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Brockway, Zebulon Reed

Zebulon Reed Brockway (April 28, 1827 – October 21, 1920) — Progressive Penologist and Originator of the Indeterminate Sentence and Parole System.

Editor’s Note: The major portion of this entry was written in the present tense by Charles Richmond Henderson (18480-1915) a notable prison reformer. Henderson’s first book was, An Introduction to the Study of the Dependent, Defective, and Delinquent Classes, which appeared in 1893. While the book in its original form has long since passed out of print and out of date, yet it formed an important landmark in the development of practical social science. It was the first serious attempt in America to present a complete view of the work of society along charitable and corrective lines. The new note that it struck was its emphasis upon the fact that all the interests of society were affected by the existence of the depraved and unfortunate classes, and that therefore the work in their behalf was a social task which must be shared by the whole community.

Introduction: Z. R. Brockway was born at Brockway’s Ferry in Lyme, Connecticut. He began his career as a clerk at the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield. Later he would serve as a superintendent of the Albany Municipal County Almshouse in New York, and then as superintendent of the Monroe County Penitentiary in Rochester and finally the superintendent of the Detroit House of Correction. In 1875 Brockway became warden at the New York State Reformatory in Elmira, a position he held for 25 years. Brockway was a prison reformer who believed in rehabilitation rather than punishment, inmate classification and training for prisoners.Zebulon Reed Brockway [View Image]
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Z. R. Brockway, 1853
Photo: Fifty Years of Prison Service by Zebulon Reed Brockway

Charles Richmond Henderson’s Description: Mr. Brockway may well be called the Nestor of prison reform in the United States. Born in Connecticut in 1827, he began doing clerical work in the Wethersfield prison when he was a young man of twenty-one and from that day his active mind and great heart have studied prison problems and worked for their solution. The record of his official life is as follows.

From Connecticut, he went to New York, where he was assistant superintendent, under General Amos Pillsbury in the Albany County Penitentiary for misdemeanants, acting later as superintendent of the Albany County Infirmary, Farm and Hospitals till 1854. From 1854 to 1861, he was superintendent of the Monroe County Penitentiary for misdemeanants. From 1861 to 1873, he was at the head of the Detroit House of Correction, a local district prison for misdemeanants and felons for long terms under the federal laws.

In the Detroit institution, Mr. Brockway introduced unusual reformatory measures. Educational and moral impressions were called upon and successfully applied. The prisoners were allowed the experiment of profit-sharing in the labor, and a successful experiment was made of admitting selected female prisoners to family life in the auxiliary House of Shelter outside of the prison enclosure. Male and female prisoners were employed in subordinate positions in the government of the House of Correction, and during this period was born at Detroit, the principles of the indeterminate sentence (limited). The “Three Year Law,” applicable to the improvement of prisoners, was enacted by the Michigan legislature and applied at the House of Correction during these years.

In 1870, an exposition of the principles of the indeterminate sentence was prepared and presented to the Cincinnati Prison Congress. It was called the “Ideal Prison System for a State” and it may be truly said that all the prison reform which has since been accomplished has followed the principles laid down at that time. For three years, from 1873 to 1876, Mr. Brockway was not actually a prison administrator, but he was a member of the State Board of Control of Penal and Charitable Institutions and a member of a commission appointed by the governor to revise the criminal laws. This commission unanimously recommended a sweeping change from the system in vogue to the indeterminate sentence for all imprisoned offenders.

When the Elmira reformatory was determined upon it was natural that Mr. Brockway should have been selected to carry into practical operation the principles for which he had so long contended, and from 1876 to 1900, the State of New York was fortunate enough to command his services as the superintendent of that great institution, where he developed the well-known “Elmira System,” based on the act of 1877, the limited indeterminate sentence law. There is no corner of the civilized world where the name of “Elmira” and of “Brockway” have not penetrated as synonyms of the best works ever done for offenders against the law. Thousand upon thousands of men have been under his wise and human discipline, the great majority of whom have passed into the ranks of society and mingled with their fellows as good citizens thanks to the education,- physical, manual, mental and moral to which they were submitted in Elmira.

For the last ten years, Mr. Brockway has lived a life of retirement save for one or two years when he served his wide-awake city as mayor, the unanimous choice of all parties. His time has not been idly passed, but writing on the themes to which he had actively devoted more than half of a century, lecturing on prison subjects, and reading his beloved philosophy authors have kept him in constant touch with what the world is doing.


For further reading: 

Brockway, Z. R. (1912) Fifty Years of Prison Service; an Autobiography. New York, NY: Charities Publication.
Brockway, Z.R. (1870). The Ideal of a True Prison System for a State. a Paper Read Before the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline at Cincinnati, on October 12, 1870.
 Zebulon Brockway: A Controversial Figure in Prison Reform. Connecticut History.Org

Source: Henderson, Charles Richmond. Papers, [Box 2, Folder 10], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2014). Zebulon Reed Brockway (April 28, 1827 – October 21, 1920) — Progressive penologist and originator of the indeterminate sentence and parole system. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from



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