Benevolent Repression

Benevolent Repression: Social Control and the American Reformatory-Prison Movement

Alexander W. Pisciotta
Copyright Date: 1994
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 212
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    Benevolent Repression
    Book Description:

    The opening, in 1876, of the Elmira Reformatory marked the birth of the American adult reformatory movement and the introduction of a new approach to crime and the treatment of criminals. Hailed as a reform panacea and the humane solution to America's ongoing crisis of crime and social disorder, Elmira sparked an ideological revolution. Repression and punishment were supposedly out. Academic and vocational education, military drill, indeterminate sentencing and parole - "benevolent reform" - were now considered instrumental to instilling in prisoners a respect for God, law, and capitalism. Not so, says Al Pisciotta, in this highly original, startling, and revealing work. Drawing upon previously unexamined sources from over a half-dozen states and a decade of research, Pisciotta explodes the myth that Elmira and other institutions of "the new penology" represented a significant advance in the treatment of criminals and youthful offenders. The much-touted programs failed to achieve their goals; instead, prisoners, under Superintendent Zebulon Brockway, considered the Father of American Corrections, were whipped with rubber hoses and two-foot leather straps, restricted to bread and water in dark dungeons during months of solitary confinement, and brutally subjected to a wide range of other draconian psychological and physical abuses intended to pound them into submission. Escapes, riots, violence, drugs, suicide, arson, and rape were the order of the day in these prisons, hardly conducive to the transformation of "dangerous criminal classes into Christian gentleman," as was claimed. Reflecting the racism and sexism in the social order in general, the new penology also legitimized the repression of the lower classes. Highlighting the disparity between promise and practice in America's prisons, Pisciotta draws on seven inmate case histories to illustrate convincingly that the "March of Progress" was nothing more than a reversion to the ways of old. In short, the adult reformatory movement promised benevolent reform but delivered benevolent repression - a pattern that continues to this day. A vital contribution to the history of crime, corrections, and criminal justice, this book will also have a major impact on our thinking about contemporary corrections and issues surrounding crime, punishment, and social control.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6891-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This book is the product of an accidental discovery. In the fall of 1978 I was doing research in the New York State Archives for a history of the American juvenile reformatory movement. While reading the correspondence of one of the turn-of-the-century parole officers at the Western House of Refuge, Rochester, New York, I came across a puzzling entry. Parole officer Lewis Haas made notes on a conversation he had with Zebulon Brockway, superintendent of the highly acclaimed Elmira Reformatory.

    Brockway … never let an opportunity pass to speak slightingly of this institution [Western House of Refuge], its methods and...

  6. Chapter One Making Christian Gentlemen: The Promise of Elmira, 1876–1899
    (pp. 7-32)

    The Elmira Reformatory led America’s search for methods of reform in the late-nineteenth century. This chapter provides an overview of the origin, development, and operation of this institution during its “golden age of reform.” The first section examines forces that led to the founding of the Elmira Reformatory in 1876, explains how the Elmira system evolved, and describes how the new penology was, in theory, supposed to rehabilitate inmates. The second demonstrates how the opening of Elmira and the introduction of prison science sparked a paradigmatic revolution which transformed America’s approach to thinking about crime and treating criminals. Finally, there...

  7. Chapter Two Benevolent Repression: The Reality of the Elmira System, 1876–1899
    (pp. 33-59)

    We know remarkably little about what actually went on inside Elmira during its “golden age of reform.” This chapter extends our understanding of the new penology by examining the internal dynamics, problems, and practices of Elmira from 1876 to 1899. A number of questions are posed to contrast the rhetoric and the reality of America’s new prison science: How did the Elmira system work in practice? Did scientific reform and the medical model build docile bodies and Christian gentlemen? How successful were the keepers of Elmira at balancing the conflicting aims of social control and social reform?

    The 1893–1894...

  8. Chapter Three Revisiting Elmira: The Defects of Human Engineering in Total Institutions
    (pp. 60-80)

    Clearly, Elmira was a brutal prison, and the proliferation of the new penology across the United States and around the world was largely a product of Brockway’s public relations and marketing campaign. This chapter addresses corollary questions: Why were there so many disparities between the promise and practice of prison science? Why did the Elmira system fail in its effort to build Christian gentlemen? Why did Elmira’s keepers tout the institution as a reform panacea, despite its dismal record of achievement?

    These questions can be addressed from a variety of theoretical frameworks. This analysis is based on perspectives which have...

  9. Chapter Four Searching for Reform: The Birth of America’s Third Penal System, 1877–1899
    (pp. 81-103)

    Elmira’s failure to achieve the promise of the new penology does not mean that other institutions necessarily followed a similar course. A number of questions must be addressed to understand the diffusion and impact of the adult reformatory movement: When, where, and why were other reformatory-prisons opened? How were these institutions similar to and different from Elmira? What problems did the keepers of these institutions encounter in their attempts to socialize America’s newest criminal class, the dangerous youthful offender?

    These questions are addressed in four sections. The first examines the origin, aims, structure, and programs of Elmira’s ideological rivals, the...

  10. All Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  11. Chapter Five The “New” Elmira: Psycho-eugenics and the Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal
    (pp. 104-126)

    The Elmira Reformatory played a central role in the formulation of national penal policy during the Progressive Era; however, these policies were very different from those advocated between 1876 and 1899. Brockway’s forced resignation in 1900 set the stage for the introduction of a new Elmira system. Between 1900 and 1920, physicians seized the reins of administrative power and, drawing on the latest developments in the fields of medicine, psychology, sociology, and social welfare, implemented eugenic prison science.

    The discovery of a new type of criminal, the mentally defective offender, led to the adoption of a new goal (custody, control,...

  12. Chapter Six Triumphant Defeat: The Decline of Prison Science, 1900–1920
    (pp. 127-149)

    David J. Rothman’sConscience and Convenienceis widely regarded as the most comprehensive and authoritative account of American penology during the Progressive Era. Rothman maintains that the first decades of the twentieth century witnessed the spread of new ideas toward the handling of criminals, delinquents, and the mentally ill. Progressive Era reformers, acting out of kind intentions or “conscience,” introduced new programs to initiate reform: juvenile court, probation, parole, outpatient clinics, as well as new regimens in prisons, juvenile reformatories, and insane asylums. But conscience gave way to “convenience”—that is, personal and organizational needs. These “reforms” expanded the state’s...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 150-156)

    Adult reformatories are no longer a central component of the American correctional system; in fact, they are a peripheral concern. The Elmira Reformatory (Elmira Correctional Facility) is now a maximum security prison for felons, irrespective of age. The Massachusetts Reformatory (Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord) is a medium security prison for adult offenders serving sentences of at least two and one half years. The Michigan Reformatory receives seventeen-to-twenty-six-year-old “incorrigible offenders” and is classified as a “close security facility with a maximum security component.” Most of the other institutions which constituted the adult reformatory movement have become adult prisons, juvenile reformatories,...

  14. Appendix: Declaration of Principles Adopted and Promulgated by the Congress
    (pp. 157-162)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-186)
  16. Index
    (pp. 187-198)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 199-199)