Blake F. McKelvey's 1972
A History of Penal and Correctional Institutions in the Rochester Area
[McKelvey pages 12 through 16]
While the House of Refuge under Fulton and the penitentiary under Alexander McWhorter, who succeeded him there, were able to maintain a fair degree of order with the aid of outside contractors during the seventies, discipline at the county jail depended almost entirely on the abilities of its principal keeper. Fortunately the appointment of Francis Beckwith as assistant sheriff in charge of the jail in 1870 brought a dedicated man to the job. A good housekeeper, he gave the Blue Eagle a thorough and much needed cleaning on his arrival and won frequent citations from state inspectors for its excellent condition.
Luckily for the historian, he also kept a private diary, and his frequent comments on events at the prison are most revealing. Thus he was annoyed by the curiosity that brought citizens to the jail to view notorious inmates, notably the three men confined there in January 1871 on charges of killing their wives, yet he mentioned without comment that "3 to 400 came to witness" the hanging of one of them that August.
He frequently observed that the great majority of his charges were there because of drunkenness,, and apparently his skill in sobering them up became widely known for he occasionally reported that a prominent citizen had voluntarily brought his dissipated son to him to be "dried out."
He also noted the commitment during the depression of several trusted business men on charges of forgery, and he deplored the readiness of the courts to find technicalities permitting their release, but he was much more indignant when skilled lawyers uncovered loopholes that resulted in the release of desperate criminals, though he faced the need on two occasions to risk his life in foiling attempted jail breaks.
On his departure from the old "Blue Eagle" on January 1, 1876, he reported that he had lost only six by sickness and death, plus two by hanging, out of the 6000 prisoners under his charge during his five-year stint and commented that, despite some protests at the time, many had thanked him for the strict discipline he had maintained.
The maintenance of discipline among approximately 40 inmates held for an average of 12 days each was quite different from the task presented the managers of the House of Refuge, where the number of inmates increased from an average of 400 in 1870 to an average of 700 two decades later. Despite frequent criticism of the contract system, the institution continued to rely on it more as an aid to discipline than for the income it afforded.
Superintendent Fulton secured the assistance of an able educator with the appointment of Samuel P. Moulthrop as principal of its school in 1876, and two years later Moulthrop introduced a period of calisthenics that proved a popular addition. A separate dormitory for girls, opened in 1876, provided for the admission of females and created a new disciplinary problem, but the ability of its matron to main order without the use of barred windows prompted the superintendent to remove them from all but one block of cells for boys.
The retention of the security block and the opening of a new dormitory block for young boys provided three distinct treatment patterns for boys, encouraging a further classification of the inmates.
The big problem at the County Penitentiary was not overcrowding but the rapid turnover. When the state law of 1856 authorizing the commitment of young first offenders to county penitentiaries was revised and reactivated after the war, a decline in the average population was halted and a more stable work force was provided for the contractors.
The sums realized practically equaled the maintenance costs until 1877 when the opening of Elmira Reformatory diverted most of the long-term young men to that institution. McWhorter managed to keep his contractors supplied, however, as the commitments and the average number confined slowly increased in the early eighties, netting a surplus in several years until the anti-contract laws took effect at the close of the decade.
But it was the new State Reformatory at Elmira that made the creative responses to each of these problems and set the direction for correctional efforts during the next three decades. Opened after many delays in 1877 by Zebulon Brockway, it was equipped with 504 cells slightly larger than those of Auburn in size and surrounded by a wall. But its indeterminant sentence law, applicable to young men between 16 and 30 when convicted of a first felony, was revolutionary and directed the Superintendent to release them under parole as soon as they had demonstrated their reformation under an objective grading system.
The maximum sentence for each offense still set the final limit, but the reformers hoped that the indeterminant feature would win the cooperation of the young men in their rehabilitation. Brockway instituted a grading system that represented a considerable improvement over those developed in scattered juvenile institutions; he introduced educational provisions that went far beyond any in prisons elsewhere; and he developed a program of work experiences based on industries he set up and managed with borrowed capital.
When the legislature refused to back that system, he negotiated a number of carefully regulated contracts in 1881; three years later, in order to fit the work assignments more closely into the grading system, he devised the piece-price system that gave his assistants a still closer supervision over the productive activity.
Brockway's remarkable institution not only attracted numerous commitments from the Rochester area but focused the attention of its penal officials on his innovations. When the rapid influx overcrowded its facilities, Brockway reluctantly requested additional cell blocks, increasing its capacity in 1886 and again in 1892 to a total of 1296. That expansion encouraged the managers of both the House of Refuge and the Penitentiary in Rochester to approve construction beyond the 500 mark when overcrowding threatened, thus aggravating their disciplinary problems.
But they also followed some of Brockway's more creative innovations. Thus Fulton assisted by Moulthrop revived and improved an earlier grading system and, encouraged by William Prior Letchworth on the State Board of Charities and Corrections, developed a program of mechanical training in 1884 based on the new system first displayed by the Russians at the Centennial in Philadelphia, a method Brockway was also introducing at Elmira. The new training program supplied a substitute at both institutions for the labor contracts abolished in state institutions that year. . . . the House of Refuge switched entirely to industrial training and changed its name in 1884 to the State Industrial School.
The one institution unaffected by the anti-contract laws was the jail which had no productive labor. Yet conditions in the old Blue Eagle jail had become so wretched and its security so dependent on keeping inmates locked in their cells that, after repeated condemnations by state inspectors, the Supervisors finally voted in 1884 to replace it. Completed the next year on a nearby lot on Exchange Street, the new jail was equipped with a cell block containing 52 cells in three double tiers facing in to a central court extending up to a skylight in the roof above.
The cell block was surrounded by outer walls with a three-foot space separating it from the barred windows. Entrance to the cell block and to separate compartments for women, children, and condemned persons on the third and fourth floors over the jailor's house, was through a turnkey room at the sidedoor. Though more secure than its predecessor and boasting a toilet in each cell, it was destined to attract increasing criticism as the years passed.
Meanwhile the city, approaching 150,000 in population, erected a central police station across Exchange Street in 1894 and equipped it with a number of detention cells for men on the first floor and rooms for women and children adjoining the matron's quarters on the third floor. The city provided a few similar cells in its substations in later years, all designed exclusively for brief or over-night use.
In the immediate Rochester area only the State Industrial School assumed the reformatory objectives and endeavored to devise an appropriate discipline. Superintendent Fulton in his last year experimented with a scheme of releasing some of the boys, who had accumulated the maximum number of merit marks, to attend nearby churches in street garb for several Sundays before their discharge.
When William Murray, his chief assistant that year, assumed full charge two years later, he expanded that practice to permit the school's band, organized in 1888, to march in public parades outside. And his successor, Vincent M. Marten, going a step further in August 1895, permitted 100 boys, whose records were good and whose graduation, as it was now termed, was approaching, to leave for 30-day vacations with their parents or guardians. A cadet company, numbering 500 boys and equipped with uniforms and rifles, won applause on its appearance in a city parade that year and left for a week's camping excursion at Windsor beach the next June.