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Corrections: Part III — A Model Prison System 1878

Prison Discipline In General: The Elmira System

A Letter From Z. B. Brockway of Elmira, N.Y., To F. B. Sanborn of Concord, Mass. Presented at the Fifth Annual Conference of Charities in Cincinnati, Ohio, May, 1878, pp. 106-111.

Ed. Note: In the history of the criminal justice system of the United States there is considerable evidence that social welfare reformers and progressives helped improve the conditions of local jails, reformatories and prisons and the treatment of prisoners. For example, presentations and reports of standing committees at the annual meetings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction during the late 19th century reveal that social welfare leaders and progressives were actively involved in efforts to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.  It was at these annual meetings where leaders of state boards and experts in penology gave presentations and reports describing conditions in prisons and jails and offering proposals for improving them.

The founding fathers of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (1874 – 1898) were governor-appointed secretaries or executives of a State Board of Charities, and therefor responsible for oversight and reporting on the conditions of public institutions, including prisons. As a result, conditions and architecture of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented and discussed at the early meetings of the National Conference. This presentation from 1878 is an example.

Ed. Note (2): Zebulon Reed Brockway (1827-1920) was a progressive penologist and originator of the indeterminate sentence and parole system.  In 1870, based on his experience and reputation, the National Prison Association selected him to be one of the nationally recognized penologists to author the Association’s acclaimed “Declaration of Principles.”  In May 1876, Brockway was sworn in as superintendent of the newly constructed Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, the nation’s first correctional institution for male felons between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Under his leadership and direction, the “Elmira System” he developed transformed American corrections by putting into practice the innovations espoused in the 1870 “Declaration of Principles.”

…The spirit of investigation that has possessed the legislatures of New Jersey, Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and perhaps some other States, during the past winter, pointing inquiries as to the disciplinary treatment of prisons, seems to indicate an unusual interest in the matter, out of which great changes and perhaps important reforms may be wrought. There seems to be a peculiar condition of the public mind as relates to this subject, obtaining in several of the States at the same time; one of dissatisfaction with a severely-punitive system of prison discipline, and a groping after one more surely reformative in its effect upon prisoners, and more in accord with the enlightened humanity of the times. And although nothing of interest or improvement has resulted, or is likely to result, from the investigations immediately, it is reasonable to assume that the activity of inquiry noted will bring on a crisis in the disciplinary management of prisons, developing an efficient reformative system, or, giving over that idea as chimerical, will carry us back to the damaging system from which we now seek deliverance.

The impossibility of testing the comparative value of different systems of prison administration, growing out of our political system, by which inexperienced and sometimes incompetent officers were placed in charge, and uniformity of administration was prevented, seems to be gradually giving way. The centralization of the governing authority in New York, and the tendency that way in other States and in England, gives promise that ere long it may be practicable to fairly demonstrate what system, if any, is the superior one. Already in New York, after only one year of independent centralized control, the four thousand prisoners have been brought under a salutary discipline, being firmly governed and held. All the prisons, taken together, are more self-sustaining, and, unless interfered with by private or class interests, will be put on a permanently sound financial basis in the very near future. This insured, no doubt the question of a reformative discipline, including as it does a gradation of the prisons of the State, the proper classification of the prisoners in each establishment respectively, the introduction of a system of rewards in place of severe punishment, and an efficient educational system, embracing all the prisoners, — will be taken up by the Superintendent of Prisons, who, from the almost unlimited control he exercises, can successfully carry out whatever he may conclude to adopt. It is not impossible that the State of New York may be foremost in determining the present possibility of really reforming the criminals committed to our prisons.

The adult Reformatory at Elmira, organized under the Act of 1877…is an advanced experiment for reformative ends. Felons, first offenders, between sixteen and thirty years of age, are, in the discretion of the courts, committed to this reformatory until discharged by the manager thereof; but not to be detained longer than the maximum term fixed by law for punishment of the offence for which they are convicted. Thus one convicted of grand larceny or burglary in the third degree, ordinarily sentenced for one or two years, may be detained in the reformatory for five years at most, or, if his improvement warrants it, may be released at any time before that. The managers have authority also to parole prisoners, upon such conditions as they may affix in each case, and to re-arrest and re-commit if the parole is violated….

Having authority on the one hand to transfer incorrigible prisoners to the State Prison, and on the other to release them at pleasure, the managers have adopted a system of marks of merit and demerit, and of social grades, that may be briefly described as follows:

Every man received into the reformatory is charged with nine marks for every month of time for which the court (under the old law) might have sentenced him, less the possible abatement for good conduct he might gain under such sentence. Thus, if he had been sentenced for five years, the possible abatement (seventeen months) would leave him three years and seven months, or forty-three months, to serve. Such a man would be charged, under this mark-system, therefore, with 43 x 9 = 387 marks; so that, by maintaining perfect conduct (earning thus nine marks per month), he would be released at the same time as though sentenced for the longest term possible under the old law. But the government of the reformatory may release him at any time, or grant a parole instead of release; and, for this purpose, the record of each man is reviewed by the managers every six months, when the prisoner may be encouraged by a gratuitous credit of any number of marks; or, in case of misconduct or bad development, any amount of previous credit may be cancelled. Each prisoner has a memorandum book containing a printed explanation of the mark-system, and of the grades; also showing the standing of his account on the first of every month, or oftener if he desires it.

There are three grades of men, having different privileges according to their grade. They are separated at night, but the necessities of the school and of the industries bring them together during these exercises.

  1. Meagerly-furnished rooms, coarse gray clothing, the plainest prison-fare served in the cells, a strict prison-discipline, no correspondence with relations or friends, and liability to confinement in seclusion or in the State Prison, are accompaniments of the third grade.
  2. Better rooms, better clothing, better food served at tables, with privilege of free communication with relations, privilege of the school, the lecture-course, &c., are features of the second grade.
  3. The first grade occupy the “north-wing extension,” — a special apartment for them alone, — have a separate dining-hall, and still better dietary, freer correspondence with approved friends and with each other, admission to reading-rooms, etc., and special opportunities for oral instruction. These men are employed in responsible, sometimes semi-official, service about the institution, and from this grade alone are men paroled or released.

The standard of conduct, entitling prisoners to promotion from one grade to another, is designed to be not only satisfactory as relates to good order and the discipline of the Reformatory generally, but also to induce habits opposed to those of the criminal cast of character: therefore it is made to embrace the general demeanor, the moral, social, and economic features of it; the industrious habit, whether forced, assisted, or voluntarily diligent, and what degree of effective results; and also the interest in books and study, together with the progress in education actually made. In finally determining the date of release, the impressions of those brought constantly in contact with the prisoner are sought, in addition to any systematic records and to the personal examination by the managers….

There is an evening-school, maintained for recitations only, on two evenings each week; a normal class for the prisoner-teachers, and a writing-class for those unable to write legibly, on another evening. The reading-room is open two evenings each week, and two evenings are devoted to quiet study in the separate rooms, in each of which gas is supplied. A regular course of Saturday lectures is maintained, and both Protestant and Roman Catholic religious services are regularly conducted. Thus, it will be observed, the whole time of every man is occupied, either with labor or study, or rational intellectual recreation. The hope of reformation is founded upon education or cultivation forming the necessary basis for lodgment of religious impressions and a better moral state….

I do not believe the progress of prison reform is in any great danger from the opposition of the so-called ” National Party ” to the employment of prisoners at mechanical work. If prisoners are employed at all, the products of their labor must come into competition with the labor of citizens, and it cannot be a matter of much moment whether with one class or another. The great mass of criminals were laborers or idlers: if laborers, then ’tis well to remove their competing labor to the departments of mechanics or agriculture, — two classes better able to bear it than the common laborer; or, if idlers, then is it not a public benefit to make them earn their own subsistence at whatever work?

The people will not yet submit to maintain in idleness those who prey upon society, both because of the cost of it, and the damage of it. To imprison a man, and make him work, does not add to the population that must be supported by the products of industry; and what class have a right to say they alone shall be exempt from the effects of such labor?

If the discussion of this topic by the labor-reformers shall lead to a modification of the prison contract-system, so that the employment of prisoners shall be made more reformatory and productive, good will come of it; and I have no fear that any legislature will abrogate the contract-system until something surely better is supplied in its place. You know (of course) that for many years I have not contracted the prison-labor I have controlled, but have employed it directly for the State, with good results. Labor for prisoners lies at the very foundation of their reformation; and I hope to see, before I die, the great army of idle prisoners, congregated in the common jails of our land, brought together in workhouses, where they shall be wisely and profitably employed, and held in such custody as shall protect society from their crimes, or the burden of their support as paupers, — held until they give evidence to experts of cure or reformation.

It seems to me the three great questions of the day, in this department of prison-discipline, are: –

(1) How best to unify the prison-administration of a State.

(2) How best to employ the prisoners in our prisons.

(3) How best to reform our prisoners, and return them to society as useful citizens.

I have written this letter in very great haste, and offer it to you, my friend, as the best possible apology I can make for my neglect or inability to provide a report worthy of the subject committed to us, worthy of our committee, and of the kind consideration of one so thoroughly informed on all these subjects as yourself. It is at best but an apology.

Yours truly, Z. R. Brockway. Elmira, May 20, 1878.

Source: Proceedings Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Conference of Charities in Cincinnati, Ohio, May, 1878, pp. 106-111. Social Welfare History Archives National Conference on Social Welfare (1874-1982)  digital collection created by the University of Michigan:

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