active guard force had been through the Central Guard School as a
trainee or as part of inservice training. Did it work? Division of
Education officials never examined (and there is no longer any
definite way to measure) the question of how many guards-in-training
ignored or rejected the reform message drilled into them at the
Central Guard School. Certainly many of the graduates received a
different sort of on-the-job education as soon as they graduated and
were assigned to an old-line state prison. On the other hand, the
school functioned as a kind of classification and reception center,
not unlike the one the reformers wanted to the prisoners. Prospective
guards were given a battery of intelligence, educational, physical,
and psychological tests. Their IQ scores, scholastic achievements,
age, and parentage were all carefully recorded and summarized. Much
as the service units did, the Central Guard School allowed reformers
to identify and promote like-minded custodial personnel, and thus to
perpetuate the reform leadership.

In
the end, however, the fate of the Central Guard School illustrates
just how tenuous the reformers’ gains could be. A round of late
Depression-era state budget cuts led the department to shutter the
school for the 1939-1940 fiscal year. The Division of Education
secured temporary funding for the 1940-1941 fiscal year through the
federal George-Deen Act, which offered states matching funds for job
training in the public service sector. The permanent closure of the
school arrived with U.S. involvement in World War II – wartime
manpower shortages created a sudden demand for new guards, and the
state found the Central Guard School an obstacle to filling the large
number of new positions. Neither affordable nor immediately helpful
to the Department of Corrections, the guard school closed in April
1942, less than six years after it had begun. To ‘keep the idea of
training alive,’ an introductory course consisting of seven
correspondence units was compiled, but the Department of Corrections
had no good way of ensuring that guards actually fulfilled even this
limited training requirements. Well into the 1940s, the Division of
Education looked forward to the ‘re-opening’ of the Central Guard
School, but not until 1965 would the state undertake systematic
training of correctional officers again, and nothing on the scale of
the Central Guard School would be attempted until after the Attica
riots in 1971 – indeed, current training requirements are not
notably stricter.”

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 50-54

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School children in Coxsackie, New York, c. 1900, wearing ‘Johnny Reb’ hats. Source.

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“Not
long after Ben Shahn and
Austin MacCormick began discussing The Rikers Island mural, Shahn
abandoned the original concept for the mural, which would have
emphasized more broadly historical developments in the history of
penology. Instead, the focus became quite contemporary. Shahn and
Block argued to LaGuardia, ‘The murals would have more force’ if
they examined only ‘prisons of our own time.’ As a consequence,
the ‘archaic’ side of the Rikers mural, the one featuring scenes
of retrograde punishment and inhumanity, was drawn not from scenes of
ancient ritual or obviously bygone moments, but from present-day
conditions. Shanh gave a sharply political edge to these observations,
consistent with his previous explorations at the intersections of
social injustice and the criminal justice system (in the Sacco and
Vanzetti series, and his series on imprisoned labor leader Tom
Mooney). His notes on the Rikers project show him deeply immersed in
contemporary criticism of criminal justice, including John Spivak’s
devastating 1932 account of the Georgia chain gangs, Georgia
Nigger
; the 1932 Warner
Brothers film I Am A
Fugitive From A Chain Gang
;
and the movie of the same year, on which it was based, I
Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang.
Shahn
also maintained a file of images related to the notorious Scottsboro
case, for which retrials were still ongoing.

The
final rendering of the mural reflects Shahn’s immersion in the
causes of social justice. In the center of the north end of the
mural, between the two long hallways, two prisoners appear in a
lineup. Standing somberly in front of an institutional setting,
bundled up in overcoats and visibly handcuffed together, they appear
to have been taken directly from similar images of Sacco and Vanzetti
that Shahn had prepared a few years earlier. Just outside the lineup
scene, homeless men sleep on newspapers with screaming crime-related
headlines partially visible, and a line of unemployed men confront a
‘No Help Wanted’ sign – all ironically juxtaposed against the
Centre Street courthouse and the words along is facade, ‘The True
Administration of Justice is the Firmest Pillar of Good.’

The
mural echoed the manner in which reformers defined the harms of
punishment in terms of both body and mind. There were scenes focused
on the mistreatment of the body: images of southern chain gangs (in
front of what sharp-eyed observers would have recognized as the Morgan
County Circuit Courthouse in Alabama, site of the ongoing Scottsboro
trials), poor prison conditions, and even Delaware’s whipping post
(known as Red Hannah, a potent symbol of the forms of corporal
punishment still extant). Scenes of mental suffering appeared
throughout – images of hopelessness, overcrowding, and idleness. In
a preliminary sketch, ‘Prisoners in Bed,’ Shahn showed an endless
row of inmates packed together in dormitory bunks, restless,
disturbed, their individual differences washed out by the setting.
The program for his final sketches listed the scenes: ‘idleness and
the milling about of prisoners,’ ‘dreary, unproductive labor,’
and ‘overcrowded dormitories.’ All scenes seem to consciously
echo what MacCormick called ‘Peregoric Penology’: ‘As long as
these institutions were kept nice and quiet, with the prisoners
drifting in half or total idleness through the day and locked snugly
in their cells at 5.00 pm for 14 hours, their wardens perfectly
willing that the prisoners deteriorated like vegetables rotting in a
bin.’ The wall ended with a strong intimidation of a revolving-door
criminal justice system, with lines of released inmates queuing first
at an employment station, then into jail.

Shahn’s
mural perfectly captured the
prevailing sense within reform circles in 1934 that tremendous abuses
and cruelties remained within the American prison system. Frank
Tannenbaum put it most forcefully: ‘Imprisonment is negative. It
takes all. It gives nothing. It takes from the prisoners every
interest, every ambition, every hop; it cuts away, with a coarse
disregard for personality, all that a man did or loved, all his work
and his contacts, and gives nothing in return.’ And few reformers
had seen more than Austin MacCormick. Since the early 1920s had
traveled throughout the United States making prison inspections under
the auspices of the National Society of Penal Information (NSPI), the
organization Osborne has founded in 1922, following a nationwide
speaking tour on which he raised funds for the new enterprise. The
purpose behind the NSPI was to conduct systematic surveys of prisons
and prison conditions, much like other privately funded surveys were
doing with other dimensions of the criminal justice system. These
surveys would, in turn, provide a basis for pressuring states to
reform prisons where reforms were needed, and to give an accounting
of best practices and standards to follow.

The
NSPI surveys (eventually organized and published as the Handbook
of American Prison
s,
the first edition of which appeared in 1926) exposed horrific
conditions. Frank Tannenbaum made some of the NSPI-sponsored visits
to southern prisons, prison farms, and road camps. He incorporated
some of these experiences into Dark
Phases of the South
(1924),
where he asked the reader to ‘believe the unbelievable’ regarding
the conditions of confinement. MacCormick reported from Mississippi
that conditions were ‘very primitive’ and that the dormitories
were ‘like the holds of slaveships…what goes on in there better
not come out in the light of day.’ In addition to ghastly
conditions of confinement, NSPI surveys helped demonstrate that
torture continued to be commonplace in southern prison systems,
including the use of the strap (‘fastened to a short handle so that
some of the clever boys can make it come down edgewise’), stocks,
sweatboxes, and similar instruments of abuse.

Even
as the NSPI exposed the brutality of punishment in the South, the
surveyors cautioned readers against ‘the delusion that the rest of
the country is so much better.’ Throughout much of the United
States, the same conditions of confinement that had inspired
progressive-era indictments by Donald Lowrie, Kate Richard O’Hare,
and others remained stubbornly resistant to change by the early
1930s. The Wickersham Commission’s investigation of prison
conditions, published in 1931, revealed many appalling practices. To
his colleagues in 1933, MacCormick observed that many ‘rotten old
penitentiaries’ deserved to be ‘turned over.’

MacCormick
and fellow reformers tried to explain the consequences of brutality
and torture. Their writings harkended back to Donald Lowrie’s
progressive-era declaration: ‘You cannot make a saint out of a man
by confining him in a church, but you can make a devil out of him by
treating him like hell…fear has no legitimate place in the training
of men.’ The mechanisms of imprisonment generated cruelty, even
evil, all in the name of virtue and under sanction of the state. The
personal transformations it produced were damaging for both the
keeper and the kept, ‘the sufferer and the perpetrator both being
unfortunate souls caught in a vortex of passion and hate that drives
them to madness and brutality.’

In
Portsmouth, MacCormick had encountered a prison overcrowded with
wartime inmates, forced to house more than half of its men in wooden
barracks, guarded largely by other inmates. Touring confinment
facilities at California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard with Captain
Clark Stearns (an ally of Osborne’s), MacCormick observed the men
being treated ‘like dogs’ in isolation cells called ‘coke-ovens.’
Locking up a man for twenty hours a day, MacCormick would later
write, ‘puts an intolerable strain on the physical and mental
health of every man so confined.’ The ‘vicious phases of Naval
discipline,’ disgusted MacCormick, who wrote to Osborne from
Guantanamo Bay, described a scene in which a boatswain’s mate had
been convicted of breaking and entering and was being led off the
shop: ‘We were all kept aft while he marched across the deck under
guard and went into the boat which
started him on this way to prison. It was all very dramatic and very
stupid and very ineffectual and unspeakably cruel.’

Even
as MacCormick and others attacked the cruelty and waste of punitive
imprisonment, they firmly believed that these conditions derived not
from any universal
quality of the prison, but from case-by-case decision making. By
implication, the mitigation of cruelty was also a matter for
case-by-case intervention and control. There was no inherent defect
in prisons, not any inevitably positive quality. The 1929 NSPI survey
put it this way: ‘It is too sweeping a statement to say that
American penal institutions are steadily getting better…Waves of
public opinion, caused by general excitement over crime or by some
bit of local scandal of maladministration, cause temporary changes
for better or worse.’ It was therefore true, MacCormick argued,
that ‘an institution might be a fine place in 1930 and a bad place
in 1935; or it may be a bad place in 1932 and a good one in 1937.’

Conditions
could not be changed by good intentions alone, but good intentions
backed with political influence could defeat punitive interests. The
critics of reform presented a formidable obstacle to changing
prisons, as they had for Thomas Mott Osborne. MacCormick reflected on
his mentor, ‘The prison field does not…attract his life, except
in rare instances. When it does, it often crucifies them.’ The navy
had been MacCormick’s most personal lesson in the politics of
punishment. Although he and Osborne enjoyed the patronage of Navy
Secretary Daniels and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, they suffered
from officers’ resentment of the ‘soft’ treatment being meted
out at Portsmouth. 

Near the end of their navy work, MacCormick warned
Osborne of the animosity he and Daniels would face: ‘I can’t
impress upon you too strongly how great and widespread the hostility
to you is among officers. It is partly because of the way in which
they despise the Secretary. There is no other way of describing their
attitude toward him. He is accorded the same respect that
Emma Goldman and Berkman get when their names come into a
consideration – no more.’ Captain Joseph K. Tausing, former navy
director of personnel, unleashed a series of violent attacks on
Osborne and MacCormick in the Army
and Navy Journal,
precipitating
a lengthy and public battle pitting Daniels and Roosevelt against the
navy brass and the Republican press. Under pressure, Osborne and
MacCormick resigned in early 1920; the next year President Warren G.
Harding’s newly appointed navy secretary systematically purged the
remaining elements of Osborne’s reforms.

MacCormick
spent much of 1924 helping Osborne and Colorado governor William
Sweet remove Warden Thomas J. ‘Golden Rules’ Tynan, in what
MacCormick later recalled as ‘one of the most
exciting and dangerous experiences I ever had in my life.’ Replying
to Osborne’s invitation to survey Colorado, MacCormick replied:
‘You bet I will go. Thrilled to pieces.’ ‘Hopelessly rusty on
prison work,’ MacCormick saw Colorado as ‘a great chance to get
back in the traces.’ The initial survey found Tynan’s prison to
be in bad shape, a mix of equal parts torture and corruption.

The
battle engaged, Osborne warned Governor Sweet that those who fought
‘crooked politics’ confronted two essential problems: ‘the
utter unscrupulousness of his opponents, and second, the ignorance
and indifference of right-minded people.’ When the State Board of
Corrections failed to act on the survey, Sweet brought charges before
the Civil Service Commission (for which MacCormick returned to
testify.) At one point, Governor Sweet (strongly anti-Klan in a state
where Ku Klux Klan activity was near a peak in 1924) arranged a
secret meeting between himself, Osborne, MacCormick, and the prison
chaplain (who also happened to be the local Klan leader). They
persuaded the chaplain to permit Klan members (virtually the entire
guard force) to testify at the hearing against Tynan.

The
weakness of the reform position in the state meant that neither
Osborne nor MacCormick was willing to take an administrative position
and ‘serve under a bunch of low-down trimmers like that prison
commission.’ MacCormick wrote to Osborne: ‘I am not a combined
Napoleon and Caesar. I would be badly handicapped, as you would, in a
state where we could not use a lot of people whom we know and trust.
Out there we would have to go it blind. Still, MacCormick observed to
Osborne, ‘We certainly kicked over the milk pail. If Tynan has time
enough he will prove every charge we made against him.’ In the end,
Tynan outlasted Sweet, but not for long – he was ousted in 1927
(though not until attracting national attention by barricading
himself behind machine guns to prevent legal papers being served).

Reformers
like MacCormick took an expansive view of prison politics,
understanding that it included national, state, and local politics as
well as prison administration and staff. Reform politics could not
afford to stop at the prison gate. While MacCormick was at the Bureau
of Prisons, the bureau established the United Stated Training School
for Prison Officers, based at the Federal Detention Headquarters in
New York City; according to its director, ‘The School is not only
informative in the essentials of prison management, but is also a
test period to weed out inferior characters whose service in an
institution would be hazardous to the orgnanization.’ The school
eliminated one of every six would be officers who arrived during its
first two years.

Reformers
were also forced to confront their opponents’ powerful rhetoric in
public  debates over punishment – what MacCormick one referred to
as the ‘machine-gun school of criminology.’ One of the foremost
proponents of that school, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, assailed the
advocates of parole and rehabilitation as the ‘cream puff’ school
of criminology, whose views ‘daily turn loose upon us the robber,
the burglar, the arsonist, the killer, and the sex degenerate.’
MacCormick was in attendance for a speech in which Hoover assailed
‘sob sister warden, country club prisons, and convict coddlers’;
MacCormick later lamented to
a meeting of the American Prison Association that he ‘had to sit
within six feet of the speaker and didn’t have a gun on me.’

Years
earlier, Donal Lowrie had observed that, as soon as he began making
his public criticisms of the prison, he had been accused of
‘sentimental twaddle,’ ‘maudlin hysteria,’ and ‘lackadaisical
neurasthenia’ – all suggesting a lack of true manhood. Prison
reformers were often attacked on the basis of their supposed
homosexuality or sexual practices. This had certainly been true of
Osborne, at whose 1916 Assistant District Attorney William Fallon
proclaimed: ‘We have numberless affidavits, testimony that we have
not introduced, that shows this man to be the worst kind of
degenerate.’ MacCormick knew that these charges had ‘hurt his
[Osborne’s] work immeasurably’ and ‘could never have been given
color if it were not for his decent and effective way of handling
perverts as he encountered them in prison. He did not side-step the
issue and paid for his honesty and courage with his reputation.’

The
fate of the Rikers mural gave Austin MacCormick and Ben Shahn one
more powerful example of prison politics. By early 1935, Shahn had
completed his sketches and presented them to MacCormick and
LaGuardia. By all accounts, the two men were well pleased with what
they saw; both stooped by Shahn’s Bethune Street studio to offer
their personal congratulations on a job well done. As publicly funded
art, however, the mural sketches still required the approval of the
Municipal Art Commission, and here they ran into serious trouble. The
commission, which had the previous year rejected a series of public
murals from Shahn on the subject of Prohibition, now attacked the
Rikers reform mural. They rejected the design, with its review of
harsh punishments, as too disconcerting to prisoner sensibilities.
Among art historians, the commission’s decision has been cast as an
act of aesthetic conservatism against challenging modern public art
(‘lugubrious and unpleasant to look upon’), which it certainly
was, but the rejection of Shahn’s mural was also explicitly about
the politics of prison reform. The commission branded the proposed
mural as ‘anti-social propaganda.’ Jonas Lie, painter and member
of the commission, argued that would ‘incite prison inmates to
further an anti-social attitude’ and to ‘increase their
opposition to law and order.’

The
art world bitterly protested the actions of the Municipal Arts
Commission. Audrey McMahon defended the mural sketches as ‘works of
high artistic merit.’ New York Times art writer Edward Alen
Jewell praised the mural’s depiction of a ‘New Deal in prison
life.’ Stuart Davis, in Art Front magazine, famously
attacked commission member Jonas Life: ‘We suggest that while the
Commission was thinking along the lines of ‘psychological
unfitness,’ it might have done well to look at its own painter
member. For, wherever particularly stupid and reactionary acts are
committed in regard to art matters, one seldom has to look far to
find the person of [Lie]…Jonas Lie has proved himself unfit to hold
a seat on the Municipal Arts Commission, or to hold any public
office, for that matter, outside that of a Fascist Censor.’

MacCormick
and LaGuardia tried to help Shahn fight back against the Municipal
Art Commission. Following the commission’s preliminary rejection of
the plans, in February, MacCormick went to so far as to persuade his
friend and colleague, the psychologist Harry Shulman, to conduct a
remarkable study of inmate reactions to the proposed mural. Forty
inmates were selected and shown some of Shahn’s drawings. They were
then given a questionnaire that began: ‘Here is a set of pictures
showing the good and bad sides of prison life. The small ones are
sketches and the large ones will give you an idea of how it will look
on the wall. This is planned for a mural in one of the halls of a
brand-new and modern prison building. The artist would like to know
what you think of these pictures.’ Inmates were also asked how they
felt about having a mural on the walls of a prison, what they thought
other prisoners might think of such a mural, and whether visitors to
the prison would have any interest in them. The four questions for
the forty inmates produced a total of 160 question responses. Shulman
reported to MacCormick that out of a possible 160 answers, 97 were
favorable, 10 unfavorable, 22 indifferent, and 31 left blank. The
positive responses were encouraging: ‘They will certainly brighten
the place up a bit and also give the inmates something to concentrate
on besides the walls.’

LaGuardia
and MacCormick offered the survey results to the Municipal Art
Commission as evidence that the murals would not be overly disturbing
to the inmates, but the commission remained unmoved. In its formal
decision in May, the murals were definitely and finally rejected. At
this point, LaGuardia and MacCormick gave in to the commission,
formally abandoning the project. Theirs was a shocking decision for
Shahn and his supporters, and there is no clear explanation for this
reversal of course. MacCormick gave a statement to the press in which
he lamely attempted to explain his new reasoning: ‘Although a
number of prisoners submitted written opinions that were favorable to
the sketches, we found afterwards that many of them expressed
approval because they thought they were expected to do so.’

Disgusted
at the politics of public art in New York, Ben Shahn left both the
city and the prison project behind. It was never carried out. Shahn
and Block briefly attempted to resurrect the mural by bringing it to
one of the state prisons, but this seems not to have progressed very
far. The panels that composed the mural study were sold by weight as
scrap…” 

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 28-35

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