The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation of the Correctional Association of NY's 150th anniversary history authored by Ilan K. Reich.
NYCHS logo

A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.


CHAP. 163.
AN ACT to incorporate the Prison Association of New York.
Passed May 9, 1846, by a two-third vote.
The People of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:

1. All such persons as now are and hereafter shall become members of the said association pursuant to the constitution thereof, shall and are hereby constituted a body corporate by the name of the Prison Association of New York, and by the name have the powers that by the third title, of the eighteenth chapter, of the first part of the Revised Statutes, are declared to belong to every corporation, and shall be capable of purchasing, holding and conveying, any estate real or personal, for the use of said corporation, provided that such real estate shall never exceed the yearly value of ten thousand dollars, nor be applied to any other purpose than those for which this corporation is formed.

The objects of the association shall be

  1. The amelioration of the condition of prisoners, whether detained for trial or finally convicted, or as witnesses.

  2. The improvement of prison discipline and the government of prisons, whether for cities, counties or states.

  3. The support and encouragement of reformed convicts after their discharge, by affording them the means of obtaining an honest livelihood, and sustaining them in their efforts at reform.


* * *

6. The said executive committee by such committees as they shall from time to time appoint, shall have power, and it shall be their duty to visit, inspect and examine, all the prisons in the state, and annually report to the legislature their state and conditions, and all such other things in regard to them as may enable the legislature to perfect their government and discipline.

II:
The Formation of
the Association and
Its Early Political Troubles

Upon its formation on December 6, 1844, the Association undertook a broad range of duties and responsibilities, including:

  • To understand why each and every pretrial detainee was being held,and to seek the release of those "entitled thereto." This class of prisoners included witnesses, who were routinely held together with criminals so that they could be located when needed for the trial.

  • To frequently visit the prisons of the state and to endeavor to improve the condition of prisoners, "generally by bringing all practical, moral, and religious influences to operate upon their minds," but also by training them on cleanliness and exercise, by securing suitable employment, and by developing a system of classification that would preserve "the innocent, and the less hardened from the contaminating intercourse of the more depraved."

  • To keep an office in New York City where discharged prisoners "may apply for aid and advice," and to ascertain before discharge the capabilities of each with a view toward "making the best arrangements for his future employment."

  • To keep records and statistics on all commitments and discharges in the state, as well as comparative statistics of other state and foreign prison systems, and to provide a framework for proposing regulations on administration, financial matters, personnel, and abuses of power.

In order to accomplish these and other tasks, the Association appointed standing committees . . . These committees . . . visited local and state jails, interviewed virtually every inmate, assembled prison records from nearly every state in the Union as well as many foreign countries, and aided discharged prisoners in obtaining employment. . . .

In its first eighteen years the Association's officers examined 18,911 complaints by prisoners and discharged inmates, of which 4,908 were discontinued "as being either frivolous, or the result of passion or prejudice."

In that period the Association intervened and obtained the release of some 5,613 detained prisoners, "either innocent, or very young, or manifestly penitent [including] children and youth ... restored to their distressed and anxious parents or friends."

The Association's officers also visited and "suitably counseled" 55,714 persons "detained either for examination, or trial, or as witnesses" in prison. This was accomplished through seventy-five prison inspections throughout the state, as well as regular visits to the jails in New York City.


Inspection of a solitary confinement cell on Rikers Island.

For many years the Association maintained an office at 13 Pine Street, in the Wall Street area, as "a place ... where discharged prisoners could apply for aid, for succor, and for advice; and where they might be assured of receiving that assistance and cheering encouragement, which is so essential to their permanent reformation." In its first eighteen years the Association aided 7,676 discharged convicts with "money, or clothing, or both." For decades this was the largest expenditure in the Association's budget.

Some 2,729 discharged convicts were provided with job opportunities, and "less than five per cent of these, according to the best information we can obtain, have ever been recommitted to prison. . . ."

The Association annually issued a printed report of each committee's activities, as well as appendixes rich in statistical detail on prisoners, including their occupations, length of terms, punishments meted out, and, mortality and recidivism rates. Also included were hundreds of detailed case histories on prisoners wrongfully detained, wardens and keepers who were particularly generous with the whip or inept with the prison's finances, and discharged inmates who were able to return to productive roles in society through the Association's efforts.

In some years these annual reports numbered over four hundred typeset pages in length. They contain an immense and invaluable collection of material for penologists and represent a generally unbiased window into the conditions of prisons, the socio-economic circumstances of many inmates, and the political undercurrents of crime and the treatment of criminals during various periods of American history.

The Legislative Mandate

Within one year of its formation the Committee on Prison Discipline realized that in order to effectively execute its self-appointed mandate it needed unfettered access to the major New York State prisons -- Auburn, Sing Sing, and Clinton. Moreover, it required the authority to compel disclosures from prison officials and the right to interview inmates in private, away from the watchful eyes of the keepers. While the state statutes already provided for such a mechanism through inspectors operating under the auspices of local judges, "in some counties this duty was never performed, and in many counties very imperfectly; and that even when most efficiently performed, the Circuit Judges were not in the habit of taking much notice of, or any action upon, such reports."

John Edmonds eloquently underscored the importance of impartial citizens visiting prisons and conducting face-to-face interviews with prisoners:

One of the most valuable features attending the inspections by the Association, and it is one which never attends the inspection of the public officers, is the personal examination of each prisoner... I have myself stood, day after day, for hours at a time, at the doors of the cells of the prisoners, listening to the details of human depravity and human suffering, until the sickness of the heart was even more intolerable than the weariness of the body...

The fear of the officers of the prisons often sealed the mouths of the prisoners -- and it was not until we had gained their confidence that they would speak freely to us; and, when they did, we were also aware that the communications we received came from men too depraved to estimate the obligations of truth, and sometimes from men who were full of hatred towards those whose duty it was to restrain their evil passions and vicious conduct within due bounds .


The Tombs, circa 1873.

In 1845 the Association applied to the Legislature for an act of incorporation with the power to "examine, and thoroughly inspect state and county prisons." The Assembly passed a bill with these powers, but the Senate, which was "either jealous of our interference in state Institutions, or uninformed as to our objects," failed to approve.' . . .

The following year the Association posted an unnamed "agent" in Albany for the entire session, and he lobbied successfully for an act of incorporation. . . .

The act included the authority for the Association to establish a workhouse to keep and employ vagrants and disorderly persons. A lack of funds, however, kept this objective from being realized for several years.

More significant was the "duty" of the Association to "visit, inspect and examine" all the prisons in the state and report annually to the Legislature on their condition, "and all such other things in regard to them, as may enable the Legislature to perfect their government and discipline."

. . . the Association failed to secure any state funding, and for most of its history the Association's finances have fluctuated with the generosity of its supporters and the general state of the economy.

The Sing Sing Prison Report of 1846

In October 1846 the Committee on Prison Discipline visited Sing Sing Prison, a five-story "white marble" edifice overlooking the Hudson River. The cells at Sing Sing were

constructed for the one great object of securely packing, in the most economical manner, the greatest number of human beings in the smallest possible space. To attain this end, each cell is about 7 feet long by 7 feet high, and 3 1/2 wide, affording just room for standing or lying, having an aggregate capacity of only 176 cubic feet ... so that, without an efficient ventilation, all the air ... would be breathed over and rendered unwholesome in less than two hours.... This defect, no doubt, is a prolific source both of consumption and rheumatism, diseases so common in prison.

Several other jurisdictions have enacted legislation authorizing citizen-based visiting committees: California (Deering's California Codes Annotated, Penal Code, Section 5056); Florida (Florida Statutes Section 944.23, specifically confined to reporters); Massachusetts (Massachusetts Laws, Title XVIII, Chapter 126, Section 1).

Only Pennsylvania has granted statutory authority to a voluntary association like the powers granted to the Association (Pennsylvania Statutes, Sections 1092-1093, empowering the Pennsylvania Prison Society to visit local and state correctional facilities). The California Prison Commission was organized in November 1865, based on the general model of the Association. Similarly, the Delaware Association for Criminal Reform, formed in 1867, had legislative authority to visit and inspect prisons.

Twenty-fourth Annual Report 1868,pp.506-509.

At that time Sing Sing was home to 804 prisoners -- 737 men and 67 women -- about one-quarter of whom were repeat convicts. More than one-half of the inmates could not read or write with any proficiency, and each prisoner was punished on average at least once during the year. Among the most popular treatments were whipping (271 cases) and "stoppage of diet" (101 cases). Other forms of punishment meted out included "handcuffs and other irons," dark or solitary cells, the cold-water shower bath, and deprivation of books, bed, or tobacco.

In measured and objective tones the committee's report presented numerous instances of harsh keepers, poor sanitary and health conditions, dishonest food brokers, and suspected financial mismanagement. . . . In 1847 the warden of Sing Sing denied the Association's request for a return visit, and the state-appointed Board of Inspectors lobbied for a law to curtail the Association's broad visitation rights. A pitched battle ensued.

The state Senate passed the bill favored by the Board of Inspectors, but "it was met in the Assembly by such an expose of the management of the Inspectors, as served effectually to arrest it." . . . The primary argument by the Board of Inspectors against the Association was that "an irresponsible committee of an irresponsible society may at any time ... suspend the jurisdiction of the inspectors of state prisons" due to the power under the 1846 law to have free access to the prison and its books and records. . . .

The Association . . . did impress a special committee of the Legislature appointed in 1851 to investigate the finances and general management of state prisons, which noted that "much good might have been done if the act of the Legislature [creating the Association] had not been practically nullified by the Inspectors."

Perhaps one contributing factor in the general disregard of the reports of inspectors was a distrust for the testimony of prisoners. John Edmonds observed: "We found a universal law prevailing among the officers of the prisons, that the word of a prisoner must not be taken for anything."

Consistent with his contrarian views on the penal system, Edmonds went on to note the fallacy in not trusting a prisoner's word, since "the law had made their testimony good, in certain cases, even when in prison; we found the Governor often pardoning them, that they might be witnesses."

Tenth Annual Report -- 1854. Report of the Executive Committee, p. 26.

Although the imbroglio over the Sing Sing Report of 1846 impaired the Association's ability to visit the major state prisons, it did not restrain the Association's efforts to visit and report upon jails in New York City or numerous other county jails and penal facilities throughout the state. Much productive reform emanated from these visits, including proposals for a prisoner classification system (which today forms the backbone of most correctional systems), improvements in prison architecture, and the end of abuses in the pardon system.

In studying the pardon system, the Association noted the prevailing view that "the more apparent the guilt, and the greater the crime, the more certain the chance of pardon. This arises, in part, from the fact that very long sentences excite the sympathy of the community; in part from the fact that the really vicious have often many accomplices, all exerting an influence upon society."

Moreover, "even in proportion to their numbers, the whites receive executive clemency much more frequently than the blacks." The Association recommended that trials be transcribed; that once or twice a year an examiner should review those materials and any new evidence and recommend a pardon if warranted -- in effect, a parole board. The Association also noted that disparity in sentences for the same offense created both a grave injustice and pressure for pardons.

Statistics collected by the Association reveal that from 1835 to 1846 New York pardoned approximately 5 percent of the inmates, while states like Vermont and New Hampshire pardoned roughly 20 percent of their inmates


The History of the Correctional Association of New York
Report cover

A Citizen Crusade
For Prison Reform

NYCHS is honored to be permitted to post this excerpts presentation. For more on CANY, visit its web site; write it at 135 E.15th St., NY NY 10003 or call (212) 254-5700.
NYCHS logo

A Citizens Crusade for Prison Reform was published and copyrighted in 1994 by the Correctional Association of NY that retains all rights.

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