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Corrections: Part V – Progress: 1873-1893

The Prison Question:  Progress Over Twenty Years, 1873-93

By General R. Brinkerhoff, Chairman, Committee on the History Of Prisons

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 of state and local correctional facilities and the treatment of both juvenile and adult felons were among some of the most important topics presented at the early meetings of the National Conference. The presentation below is an example.

Ed. Note (2): General Roeliff Brinkerhoff was appointed by the government to be one of the delegates representing the United States at the International Prison Congress in Paris in 1895, where he was made the chairman of the American delegation. He spent several weeks in visiting prisons and reformatories in western Europe and the British islands, and on his return to America made a report of his observations and conclusions in regard to European methods, which was published by Congress as an appendix to the report of the American delegation upon the Paris congress. He served as chairman of the board of State Charities of Ohio from 1879, completing his seventh term in 1897.General Roeliff Brinkerhoff, Early American Authority on Prisons [View Image]
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General Roeliff Brinkerhoff, Early American Authority on Prisons

IN the consideration of progress made in dealing with the various classes of people that come within the purview of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, it is evident that with the criminal classes less progress has been made than in any other. The reasons for this are evident enough; but it is not our purpose now to consider them, but simply to ascertain what progress, if any, has been made in the last twenty years.

During the period of time commencing ten years before the War of the Rebellion, which is known as the anti-slavery period, and continuing ten years after it, prison reform was not active. In 1870, however, the National Prison Association was organized, and a notable meeting was held in Cincinnati, in which thirty-nine States were represented; and the importance of the prison question was considered and emphasized.

Three years later the National Conference of Charities and Correction was organized; but during the first five years its annual reports do not show any reference to the prison question, except a brief discussion in regard to juvenile delinquents.

The Prison Congress of Cincinnati, however, inaugurated a new era, and the seed there sown took root, and with the fostering care of the three succeeding congresses of Baltimore, St. Louis, and New York, in I872, 1874, and I876, grew and flourished; and then, upon the discontinuance of the Prison Congress, the National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1878 took up the work, and until 1883, when the Prison Congress was reorganized, was the only national organization giving special attention to prison reforms.

The National Conference of Charities and Correction originated with the State boards of charities and correction in existence in 1873; and growth has been due mainly to the increase in the number of these boards, which now includes one-third of the States of the Union, and it is to their influence very largely that the progress made in dealing with the criminal classes is due…. Wherever a State board of charities and correction or its equivalent exists, there progress has been the greatest, and during the period under consideration there is no fact more evident; and therefore to the extension of these or similar organizations we must look in the main for progress in the future.

The Elmira Reformatory

The first long step forward in prison reform during the period now under consideration was the organization of the New York State Reformatory in 1877 at Elmira, when, for the first time in America, adult felons were committed under the indeterminate sentence, and were treated under a system of progressive classification and conditional release based upon attainments in conduct and character while in prison.

The success of the Elmira system, which is a modification of the Crofton system, marks the beginning of the end of the old repressive, deterrent, ideas of dealing with criminals; and the light of the new era is now visible in every State in the Union.

Reformatories for adults upon the Elmira pattern, so far as grades, marks, and conditional liberation are concerned, have been established in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, and South Dakota, and its principles, to a greater or less extent, are now in practical operation in a majority of our American prisons, and it is fair to predict that before the close of the opening decade of the coming century the Elmira system of graded prisons and classified prisoners will prevail in every State in the Union.

As an outgrowth of the Elmira experiment, we have in several States the parole system without the indeterminate sentence. This modification first went into effect in the Ohio penitentiary at Columbus in 1885, and has since been extended to Minnesota, California, and New Jersey, and is under legislative consideration in several other States.

Prison Labor

Twenty years ago the system of contract labor in our American prisons was practically universal, and prison industries as a means of reformation or of preparation for free life were not largely considered; and the Cincinnati Congress of 1870 declared that “we regard the contract system of prison labor as commonly practiced in this country as prejudicial alike to discipline, finance, and the reformation of the prisoner.”

Since then no prison subject has received larger attention than prison labor, and, notwithstanding the vagaries of labor unions and the mistakes of well-meaning reformers, a large advance has been made in its employment as a reformatory discipline.

In several of the larger States contract labor has been abolished. So, also, by an act of Congress passed in 1887, “the employment at contract labor of any criminal incarcerated for violation of any laws of the government of the United States was prohibited.”

The subject of prison labor is still open to large discussion as to methods and systems, but the importance of utilizing it for reformatory purposes is no longer denied. Even in the South where the lease system, that worst form of contract labor, has prevailed almost universally, a great change in public sentiment has taken place in recent years; and in Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, and in both East and West Virginia, legislative provisions have already been made for its entire abolition, and in Nebraska and Montana there is a public sentiment which is not likely to permit its continuance beyond the life of existing leases….

In a large majority of reformatories for juvenile delinquents the labor of inmates is a part of the school curriculum, and industrial training a dominant requirement. In fact, some of these institutions are practically schools of technology; and of these the New York Industrial School at Rochester, the House of Refuge at Cincinnati, and the Reformatory at Whittier, Cal., are notable examples.

Prison Punishments

At the National Prison Congress at Cincinnati, in 1870, the warden of a large prison is reported as saying, ” I think the legitimate object of a prison is to punish men for committing crime.” Another prison warden is reported as saying in a speech to his subordinate officers, ” It is evident these men are sent here for punishment; and now the great question to solve is, How shall we proceed to punish them the most?” It is not likely that any American warden in 1893 would approve a doctrine so atrocious; but, if there are any such, they are rare and very new in prison management.

Twenty years ago, with rare exceptions, the lash or some other form of physical torture was considered indispensable to the maintenance of discipline in our prisons, but in recent years its necessity has been largely questioned; and in all our prisons its use has greatly decreased, and in some it has been entirely abandoned. In fact, corporal punishment, at least in our Northern prisons, is now the exception rather than the rule; and in several States it is prohibited by law. For the initiation of this reform and in maintaining a continuous example of its wisdom the country is largely indebted to the humane and intelligent wardens of the penitentiaries at Allegheny, Penn., and the United States Military Prison at Leavenworth, Kan.

In the maintenance of discipline the principle of rewards, with progressive classification, has been shown to be more effective than physical torture; and the old barbarisms are rapidly passing away. Instead of punishment as the main purpose of imprisonment, the dominant idea has become the protection of society, which can be best secured by the reformation of the prisoner or, upon failure to reform, by his permanent retention in prison.

During the past twenty years there has been large improvement in the opportunities offered for the moral and intellectual culture of prisoners; and a prison now without a school where prisoners who are illiterate can at least learn to read and write is exceptional, and a prison without some moral or religious instruction on the Sabbath is practically unknown.

Prison Construction

During the past twenty years about forty new penal and reformatory institutions have been erected; and large improvements in construction have been attained in all directions, and especially in sanitary arrangements. Of the convict prisons the best examples, probably, are the Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary at Allegheny, the New York State Reformatory at Elmira, the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield, the Industrial Reformatory at Huntington, Penn., and the Minnesota State Reformatory at St. Cloud. Of the juvenile reformatories the State School at Whittier, Cal., and the State Reform School at Red Wing, Minn., are probably the most satisfactory.

Of the older prisons many have been enlarged, and some practically reconstructed, and all, doubtless, are more or less improved. So far as construction is concerned, our American prisons compare favorably with those of any other country.

Prisons For Women

In the care of female prisoners the most notable advance made during the past twenty years is the establishment of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, which was opened June 30, 1874, and which in its equipment and management and reformatory results has no superior in the world. From the beginning it has been controlled by women. The number of its inmates now is about four hundred and fifty. It is conducted upon the Elmira system, but has four grades instead of three, and its methods of marking are somewhat different, and its system of paroles is largely different. In all its departments it is admirably managed, and as a prison for women is a model for the nation; and it is worthy of imitation elsewhere.

The Women’s Reformatory at Indianapolis, which is the first of its kind in America, is also worthy of notice and commendation.

County Jails

Of all our prisons our county jails are the most unsatisfactory; but still during the past twenty years they have made greater progress than in the previous century, and there is now a public sentiment in favor of a revolution in jail construction and management which commands attention, and promises still larger progress in the near future.

Our jails are an inheritance from Great Britain; and the average American jail is practically that which John Howard found in Bedfordshire, England, when he entered upon his duty as sheriff of that county. The prisoners during the day are congregated in a common hall —old and young, innocent and guilty — and are thus permitted to contaminate each other at leisure.

In recent years, however, quite a number of jails have been constructed with a view to the cellular separation of prisoners both day and night; and in a few such separation is enforced. The pioneer jail of this kind, and the only one in which the absolute separation of prisoners has been maintained for more than twenty years, is the Suffolk County jail in Boston, and in construction and management it still remains one of the best in America.

The principle of a separation of prisoners has also been extended to several Western States, and notably in Ohio, where nearly all new jails constructed during the past twenty years have been built on what is known as the central corridor, or ” Ohio plan,” which are so constructed as to permit the entire separation of prisoners….

Of Ohio jails the Franklin County jail at Columbus is probably the best in construction and administration. About one-fourth of the eighty-eight counties in Ohio now have jails upon the central corridor plan, although separation has not been as fully enforced as the law requires. Still another plan for the separation of prisoners, worthy of attention, is in a jail recently constructed at Stockton, Cal. In sanitary arrangements American jails, very generally, have been improved in the past twenty years.

United States Prisoners

United States prisoners convicted of felonies under federal laws, for the most part, are confined in State penitentiaries under contract with State authorities. The only exceptions are those confined in Territorial prisons. According to the report of the Attorney-General for the year ending June 30, 1892, there were 1,850 such prisoners, distributed among fifty-five different prisons; but nearly one-half of the whole number were in the three States of New York, Ohio, and Michigan.

For ten years past the National Prison Association has urged upon Congress the evil results of this system, and the necessity of federal prisons for federal prisoners; and finally, in 1891, by the Fifty-first Congress, (26 Stat., p. 839), a law was enacted authorizing the construction of three United States prisons, to be located one north and another south of the 39th degree, the third west of the Rocky Mountains; but, unfortunately, no appropriations were made for them. The passage of this bill, however, is a step forward worthy of notice; and the result doubtless will be large progress in the near future.

During the past twenty years a number of Territorial jails have been built, and others have been improved. The jails in the District of Columbia and at Fort Smith, Indian Territory, are especially noteworthy.

That a great government like ours should convict its citizens of offences against its laws, and then consign them to the tender mercies of prison authorities in whose appointment it has no voice, and over whom it has no control, is greatly to be deplored; and it is to be hoped that the authorization by Congress of federal prisons marks the beginning of a new and better era.

While we are unable to report any large progress on the part of the United States in dealing with civil offenders, it is far different with military offenders; and the creation and administration of the United States military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., is in every way creditable. This prison was established in I875, and its management from the beginning has been admirable. It has an average of about six hundred inmates, and in all of its departments it has kept abreast of the best intelligence of the world in prison methods.

Juvenile Reformatories

Of all our institutions established for the care and treatment of the delinquent classes our juvenile reformatories are the most satisfactory, and will compare favorably with similar institutions in any other country.

At the National Prison Congress in Cincinnati in 1870 the total number of juvenile reformatories in the United States was reported as nineteen, with an average of inmates of less than 8,ooo. In i880, by the census reports, the number of inmates in juvenile reformatories aggregated 11,468, and in 1890 14,846, and the number of reformatories had grown to over sixty.

In the construction, equipment, and management of these reformatories there has been large improvement in all directions, but probably the most important features of progress have been in the line of industrial training as an essential part of the school curriculum; and this tendency has been intensified year by year until quite a number of these institutions are now essentially schools of technology. One of the pioneers in this system of industrial training, and probably the best example of its development, is the Industrial School at Rochester, N.Y., heretofore referred to.


In our methods of dealing with recidivists considerable progress ‘has been made, and mainly within the last ten years. The first attempt in America to deal with recidivists by legislation was in Louisiana, in 1870 (Sect. 974, Revised Statutes), by which judges were empowered “to sentence any person who may be convicted of a second or third offence to double or triple the penalty imposed by law; and for a fourth offence the person may be sentenced to perpetual imprisonment.”

In Ohio a similar law was passed May 4, 1885 (O. L., vol. 82, p. 236), by which “every person who, after having been convicted of felony, shall be deemed and taken to be an habitual criminal, and on the expiration of the term for which he shall be so sentenced, he shall not be discharged from imprisonment, but shall be detained during his natural life, unless pardoned by the governor.” This law has been enforced to some extent, but not so fully as it should be, for the reason that prosecuting attorneys have been derelict in indicting recidivists as such.

Laws somewhat similar have been passed in Massachusetts, and some other States with like results; but public sentiment generally has become more pronounced in favor of a more efficient enforcement of these laws.

There is also a growing sentiment in favor of cumulative sentences upon misdemeanants confined in workhouses. In Ohio this principle was fully adopted by the General Assembly in a bill passed April 14, 1893, in which it is provided that cumulative sentences shall be imposed upon misdemeanants sentenced to workhouses, and that the sentence for a second offence shall be double the first, and the third double the second; and that for the fourth offence the offender shall be adjudged an habitual offender, and shall be sentenced for a period not greater than three years, nor less than one year, unless pardoned by the governor. Provision is also made for the classification and grading of prisoners, with promotion and degradation upon the Elmira pattern, and with the privilege of parole upon similar conditions.

Prisoners’ Aid Associations

The important work of aiding discharged prisoners to reinstate themselves in society as self-supporting citizens has made but little progress in the United States, and yet the first organized association for this purpose in the world was established in 1776 in Philadelphia; and, with the exception of a very few years during the Revolutionary War, “the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons ” has maintained a continuous career of increasing usefulness to the present.

Other nations have followed the example of the Philadelphia society, at least to the extent of aiding discharged prisoners; and in England there are sixty-nine prisoners’ aid associations, and all over Europe they are considered an important help in the reformation of criminals.

In the United States fourteen such associations have been organized during the century, and a majority of them during the past twenty years; and the most of them are still in existence. Of those still alive, but few are largely useful. Of these, Philadelphia, New York, Maryland, Detroit, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are the most noteworthy.

The tendency in America is to the parole system, an essential feature of which is that no prisoner can be paroled until a place is guaranteed to him where for at least six months he can earn a living by honest industry. Under the parole system, where release can only be attained by conduct which gives satisfactory assurance of reformation, no difficulty is found in securing remunerative employment upon discharge. In fact, at the Elmira Reformatory, where the parole system has been in operation for sixteen years, the demand for discharged prisoners is greater than the supply; for employers have found by experience that graduates of that institution are valuable acquisitions.

Conditional Liberation

During the past twenty years, in dealing with the criminal classes in America there is probably no principle or practice of larger significance or more rapid growth than that of the conditional liberation of prisoners. It was alluded to as a promising theory at the Cincinnati Congress in I870; but it was not put into operation in a prison for adults until 1877, when the Elmira Reformatory was opened. Since then, however, it has grown rapidly, and is fast becoming a sine qua non in American penology. There are two forms of conditional liberation now in operation. One is by parole under the indeterminate sentence, as at Elmira and in Ohio, and the other is by conditional pardon, as in Minnesota and Indiana; but both are operated by progressive classification and the marking system, and, when properly administered, the results have been most gratifying. In the judgment of many of our best penologists, conditional liberation is the most important development of the period now under consideration, and especially in its connection with the indeterminate sentence, where a criminal goes to prison as an insane patient goes to an asylum, to be cured, and not to be liberated until he is cured, and then only released on probation, until experience shows him to be trustworthy.

The Identification Of Criminals

Considerable progress has been made in recent years in improved methods for the identification of criminals, and the adoption in 1887 by the Wardens’ Association of the anthropometric system of Bertillon has secured the co-operation of prison managers in at least a dozen States and of the police authorities in the larger cities.

The central office for registration thus far has been in Chicago, but there is now a prospect that the Department of Justice at Washington will assume this work and maintain a bureau of registration for all the States. This is greatly to be desired, for without it the best results cannot be attained.


In a resume of progress for twenty years in so large a country as the United States, of course only a brief outline can be presented in the time allotted. However in the appendix herewith transmitted will be found reports from several States, in which details of progress are more fully presented, and which will help materially to a proper appreciation of the advancements made during the period under consideration.

Interrogatories were sent early in the year to governors of all the States and Territories, and responses have been received from many; but, except in States where Boards of Charities and Correction exist, the facts furnished have not been as satisfactory as could be desired. But still much of the information obtained is valuable, and has been abstracted and appended hereto.


(Ed. Note: The Appendix to this report on prisons can be found beginning on page 159 of the Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction Twentieth Annual Session Held In Chicago, Illinois, June 8-11, 1893.)

Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction’s Twentieth Annual Session Held In Chicago, Illinois, June 8-11, 1893.) pp. 148-159.

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