Reformatory Years -- 1900-21:
Prison Scene at Turn of the Century

At the end of the 19th century, there were three state prisons for men in New York -- Auburn, Sing Sing, and Clinton -- with a small structure on the grounds of Auburn set aside for women. The practice of imprisonment as punishment for crimes was initiated after the Revolutionary War as a humane substitute for the whippings and hangings of colonial times. Inmates of the new prisons were expected to labor diligently, acquiring habits of industry while generating revenue for the state. They were required to maintain a perpetual silence, both to prevent the hatching of escapes and insurrections and to induce reflection, penitence, and reformation.

The harsh and stark prison regime could only be enforced by severe punishments. Repelled alike by the prisons' brutality and their failure to effect change in the prisoners, NY became the first state in the nation to try a new kind of institution. The NYSe Reformatory, located in Elmira, opened in 1876 for young first offenders aged 16 to 30. Elmira and its many imitators across the country stressed reform through education and rewards. Superintendent Zebulon Brockway replaced fixed sentences with the indeterminate sentence and parole. So promising was the refonriatory initiative that NY quickly opened three similar institutions for young women at Hudson (1887), Albion (1893), and Bedford Hills (1901).

By the turn of the century, New York State's penal system also featured two prison hospitals (Matteawan and Dannemora) for the criminally insane.

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