Theses Doctoral

“Protect Society and Salvage Men”: Prison Schools and the New Vision for Rehabilitation in New York State in the Progressive Era, 1905-1920

Smith, Antonia

The establishment of schools in prisons was a remarkable innovation in the prison reform movement of the Progressive Era in New York State, and represented a high point of success in the new vision of prisoner rehabilitation. While prison schools provided some support in filling the occupational void in prisoner time after the abolition of the contract labor system in prisons, and some form of social control by incentivizing good behavior, the prison school idea was also a humanitarian endeavor. Schooling was provided without immediate economic benefit to the State through product or labor; it was provided merely for the good of incarcerated men. In this dissertation, I argue that the prison schools, the hiring of professional educators, and the classification of inmates were reforms that, when taken together, formed tangible steps towards organizational, systemic, and policy shifts in prisons that brought to life the goals and aspirations of the prison reformers of the 1870 Congress of the National Prison Association, who envisioned the prison as “one great school” where all aspects of prison life would be subservient to instruction. Thus, prison schools contributed to the new vision for prisoner rehabilitation in the Progressive Era. The prison school experiment in New York stood apart from other states in its commitment to hiring experienced and educated teachers, providing a competitive salary, offering separate and dedicated space for classrooms, and establishing a progressive curriculum of standards. Prison school standards formed an important part of the progressive classification system for prisoners, particularly those with indeterminate sentences, and established stages for rehabilitation and release from prison.

This dissertation explored aspects of the prison schools that were formally established at Sing Sing, Auburn, Clinton, and Great Meadow prisons. This study also explored the political, economic, and social climate of the Progressive Era that created optimal conditions for the prison school experiment. This research places prison schools at the center of the rehabilitation idea for prisoners in the Progressive Era. This fundamental shift in thinking from considering prisoners as property of the state to human beings in need of care and treatment opened up pathways for new practice. This research draws the connection between the end of the contract labor system in prisons and the beginning of prison schools. While there are numerous studies on prison labor reform and the shift in reformers’ thinking about hard labor and rehabilitation, few studies have made this connection. This research presents examples of how the theories of prisoner rehabilitation were put into practice through the prison school experiment in New York State during the Progressive Era.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
History and Education
Thesis Advisors
Waite, Cally Lyn
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 28, 2020