Two Reports on the Reorganization & Reconstruction of the New York City Prison System

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Two Reports on the Reorganization & Reconstruction of the New York City Prison System

Book excerpt

By: Hastings Hornell Hart

Date: January 1925

Source: Hart, Hastings Hornell. Two Reports on the Reorganization & Reconstruction of the New York City Prison System. New York: Prison Association of New York, 1925.

About the Author: Hastings Hornell Hart (1851–1932), served as the consultant on correctional institutions for the regional plan of New York to the Prison Association of New York. Today known as the Correctional Association of New York, the Prison Association was founded in 1844 and acts as an independent, nonprofit organization to monitor activities in the state's prisons and report their findings to the government, the media, and the general public. The association is involved in research, public education, and development of policy recommendations aimed at ensuring the New York prison system is run efficiently, fairly, and humanely.


The prison system in the state of New York is the fourth largest penal system in the United States. Today more than $2 billion dollars each year are spent in the state's prisons. The prison system operates seventy different prisons housing more than 65,000 inmates. Among nations that report statistics on imprisonment, the United States records the highest per capita rate of people living in prison. The high numbers are attributed to a number of factors, including longer prison terms and the war on drugs, which has imprisoned large numbers of inmates whose criminal records are otherwise non-violent.

While conditions in prisons have improved significantly in recent decades as a result of efforts from human rights and other non-governmental organizations, many prisons remain extremely violent and dangerous places. Critics of the penal system have argued that the harsh conditions in prisons contribute to hardening criminals and to a high rate of recidivism (released inmates re-enter society only to commit crimes and be returned to prisons). Prisons in the United States have long been centers of gang activity—gang members retain their memberships inside prison and are imprisoned together with fellow members of their gangs.

Like most governmental activities in the United States, the prison system is divided into the local, state, and federal levels. Prisoners are sent to one of these three levels depending upon the nature of their crime and where it was committed. Local and county governments usually operate only smaller prisons or jails for inmates awaiting trials. State prisons house inmates facing longer sentences, including prisoners on death row for having committed homicidal crimes. Depending upon the specific state, prisoners who are given sentences without the chance for parole will either spend the remainder of their lives on death row or be eligible for the death penalty. Federal prisons house prisoners who have committed crimes against the laws of the United States government or, in other specific cases, offenses that are considered federal crimes because they have taken place in more than one state.

Prisons constructed today are ultra-modern facilities that rely on technological advances to supervise and confine prisoners. Prisons vary in level of confinement between minimum security institutions where inmates share dormitory-like housing and work in public service projects outside of the facilities, to supermax security institutions where inmates are all housed separately and have little contact with other prisoners.



The Branch Penitentiary, Hart's Island.—This prison is still called "The Reformatory Prison," although it has for several years been a branch of the Penitentiary. It receives male prisoners under penitentiary sentences, with a maximum of three years, and 29 prisoners under workhouse sentences with a maximum of two years, both classes of prisoners being subject to parole. On the date of my visit, February 28, 1924, there were present 692 prisoners under penitentiary sentences, 157 under workhouse sentences, and two under reformatory sentences; total, 851. The buildings are: administration building with four dormitories; hospital building with general and tuberculosis wards, capacity 40 patients, containing also dormitories for 74 officers; also one dormitory for prisoners (both these buildings are practically fireproof); a wood and brick dining hall containing three dormitories which are dangerous fire traps; a disciplinary building, power house, store house, stable and several residences. The old men's department (not included above) consists of a group of antiquated wooden cottages built for veterans of the Civil War. These buildings are worn-out, rotten fire-traps in which the beds of the old men are crowded together. They contain no day rooms, and the poor old men lead a wretched existence in winter and in stormy weather. These inmates are worn-out old men, no longer capable of inflicting any serious damage upon society. Many of them are of the vagrant and intemperate classes. It is cruelty to turn such men loose on the streets of New York, and they sometimes secrete themselves when they are about to be discharged, because they prefer even this unhappy condition to vagrancy in the great city. The Commissioner of Correction has urged legislation whereby men of this class can be transferred to the Almshouse instead of being committed and re-committed. The Island contains about 77 acres of land, of which four acres belong to private parties, a fact which promotes escapes and the smuggling of drugs and other contraband materials. This land should be acquired by the city through condemnation proceedings in order to prevent these evils.

Hart's Island has been used for the past 50 years as a potter's field for the burial of the paupers. Already 241,000 burials have been made. During the past 10 years, 1914 to 1923, 58,273 bodies have been interred, a yearly average of 5,828. The bodies are buried in trenches 40 × 16 feet, three deep. The boxes containing the bodies are placed side by side in double rows, 25 in a row, so that 500 bodies of adults are interred in a space 40 × 16 feet, which is equal to 640 square feet. If we leave a space of only two feet 30 between trenches, it will make 112 square feet additional or a total of 752 feet for each trench containing 150 bodies, which is five square feet for each body. The bodies of children, especially those of infants, occupy a much smaller space. It is estimated that the 241,000 bodies already interred occupy about 15 acres. The burials at the present rate occupy probably about one-half acre yearly. The city owns approximately 77 acres of ground on Hart's Island. Some of this ground is low and wet. Only a small portion is fit for gardening. I learned that about 16 acres are under cultivation, but this garden spot is gradually being absorbed for burial purposes, and if the present rate of burials continues it will probably be all used up in another 30 years.

There are a few old shop buildings on Hart's Island, but they are entirely inadequate for the employment of 700 prisoners. Immediate provision should be made for suitable shops with modern equipment to permit of the employment of the prisoners on the state's use plan. Such shops should have available from 2 to 6 acres of space, according to the kinds of industries to be pursued. As already stated, the present capacity of the dormitories is 700 prisoners. The minimum amount of ground required for prison buildings, shops, storehouses, stables, and so forth for 700 prisoners, exclusive of gardens and recreation grounds, would be about 16 acres, or one acre for every 44 prisoners. Under these circumstances it is evidently impracticable to provide additional prison facilities on Hart's Island unless the use of the Island as a burial place should be discontinued. An effort was made some years ago to substitute cremation for burial, which would be a most desirable change from every practical point of view. I understand that this plan was not actively opposed by the religious authorities of the various sects, but it was impossible to obtain unanimous agreement and the proposition was finally dropped. If the bodies already interred on Hart's Island could be removed and cremated, the Island would furnish a good site for an industrial prison for not more than 700 prisoners. If the bodies are not removed and burials on the Island are continued, the number of prisoners should be reduced as the available land decreases; otherwise it will be impossible to provide the shop room, exercise grounds and gardens which are indispensable to a well-conducted modern prison and to the employment of the prisoners in such a way as to preserve their physical and moral health, to give them some degree of vocational training, and to permit them to earn at least a portion of the cost of their maintenance.


Films and works of fiction have often depicted prisons of the early half of the twentieth century as dark and dangerous places, where conditions for prisoners fostered violence and depression. This excerpt, written in 1925, serves to reinforce that picture and presents New York's prisons as institutions in need of repair and renovation. This report high-lights the impact of bureaucratic and budgetary constraints on the decisions that prison authorities are able to make—constraints that continue to the present day.

The author speaks about overcrowding in the prison and notes that the prison should be expanded to ensure that the rights of prisoners are being preserved. The report was issued under the auspices of a non-governmental agency, the Prison Association of New York, and it demonstrates the efforts taken to monitor the conditions of prisons and the treatment of inmates in 1925.

The Branch Penitentiary on Hart's Island was a facility for prisoners who had committed less serious crimes. Three years was the maximum sentence any prisoner served and all the prisoners were eligible for parole. Yet the conditions at this prison were harsher than the inmates' crimes would seem to have warranted. It may, then, be safe to assume that conditions in prisons housing more violent inmates were far worse at that time.

Even though prisons in the United States are designed to punish inmates for the crimes that they have committed, they are also intended to be run with a sense of discipline that prevents correctional officers from torturing or mistreating prisoners. This requirement is established by the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of the use of "cruel or unusual punishment" of prisoners. It reflects the democratic values of the country. These values maintain that even those who break the law must be treated with decency and granted their rights as humans.



Carlson, Peter M. and Judith Simon Garrett. Prison and Jail Administration: Practice and Theory. Gaithersburg, Md: Aspen Publishers, 1999.

Ross, Jeffrey Ian and Steven Ian Richards. Behind Bars: Surviving Prison. New York: Alpha, 2002.

Web sites

New York State Department of Correctional Services. 〈〉 (accessed February 10, 2006).

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Two Reports on the Reorganization & Reconstruction of the New York City Prison System

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