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  • Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform by Joseph F. Spillane
  • Jonathan Nash
Joseph F. Spillane. Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Pp. 296. Notes, essay on sources, index. Cloth, $44.95.

Joseph F. Spillane’s study of the birth and death of prison reform begins with a gripping description of the December 1977 hostage crisis at New York’s Coxsackie Correctional Facility. When Coxsackie opened as a reformatory for adolescent male offenders in 1935, liberal-minded staff members hoped that social-educational and vocational programs would transform young offenders into law-abiding men. However, external and internal factors made it almost impossible to implement the facility’s initial mission. The inmates who took eleven staff members hostage may not have known the institution’s initial goals, but they knew that racism and brutality defined its day-to-day life. The hostage takers felt that they had no other recourse to protest devastating cuts to the prison’s educational and vocational programs. Although the crisis ended peacefully, it marked the end of the facility’s focus on reforming offenders and ushered in an era [End Page 386] of discipline-focused custody. Spillane’s goal is to explain why and how the Coxsackie facility, which began as a reformatory, transformed in the span of forty years into a custodial warehouse. His case study of Coxsackie also sheds light on the historical origins of mass incarceration in the late twentieth-century United States.

Divided into three parts, the book begins with an analysis of the birth and expansion of prison reform in New York from 1929 to 1944. Chapter 1 examines the liberal reformist vision that guided the founders of Coxsackie. Artist Ben Shahn’s proposed mural for New York City’s Rikers Island Penitentiary, Spillane suggests, provides a window into the “liberal penal imagination.” Although Shahn’s mural was not created, it depicted the importance of social citizenship and adult education, the challenges of youth, and the failure of punitive incarceration. In chapter 2, Spillane turns his attention to the context of New York prison reform in which Coxsackie was established. During the 1920s and 1930s, New York’s prisons suffered from two management crises—prison labor and overcrowding—thanks to the Great Depression and tough-on-crime Baumes Laws. It was in this atmosphere that the supporters of punitive incarceration begrudgingly gave way to the reformist recommendations of the Lewisohn and Engelhardt commissions.

Spillane next focuses on inmates and their worlds outside and inside the reformatory. Chapter 3, built upon a 5 percent sample of the approximately 7,500 inmate case files housed at the New York State Archives, argues convincingly that a perfect storm of conflicts—family, education, and work—pushed “adolescents adrift” and into Coxsackie. Chapter 4 analyzes the world inmates entered while confined at Coxsackie. In this chapter, Spillane brings inmates’ voices to life to highlight their perspectives on the facility’s racial segregation and inmates’ masculinities and sexualities, as well as their views of guards, to illustrate that confinement at Coxsackie was a “transformative experience, but only in a profoundly negative sense” (113). Chapter 5 details the difficulties reformers faced implementing their ideas because of external and internal constraints, such as underfunding and conflicts over educational and vocational programs.

In the final section, Spillane explains the factors that led to the end of prison reform in New York State between 1944 and 1977. In the years following World War II, Coxsackie became overcrowded. Jaded officials began to refer to inmates, especially gang members and heroin addicts, as “uneducable” and “ungovernable.” In hope of establishing order and stemming inter-racial conflict in the institution, officials transferred “troublesome” inmates [End Page 387] to the Great Meadow Prison at Comstock. In chapter 9, Spillane again shifts his attention outside the institution to an examination of state-level prison politics. During the 1960s and 1970s, due to the actions of guards, their unions, and tough-on-crime politicians, incarceration regimens focusing on custody, control, and discipline replaced reformatory regimens. In a suggestive epilogue, Spillane shows how the failures of liberal prison reform help explain the origins of mass...


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pp. 386-388
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