An Inventory of Papers in Syracuse University Libraries©
In 1896 Osborne was a trustee and later was elected President of the Board. From this station he was able to translate into action his theories on education and citizenship. An indication of the mutual trust which tied "Uncle Tom" to the young who gave him the nickname, was the heavy correspondence he maintained with them after they left Freeville.
Osborne followed many a career with counsel and cash. At least three of the brightest young men Osborne spotted at the Republic were financed through prep schools and then, like his own sons, sent on to Harvard. It was much the same later with convicts whom he befriended, for his work at the George Junior Republic led to a concern for inmates of the state's prisons.
In 1913 Osborne was appointed chairman of the New York State Commission on Prison Reform. He cast about for a device to excite the public imagination and turned to his old tactic. In the guise of a sentenced criminal, Osborne had himself incarcerated in Auburn Prison as "Tom Brown 33333." A book-length account of his ordeal and that of the men forgotten there, Within Prison Walls (1913), created a sensation.
The power of the state was committed to his reforms, and the politicians would have to give way. Osborne began to prune his interests in the field of Progressive reform in order to concentrate his energies in the service of an enlightened penology.
With Warden Charles Rattigan at Auburn, Osborne organized a self-governing body of convicts within the prison. The Mutual Welfare League, as it was called, took over large shares of prison management after an election of officers among the prisoners. Old timers held their breath as Osborne spun out his theories.
According to Osborne, the "old system" had crippled men by telling them when to move or speak; the "new system" loosened the lockstep of prison regime and prepared a man to live in freedom without being a threat to society. For too long, prisons had been "nurseries of crime" where society retaliated against the "criminal type." Osborne rejected "bad seed" theories and proposed to cultivate the positive human instincts implanted in every man.
On a few occasions Osborne was betrayed by a man in his custody, but for a decade in a handful of prisons he broke the cycle of revenge between society and the convict. The function of state prisons was "not revenge but education." The Mutual Welfare League became a school of reformation inside the walls, and an "outside branch" was to help parolees secure jobs. Otherwise, three out of every five men who left prison would return, convicted of a new crime.
A corollary of Osborne's doctrine of developing social responsibility was his active opposition to capital punishment. A scientific basis was lacking for the claim that fear of execution deterred major crimes and, in Osborne's opinion, the death sentence was proof of the system's ethic of reprisal.
Osborne wanted fundamental changes in the judicial structure to incorporate the "indeterminate sentence." This idea demanded the ultimate flexibility on the part of the state. In essence, it provided that men who were ill-equipped to function in society would not be released at the end of a fixed term, which was determined by the crime and not the evolving attitudes of the criminal. By the same token, a reformed man should not be required to go stale in prison until his sentence expired:
In December, 1914, Osborne began to implement some of his ideas as the new warden of Sing Sing Prison at Ossining, New York. His administration produced mixed results. A profound change occurred inside the prison as conditions leading directly to physical and psychological breakdowns were immediately attacked. Judging by the transformation of spirit which followed, the Sing Sing chapter of the Mutual Welfare League bore out Osborne's theories about tapping the good will of convicts. But outside the prison Osborne ran into a wall of obstruction.
The Westchester County machine, which had counted the wardenship among its plums of patronage, regarded Osborne, the upstate reformer, an alien twice over. Other wardens and high administrators in the New York prison system were out of sympathy with his moral agitation, and a chorus within the press never let him off for "sentimental coddling." In this atmosphere political enemies plotted to defame Osborne before having him removed from office.
Late in 1915 Warden Osborne was summoned into court on trumped-up charges. The Westchester Grand Jury indicted him, but the absurdity of the charges was manifest when Judge Arthur S. Tompkins dismissed the case in mid-trial without hearing the case for the defense. Sing Sing celebrated the return of its warden, but though Osborne had been vindicated, the allegations remained fastened to his reputation. The atmosphere between Ossining and Albany turned sour. Osborne hung on till October, 1916, when, in an open letter of resignation, he blasted away at Governor Whitman for his lack of resolution and principle:
|The Osborne Family Inventory text 1971 by Syracuse University Libraries|