WARDEN LEWIS LAWES AND PRISON REFORM
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Born on September 13, 1883, in Elmira, New York, Lewis Lawes. . . considered [the] most progressive warden in penology . . . started his prison career after military service, having grown up in the shadows of the New York State Reformatory, where his father worked as a guard. Lawes's first position was at Clinton Prison in March 1905.
. . . . Lawes took a leave of absence to attend the New York School of Social Work, He met and studied with Katherine B. Davis, who [became] commissioner of corrections of the City of New York. In 1915, Davis installed Lawes as superintendent of the City Reformatory on Hart Island. . . .
The facility that housed the boys and young men was hardly adequate, as it shared Hart Island with a potter's field and a penitentiary for drug addicts and derelicts. The city agreed . . . to relocate the reformatory . . . . in New Hampton in Orange County for the construction of a new reformatory. The young prisoners assisted in all phases of building at New Hampton, as was the case in the building of Sing Sing Prison . . . . the reformatory was operated much like a working farm.
In 1920, at the urging of Gov. Alfred E. Smith, Lawes accepted the wardenship of Sing Sing Prison. Until that time, the office of warden was a political appointment . . . Lawes accepted the office on the grounds that it was not a political job and he would run the prison his own way. . . . Lawes oversaw the complete overhaul of Sing Sing's physical plant . . . he also believed reform and rehabilitation were the first priorities.
Lawes encouraged the use of sports as recreation and also as a way for the inmates to develop an appreciation of rules. He believed that while a prisoner was serving his term, he should not lose contact with the outside world so he would fit in with society upon his release. He arranged for famous people to visit and give speeches to the inmates . . .
Many [movie] stars came to entertain . . . The prisoners presented an annual theatrical performance that was open to the public. Lawes's willingness to treat the prisoners fairly and to meet them halfway on issues gained the inmates' respect. He allowed them to landscape the prison grounds. . . as it gave them a sense of accomplishment.
By the mid-1920s, the prison had become overcrowded . . . . In 1926, the state granted $2,775,000 for additional construction. By 1929, two new cellblocks with 1,366 cells, along with a mess hall and new chapel, were completed. A year later, a laundry, bathhouse, and barbershop were added, and the industrial plant and workshops were completely rebuilt.
By 1936, a school building, hospital, and library with 15,000 were installed. Warden Lawes, who used prisoners to provide most of the tabor, supervised this massive rebuilding, Unlike previous prison construction projects, the prisoners were treated well and paid as much as 30 cents a day . . . .
With the completion of the New Prison on the Hill, the prison's combined total area increased from 14.5 acres to 47.5 acres. . . the most modern and innovative prison of its kind. By 1943, two years after Lawes retired, the last of the prisoners were removed from the old cellblock. The damp, cramped, and unsanitary cells were eliminated for larger, cleaner, and well-lit cells with plumbing and running water.