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Benevolent Repression

Social Control and the American Reformatory-Prison Movement

Alexander Pisciotta

Publication Year: 1996

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.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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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, ...

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1. Making Christian Gentlemen: The Promise of Elmira, 1876–1899

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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." ...

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2. Benevolent Repression: The Reality of the Elmira System, 1876–1899

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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. ...

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3. Revisiting Elmira: The Defects of Human Engineering in Total Institutions

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pp. 60-80

Clearly, Elmira was a brutal prison, and the proliferation of the new penology across the United Sates 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. ...

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4. Searching for Reform: The Birth of America’s Third Penal System, 1877–1899 [Includes Image Plates]

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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: ...

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5. The “New” Elmira: Psycho-eugenics and the Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal

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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. ...

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6. Triumphant Defeat: The Decline of Prison Science, 1900–1920

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pp. 127-149

David J. Rothman's Conscience and Convenience is 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. ...

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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. ...

Appendix: Declaration of Principles Adopted and Promulgated by the Congress

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pp. 157-161


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pp. 163-185


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pp. 187-197

E-ISBN-13: 9780814768914
E-ISBN-10: 0814768911
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814766385
Print-ISBN-10: 0814766382

Page Count: 211
Publication Year: 1996