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The Life and Death of Prison Reform

Joseph F. Spillane

Publication Year: 2014

Should prisons attempt reform and uplift inmates or, by means of principled punishment, deter them from further wrongdoing? This debate has raged in Western Europe and in the United States at least since the late eighteenth century. Joseph F. Spillane examines the failure of progressive reform in New York State by focusing on Coxsackie, a New Deal reformatory built for young male offenders. Opened in 1935 to serve “adolescents adrift,” Coxsackie instead became an unstable and brutalizing prison. From the start, the liberal impulse underpinning the prison’s mission was overwhelmed by challenges it was unequipped or unwilling to face—drugs, gangs, and racial conflict. Spillane draws on detailed prison records to reconstruct a life behind bars in which “ungovernable” young men posed constant challenges to racial and cultural order. The New Deal order of the prison was unstable from the start; the politics of punishment quickly became the politics of race and social exclusion, and efforts to save liberal reform in postwar New York only deepened its failures. In 1977, inmates took hostages to focus attention on their grievances. The result was stricter discipline and an end to any pretense that Coxsackie was a reform institution. Why did the prison fail? For answers, Spillane immerses readers in the changing culture and racial makeup of the U.S. prison system and borrows from studies of colonial prisons, which emblemized efforts by an exploitative regime to impose cultural and racial restraint on others. In today’s era of mass incarceration, prisons have become conflict-ridden warehouses and powerful symbols of racism and inequality. This account challenges the conventional wisdom that America’s prison crisis is of comparatively recent vintage, showing instead how a racial and punitive system of control emerged from the ashes of a progressive ideal.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

In February 2011, with the research for this book complete and well into its writing, I was surprised to find the reformatory at the heart of this book (the New York State Vocational Institution, more commonly known as Coxsackie) thrust unexpectedly into the news. Mike Stobbe, medical writer for the Associated...

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Introduction. The Ashes of Reform

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pp. 1-12

“Maybe this is the beginning of a new future.”1 The hopeful words of Leo Martinez, a prisoner in Coxsackie (pronounced “cook- sock- ee”) Correctional Facility, stood in sharp contrast to the setting in which they were delivered. Martinez was a spokesman for roughly forty inmates who earlier in the day had...

Part One: The Rapid Rise Of Prison Reform In New York, 1929– 1944

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Chapter One. The Reformer’s Mural: The Liberal Penal Imagination

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pp. 15-36

Building the New York State Vocational Institution would have been impossible without an underlying reform vision that led the state to embrace educationally oriented prisons as the centerpiece of a correctional strategy aimed at the young male offender. The ideas that informed Coxsackie’s construction in 1935 were deeply rooted in progressive- era critiques of the industrial prison, embraced...

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Chapter Two. A New Deal for Prisons: The Politics of Reform in New York

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pp. 37-58

Austin MacCormick liked to tell stories from the time he spent as a young member of the Boothbay Harbor volunteer fire department, entertaining audiences with tales of the ways in which the small- town firefighters used to attract notice. “We first chop a hole in the roof,” he explained, “and then someone kicks...

Part Two: Prison Lives And The World Of The Reformatory

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Chapter Three. Adolescents Adrift: Young Men on the Road to Coxsackie

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pp. 61-90

For Karl B., the road to prison— the road to Coxsackie— ended just short of his seventeenth birthday.1 Months earlier, he had broken into a Westchester County food market after hours, taking some merchandise and cash. Well known to the local police, Karl was quickly arrested and charged with breaking and entering...

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Chapter Four. Against the Wall: Survival and Resistance at Coxsackie

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pp. 91-113

Years before Rocky Graziano, the fiercely competitive boxer with a powerful punch, became middleweight champion in 1947, he was just another anxious teenager awaiting transportation from the Tombs to Coxsackie. An older prisoner, perhaps to taunt the younger Graziano, warned him: “Don’t kid yourself . . . that’s a...

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Chapter Five. Reform at Work: Ideas into Action at Coxsackie

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pp. 114-137

The New York State Vocational Institution, built from the ground up as a model institution for correctional education, symbolized the rapid progress of liberal reform. The men who carried the flag for the new rehabilitative programs saw themselves blazing a new trail, of sorts, through the prison landscape. Sam...

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Chapter Six. A Conspiracy of Frustration: Coming Home

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pp. 137-158

Like thousands of other young men, Kenny Jackson departed Coxsackie wearing his “State- O” suit, issued to released prisoners, and carrying his “State- O-20”—the twenty dollars (and bus ticket) the reformatory provided. A prison car drove Jackson to the bus depot on a rainy Wed., where the driver left him...

Part Three: The Slow Death Of Prison Reform In New York, 1944– 1977

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Chapter Seven. The Frying Pan and the Fire: The Reformatory in Crisis, 1944–1963

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pp. 161-181

World War II resulted in a substantial reduction to New York’s prison population, as military service drew away thousands of men who might otherwise have been incarcerated, including large numbers of parolees. As that population fell from a prewar peak of 18,400 prisoners to a war time low of 14,894 in...

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Chapter Eight. Out of Time: Coxsackie and the End of the Reform Idea

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pp. 182-206

Just as the Coxsackie reformatory would never have been constructed as it was without an underpinning of reform ideas, its eventual collapse was made possible— one might even say inevitable— by a dramatic retreat from those same ideas. Austin MacCormick’s vision, a New Deal– era project deeply rooted in...

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Chapter Nine. Floodtide: Coxsackie and Post-Reformatory Prison Politics, 1963–1977

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pp. 207-226

In late 1962, Glenn Kendall became Coxsackie’s third superintendent since the reformatory’s opening. He came to the institution as one of the pioneers of New York’s reformatory movement. He had gone to Wallkill Prison from Teachers College, in 1935, to conduct some of the first experimental educational programs...

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Conclusion. The Ghost of Prisons Future

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pp. 227-232

In 1986, Robert A. Mathias, director of the Bud get Education Project for the Correctional Association of New York, prepared a detailed report on the future of prison populations in New York State. In the report, entitled “The Road Not Taken: Cost- Effective Alternatives to Prison for Non- Violent Felony Offenders in...


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pp. 233-284

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Essay on Sources

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pp. 285-290

The inmate case files from the Coxsackie and Great Meadow reformatories constitute the single most important source of information for this project. These were transferred to the New York State Archives by the New York State Department of Corrections as part of a massive deposit of institutional case files that total more than 2,500 cubic feet of paper...


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pp. 291-296

E-ISBN-13: 9781421413235
E-ISBN-10: 142141323X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421413228
Print-ISBN-10: 1421413221

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2014

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Subject Headings

  • Coxsackie Correctional Facility.
  • Prisons -- New York (State) -- Coxsackie.
  • Prisoners -- New York (State) -- Coxsackie.
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