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REFORMATORIES are penal institutions meant to "reform" or "rehabilitate" the persons assigned to them. The difference between reformatories and prisons is best understood as aspirational. "Prison" connotes a purpose to detain inmates as punishment rather than to help them learn to function effectively in society. As a matter of experience, however, most modern prisons purport to offer inmates some opportunity for self-improvement through employment, education, and vocational training and thus appear to have reformative objectives, however secondary. Many prisons are formally named "correctional institutions," suggesting a reform mission.

By most accounts penal institutions of any designation rarely deliver on the promise of serious rehabilitative programs. Most are chiefly concerned with accommodating large numbers of inmates in minimally acceptable physical conditions at the least possible cost. Prisoners often work only inasmuch as they assist with housekeeping or labor in the kitchen or the laundry. At some institutions prisoners are employed in more meaningful and productive industrial jobs. Yet the primary objective still is not to teach prisoners skills they need to succeed in society but rather to relieve tensions and generate funds to pay the costs of their detention.

Historically three kinds of facilities were especially associated with the "reformatory" label: reform schools for juveniles, institutions for women, and institutions for young adult male convicts. New York established the first American facility for juvenile delinquents in 1825, roughly when the first adult penitentiaries appeared. Other states soon established similar institutions. At first boys and girls were housed in the same facilities. Later girls were diverted to separate institutions. Delinquency was loosely defined. Many of the boys had committed criminal offenses, but many of the girls had simply become pregnant out of wedlock. The working idea, borrowed from England and Europe, was that young delinquents were the victims of inadequate guidance and discipline. Their parents had failed them, and they had not been apprenticed to master craftspeople who might have taught them productive skills. Instead, they had been corrupted by drink, prostitution, or other vices. Juvenile detention facilities were meant to provide delinquents with the structured homes they had been denied. Assuming quasi-parental responsibility, those institutions also proposed to educate the children in their charge. Thus, reform "schools."

The proper curriculum for reform schools was controversial. Advocates debated, for example, whether children should be housed in dormitories or in small cottages that more closely resembled ideal family homes. Alternative organizational systems occasionally appeared. Some reform schools operated under a strict military-style discipline; others experimented with schemes under which children governed themselves. By common account, reform schools generally failed to realize their ambitions. Most ultimately concentrated on discipline and hard labor and in the process subordinated academic programs. By the late twentieth century penologists had come to distrust the very idea that troubled children could be helped by detention. Some states attempted finally to achieve results by creating special offices to orchestrate more effective programs. The California Youth Authority, founded in 1941, was the most famous example. Yet the demise of large reformatories was inexorable. By the twenty-first century juveniles were more commonly channeled to community-based programs or to small group homes.

Reformatories for female offenders developed from concerns about the squalid conditions under which women and their children suffered in jails and penitentiaries in the nineteenth century. All the children born to imprisoned women at Sing Sing died before their mothers were released. Quakers and Unitarians, most of them women themselves, insisted that women should be housed in separate facilities, where they could be supervised by female staff and offered some form of education or vocational training. Many states established separate women's institutions along these lines. Late in the twentieth century, however, most observers concluded that the women's reform facilities were unsuccessful. The crime rate among women increased dramatically in the last years of the twentieth century, yet few jurisdictions opened new penal institutions for female offenders.

Reformatories for young adult men were responsible for altering the meaning of "reform" in the penal context. Previously the idea had been to achieve religious transformation. The reformatories established in the late nineteenth century scarcely abandoned religious indoctrination. They made intensive efforts to instill the Protestant ethic. Yet they also contemplated that criminal offenders could be induced to change their ways if they were educated and trained to perform productive jobs. New York established the most famous reformatory for young men at Elmira in 1876. The warden, Zebulon Brockway, proposed to use that facility to implement policies and programs associated with the "rehabilitative ideal" that dominated American penology until the 1970s: the indeterminate sentence, under which prisoners were held as long as, but only as long as, it took to prepare them to function properly; the classification of incoming inmates to ensure that each received appropriate individualized treatment; educational and vocational programs to prepare prisoners for ultimate release; and parole supervision in the community thereafter.

By most accounts, however, reformatories for young men also were unsuccessful. Brockway promoted his program exceedingly well, and many states established institutions on the Elmira model. Yet too much crowding and too little money constantly undermined both Elmira itself and its sister facilities. Brockway proved a tyrant who personally made cavalier decisions about the programs appropriate for individual inmates without pausing to consider the results of interviews and the recommendations of his staff. Moreover, investigations of his methods revealed that he savagely whipped "recalcitrant" prisoners. Within a few years Elmira and other reformatories came to operate much like ordinary prisons, albeit stripped of the old "separate" and "silent" systems that had prevailed in the early penitentiaries in Pennsylvania and New York. Elmira became a general penal facility for confining male offenders, offering inmates no more than the usual limited employment and training opportunities.


Allen, Francis A. The Decline of the Rehabilitative Ideal: Penal Policy and Social Purpose. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.

McKelvey, Blake. American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1977.

Morris, Norval, and David J. Rothman, eds. The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Pisciotta, Alexander W. Benevolent Repression: Social Control and the American Reformatory-Prison Movement. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Rothman, David J. The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.


See alsoPrisons and Prison Reform ; Punishment .


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State institutions for the confinement of juvenile delinquents.

Any minor under a certain specified age, generally sixteen, who is guilty of having violated the law or has failed to obey the reasonable directive of his or her parent, guardian, or the court is ordinarily treated as a delinquent under state statute. The purpose of reformatories is to impose punishment for crimes committed by infants while concurrently rehabilitating the offenders through educational and vocational training so that they will become law-abiding citizens.

The powers of a state to establish and maintain reformatories, as well as the authority of its agencies to do so, are ordinarily contained in constitutional or statutory provisions. Such authority is based upon the sovereign power of the state as parens patriae to safeguard the welfare of children within its borders by removing them from harmful environments and putting them in institutions where their development will be supervised.

Reformatories—which are also known as houses of refuge, state vocational institutions, reform schools, juvenile correction centers, and industrial or training schools—are generally not considered prisons. In some states, however, they are part of the prison system with adult inmates.


Juvenile Law.

Ossining Correctional Facility

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Ossining Correctional Facility official name for the American prison of Sing Sing.

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