From madhouse to modern correctional facility.

Fishkill Correction Facility

For 80 years, Matteawan State Hospital was one of the nation's most famous institutions for the "furiously mad." It began to phase out in the 1960's when the courts restricted the state's power to imprison the mentally ill. For another decade, it went through a dizzying series of identity changes, seeming to be nine or 10 institutions coexisting, like multiple personalities, in one physical plant. Finally, at the end of the 1970's, Fishkill emerged from the confusion.

During colonial times, mentally ill persons might be fed, clothed, and sheltered (sometimes locked in attics or basements) by family or allowed to wander and beg on the streets as cranks and eccentrics. Unmanageable nuisances might be shunted off to poorhouses; if they threatened life or property, they might be sent to jail.

With industrialization and urbanization, these informal local care "systems" were less satisfactory. Then, in the early 19th century, physicians began to claim that medical science now possessed the knowledge to treat and cure mental illness as easily and surely, they sometimes said, as common physical ailments - in specially designed and managed asylums.

New York's first state institution for the insane, the Utica Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1843. Most patients were civil commitments, but Utica also received mentally ill patients from jails and prisons. Asylum officials could not handle the violent and escape-prone criminally insane. Moreover, the presence of criminals was felt to be unfair to civil patients, who had entered the hospital, often voluntarily, to be cured in a wholesome and tranquil environment not to be exposed to physical and moral harm by depraved cutthroats.

In an attempt to remedy the situation, a State Lunatic Asylum for Insane Convicts opened in 1859 on the grounds of Auburn. It would receive convicted persons who became mentally ill. But this did not wholly resolve Utica's problem. Unconvicted persons - those too insane to stand trial and those acquitted by reason of insanity - were still Utica's responsibility, and these persons could be every bit as troublesome in a civil institution as the convicted insane. Over the years, exceptions were gradually made to the principle that the convicted and unconvicted should be held separately. Piecemeal legislation extended the scope of the Auburn Asylum to include every category of the criminally insane; either sex, any crime, whether charged, convicted or not guilty by reason of insanity.

The prison asylum had few means to reduce its census. Recovered patients with pending charges were returned to the court; recovered convicts whose sentences expired were discharged outright. Patients with expired terms who were still in sane were often discharged to the custody of the county poor houses until 1889, when the State Care Act put an end to the practice. The Asylum was severely overcrowded. Patients were "doubled up," and there was no room at Auburn for expansion.

Matteawan State Hospital

In 1886, a legislative commission recommended the purchase of the 246-acre Dates Farm in the village of Matteawan for $25,000, or just over $100 per acre. The site was accessible by rail and offered good tillable land, pure water and pleasant scenery between the Hudson River and the Fishkill Mountains An architect was hired to draw plans for buildings with "an abundance of light and ventilation" to accommodate 550 patients. In April 1892, the Asylum for Insane Criminals, with 261 patients, was relocated from Auburn to its new site. The following year, it was renamed Matteawan State Hospital,

But 550 beds were not enough. Seven years later, in 1899, another prison mental hospital was built on the grounds of Clinton. Dannemora would hold male convicts becoming insane while serving their sentences, and had the power to retain them if they remained insane at expiration of their sentences. Matteawan would hold unconvicted males as well as females in both categories.

Except for tighter security, Matteawan functioned the same as the state's civil hospitals. Until the 1950's and thorazine, doctors prescribed the program of "moral treatment" developed in the early 1800's. It consisted of kind and gentle treatment in a stress-free, highly routine environment. Patients who were capable were assigned to a work program (often called "occupational therapy"): cooking, maintenance, farming and making baskets, rugs, clothing and bedsheets.

Patients were given outdoor exercise in the courtyards twice daily and motion pictures were shown weekly. Radios and phonographs were available on the wards. Patients played softball, tennis, bowling, tennis, handball, shuffleboard, volleyball, chess, checkers, cards, gymnastics, ping pong and quoits (similar to horseshoes but with iron rings). At Christmas and other special occasions, there were teas for the women, smokes for the men and "vaudeville entertainments" staged by patients and staff.

By 1949, new treatments had been added to the traditional moral treatment (now called "milieu therapy"). Electric and insulin shock treatments were now being used extensively, hypnosis and group therapy were employed and three lobotomies had been performed.

From Matteawan's opening, the proportion of chronic and dangerous patients - who could never be released - steadily rose, and so did the hospital count. Capacity was gradually increased to about 1,000, but overcrowding continued. In 1949, there were nearly 1,500 men and 250 women.

Shown is entire Fishkill complex with Hudson River and Catskills in the distance.

Outwardly, the madhouse atop Asylum Road was usually quiet. Its most notorious patient was probably George Metesky, the Mad Bomber. But Metesky caused no problems, and after his release lived uneventfully outside the state. Escape attempts offered occasional excitement. In 1933, four patients obtained pistols and held two attendants in a locked ward. State Police were called in and, when one of the patients pointed a gun, he was shot and killed by a trooper.

The End of the Prison Hospitals

By the mid- 1960's, the DOCS held approximately 3,000 patients at Matteawan and Dannemora state hospitals some serving sentence, some held past their sentences and many confined without ever having been convicted. Within a dozen years, all 3,000 would be gone.

A series of court decisions ended the relatively free and easy procedures under which Matteawan and Dannemora had operated. Simply put, everyone sent there stayed until the superintendent approved their release. In many eases, persons committed for minor offenses were confined for 30 and 40 years. Now, coinciding with a period in American history when faith in the judgment of “experts" was eroding, courts put a stop to the "unbridled discretion" exercised by mental institution superintendents.

First, the courts established that transfer to Matteawan or Dannemora would require the same procedures, including the right to a court hearing, as involuntary commitments of ordinary citizens to civil mental hospitals. A later decision established that nobody could be held in a correctional institution beyond their maximum sentence (if still dangerous, they could be committed to a civil hospital). Further decisions eliminated the transfer of "dangerous civil patients," and then of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity, to institutions where convicted persons were also held.

The effect of these decisions was to empty the prison mental hospitals. Dannemora was the first to go, in 1972. For another five years, Matteawan held convicted patients only, with all other categories of the criminally insane going to the Department of Mental Hygiene.

24-Hour Wonders: Classification Run Amok

The period 1966-77 was one of indecision and confusion as the Department struggled to decide what to do with prisoners formerly sent to Dannemora and Matteawan. New units and entire institutions were created, it seemed, every few months. They were easily set up because Matteawan's ward system had evolved to include self-contained units with their own kitchens.

The first new entry, in 1966, was originally called the Beacon Institution for Defective Delinquents, where inmates would be called "biddies" for years. Then, in a sudden show of official sensitivity, it was immediately renamed Beacon State Institution (BSI). BSI took the last defectives from Napanoch, whose population was also decimated by the court decision directing the release of inmates whose sentences had expired. A separate institution, Glenham Correctional Facility, was created also at Matteawan for "borderline" cases with IQ's of 70-85.

To take the unconvicted mentally ill persons who could no longer be legally held at Matteawan, the Mental Hygiene Department opened the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center on Matteawan's grounds.

Yet another mini-facility was created about this time. Fishkill Correctional Facility -- no relation to today's Fishkill --was the name given to a female unit to relieve crowding at Bedford Hills. In 1972, the unit accepted eight women considered uncontrollable at Bedford, which at that time had no special housing unit. The "uncontrollables" sued DOCS for illegally transferring them without a hearing. The inmates prevailed They were returned to Bedford and the Fishkill unit closed.

Emblematic of the vacillation at the institution was the now you-see-it, now-you-don't Center for Medical Services. In April 1973, DOCS Commissioner Russell U. Oswald decided to "abolish" the semi-independent Matteawan, Beacon, Glenham and Fishkill "facilities" and combined them in a "Correctional Center for Medical Services at Beacon." Not five month: later, newly appointed Commissioner Peter Preiser erased this Center and reestablished Matteawan, Beacon and Fishkill a' "new institutions." (Glenham, however, was not resurrected.)

The Beacon complex featured many other special units most of them short-lived:

  • There were narcotics units- one for the Narcotics Addiction Control Commission commitments and one for criminally sentenced addicts, both segregated by sex.
  • A Diagnostic and Evaluation Unit was created, where inmates suspected of mental illness would undergo assessment to determine final placement for treatment
  • An Emotionally Impaired Unit was created.

One of DOCS' first work release programs was established here. But it nearly closed in the torrent of publicity when temporary release inmate and murderer Salvadore "the Cape-man" Agron failed to return from classes at New Paltz College. . . .

While work release survived the Capeman, another of the Beacon complex's special units did close due to the actions of one inmate. Robert Garrow fatally stabbed a 16-year-old boy in the Lake Pleasant/Speculator area in 1973. . . .

In the belief that Garrow was partially paralyzed as a result of the gunshot wound, he was placed in the new minimum-security Elderly and Handicapped Unit at the Matteawan complex. . . . In 1978, . . . Garrow scaled a 15-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire . . . eluding capture for three days until he was shot to death in a gun battle with prison guards.

The Elderly and Handicapped Unit was closed for reevaluation, then renamed the Unit for the Physically Disabled and re-located to Green Haven.

CNYPC Replaces Matteawan, Modern Fishkill Emerges

In settlement of a suit, the state agreed that the Department of Mental Hygiene should assume responsibility for all mentally ill persons, including sentenced prisoners. On January 1, 1977, Mental Hygiene opened the Central New York Psychiatric Center (CNYPC) a special forensic mental health facility on the grounds of the Beacon complex (CNYPC was relocated to a portion of Marcy State Hospital in September of that year). With the creation of CNYPC, Matteawan closed forever.

Out of the chaos of the 1960s and '70s, today's Fishkill emerged. Fishkill is a medium security facility in the DOCS system, but it includes a minimum-security work release component and a maximum-security S-Block. In addition, Fishkill recently became home to a Regional Medical Unit.

Fishkill has shrunk in size since it owned and farmed 900 acres in the state hospital days. Parts of its property were appropriated for the Beacon Correctional Facility for women (on the site of the former Beacon Regional Training Center for Correction Officer trainees) and Downstate, a reception and classification center which opened in 1979.

Among the programs operated at Fishkill is the Correctional Industries (Corcraft) program. Inmates manufacture beds, chairs and computer furniture for sale to state and local governments. They also fabricate to order heavy gauge steel specialty items, such as security doors and windows, for correctional and psychiatric institutions.

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