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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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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
; 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.
also maintained a file of images related to the notorious Scottsboro
case, for which retrials were still ongoing.

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.’

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.

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.

NSPI surveys (eventually organized and published as the Handbook
of American Prison
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
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.

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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,
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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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.’

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

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

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Ben Shahn, studies for Riker’s Island Penitentiary murals, 1934-1935. Photographed by Walker Evans. 

All gelatin silver prints, donated in 2000 by

Bernarda Bryson Shahn to the Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

A selection of photographic records of now lost large scale studies by Ben Shahn for murals intended to be installed at the new ‘model prison’ of Riker’s Island in 1935.  Although typical of Shahn’s work documenting the Great Depression, his murals were deemed too political for Riker’s and never installed. From top to bottom they show:

1) Down and out in the big city – the conditions leading to crime. #P2000.57 

2) A typical scene from a Southern US labor camp, meant to show the barbarity still practiced in American prisons – the implication being that Riker’s was a ‘new deal’ for inmates. #P2000.48

3) Prisoners in stalls, possibly at a work site. Again, another example of something that shouldn’t be happening anymore at a penitentiary. #P2000.47

4) A black prisoner being giving corporal punishment – that is, being tortured – at a public whipping in Delaware.  These displays of state power against (frequently black) bodies were actually revived in some Northern US jurisdictions in the 1930s, and like the above mural, imply that Riker’s discipline has moved on from this barbarism. #P2000.46

5) Prisoners being returned by guards to their cells from yard time.  A typical part of the prison routine, this mural appears to have been based on photographs Shahn took at the old New York Penitentiary on Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island. #P2000.55


6-7) Prisoners, from left to right, at school, learning automotive repair, taking tests, out in the yard, and in the back, playing baseball. #P2000.49 & #P2000.50

8) Prisoners receiving their visitors at the penitentiary.  #P2000.56

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Harold Lehman,

The Driller.

Tempera on fiberboard, 1937.  Part of a series of murals erected at the Rikers Island Penitentiary, New York. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Transfer from the Newark Museum, 1966.31.11.

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course, the problem of the younger prisoner was hardly a discovery of
New Deal-era New Yorkers. The reformatory movement of the
nineteenth-century had first brought attention to the problems of the
young first-time offender, and the juvenile court movement had
focused attention on the judicial handling of delinquent and
incorrigible children. But a newer element in the reformist language
of the 1930s was the growing focus on ‘youth’ or ‘adolescence’
as a formally defined period of transition between childhood and
adulthood, as to use this period as a meaningful concept in criminal
justice practice. The problem of the adolescent in the thirties was
largely defined by the growing gap between the end of formal
schooling and the start of full-time productive labor, a concern made
more pressing with each pssing year of the Great Depression. Efforts
to bridge this period of enforced idleness gave rise to two
significant New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
and the National Youth Administration (NYA), both of which focused on
the problem of employment for adolescents after they left
public schooling. The American Youth Commission, organized by the
American Council on Education in 1935 to consider the needs of youth
(defined as between the ages of 16 and 24), concluded, ‘All aspects
of a health transition from youth to adult life depended’ on
successful employment and work experiences following school.

MacCormick would come to embrace the CCC model and the transformative
power of work experiences. He observed the CCC youth ‘didn’t want
to go at first, they were pretty pale when they went, they didn’t
look much like workers, but when they came back they had esprit de
corps, their muscles had begun to develop, they stood up straight,
they were brown and a great many of them weathered some terrible
years in which they would have otherwise got into trouble.’ For
MacCormick, the CCC was one model of what the state could do to fill
the gap between youth and adulthood.

1936, MacCormick partnered with the Osborne Association in developing
a vocational demonstration project, for the purpose of placing youth
prisoners ‘in worth-while jobs, preferably on the basis of their
interests and their training.’ He recruited Viola Ilma, former head
of the American Youth Congress and author of And Now, Youth!, to
direct the demonstration. But the problem of enforced idleness was
not simply a concern after release, but a condition of
confinement as well. Here, the problem of youth idleness was linked
to the more general problems of prisoner idleness related to the long
campaign against for-profit prison industries. For the reformers, the
lack of productive labor produced a throwback to retrograde
conditions. MacCormick seconded the criticism writing that ‘nothing
has been more harmful and shameful in our recent penal history than
the idleness in our prisons for all age groups…the young prisoner,
particularly, needs to have his day full to the brim with work and
training, balanced by recreation and a variety of character-building
activities that use up his energies to the limit.’

push for engaging the energies of the delinquent adolescent was
coupled with an important, though little-remembered, effort to extend
the concept of the juvenile court upward into the realm of the
adolescent offender. Harry M. Shulman’s 1931 study of the
sixteen-to-twenty-year-old offender in New York City bluntly stated
that it was ‘without logical or scientific foundation’ to handle
young men in this age range in the same fashion as adult offenders.
MacCormick summarized the argument in favor of such an

Too many youths who should be given probation
are committed to an institution for  punitive reasons, while youths
who required institutional training are put on probation as an act of
misguided leniency…The surest way to reduce the margin of error is
by a thorough pre-sentence investigation. This should not only include
the complete information on the current offense and the offender’s
previous criminal record, but also his family history, his personal
history and community background, pertinent data from medical,
psychiatric and psychological examination, and so forth. The judge
should give careful consideration to all this material before passing

a coherent process, MacCormick argued, ‘the hapless delinquent is
passed from one to another like lumber through various processing
plants. Almost inevitably the mass-produced end result proves a
perverse failure, for unfortunately the delinquent boy is not
lumber.’ The cure for mass processing was to embrace the
individualized model of the juvenile court and dispense with the
patterns of routine characteristic of the criminal courts.”

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp. 27-28

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Ben Shahn, “Creole girls, Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.”

Gelatin silver print photograph, 1935. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 2011. #2.2002.3092.

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