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.

A Harlem street gang, 1949.

World War 11 and
Its Aftermath

World War II was as defining an event for the prison reform movement as it was for American society as a whole. The patriotism of prison inmates was exemplary: Like ordinary citizens responding to the call of duty, prisoners throughout the United States worked overtime to produce material for the war effort, used their earnings to buy government bonds, and sought to enlist in the armed forces.

. . . . For the first time in half a century prison industries were truly productive, and inmate idleness ceased being a topic of primary concern.

The new permissive rules on eligibility for conscription excluded "prisoners guilty of heinous crimes, which include rape, murder, kidnapping, arson, sodomy, pandering, and crimes involving sex perversion and the use of narcotics."

Prisoners selected for service in the armed forces were drafted by the selective service board in their home district, rather than the board where the prison was located.

Once drafted, they passed "immediately into the jurisdiction of the Army and the Department of Justice abandons its custody and rights immediately upon induction."

98th & 100th Annual Reports
-- 1942 & 1944 pp. 116-117 & pp. 84-89.

Another liberalizing feature of the war years was the favorable treatment of ex-felons on parole. In June 1942 the chairmen of the War Production Board and the War Manpower Commission wrote to the U.S. Attorney General and requested his intervention in retracting the legal advice given to employers and government agencies that persons with prison or court records were ineligible to work in war industries.

In order to help alleviate the severe manpower shortage, the new standard applicable to ex-convicts was that such persons be judged "on the basis of their individual merits" and be offered employment in war industries so long as there was no "conclusive evidence of disloyalty."

After some hesitation, the rules governing the enlistment of persons with criminal records were relaxed, and thousands of ex-felons joined combat units. Evidence showed that soldiers paroled from prison into the armed forces, as well as soldiers with felony records, were no more likely to be dishonorably discharged than other soldiers. . . . the service and dedication of former inmates to the war effort strongly demonstrated the potential for reformation.

In a [1942] commentary that was uncannily prescient, on the heels of the darkest year of America's involvement in the war the Association issued a prophecy for the post-war years. . . .the enormous national resources devoted to clothing and feeding "millions of armed men" would quickly dissipate once the war ended; then psychological, economic, and sociological factors would come into play and "undoubtedly result in increased criminality and lawlessness."

The Association urged that community agencies and services be strengthened and that attention be focused on poor housing conditions . . .

"The home and the family is the backbone of life itself and through it the child should receive his habit patterns for the rest of his days -- physical, mental, moral and spiritual.

"More adequate crime control means, basically, one thing -- the early detection and proper treatment of behavior disorders in children and youth."

98th Annual Report -- 1942 p. 41-44.

Of greatest concern to the Association in looking to the future, however, was the need to bolster basic services for children to prevent juvenile delinquency. Bad housing conditions were recognized as a breeding ground for troubled youths; the Association urged that "true slum clearance programs must be considered of prime importance in the post-war period." Furthermore, the criminal justice system for handling juvenile and adolescent offenders "will require drastic revision...."

On its hundredth anniversary, in 1944, numerous testimonials were offered for the Association's untiring efforts "through periods of struggle and change." One common theme was the Association's "courage and patience, and at times grim determination and willingness to be disagreeably persistent, if necessary, in a just cause against political influence and public apathy."

It was noted that the Association's formidable list of accomplishments' was achieved ". . . by persistent and quiet cooperation when possible with prison authorities and by consistent propaganda for the betterment of prisoners and the treatment of crime."

Various Approaches to Juvenile Delinquency

The continual reappearance of crime waves has invariably been accompanied by a public perception that criminal acts by minors were increasing. The Association had long been a vocal advocate of separate treatment for youthful offenders within the criminal justice system and of community action to deal with the social antecedents of juvenile delinquency. During World War II and in the subsequent years the Association was involved in two such approaches: the youthful offender laws and community-based efforts to deal with gangs.

In its [1943/44 Youthful Offender Law] first year of operation, "there were 527 youths considered under the provisions of the new law, and of these 180 were found eligible for treatment as youthful offenders."

The laws relating to youthful offenders and wayward minors were enacted "in a sincere effort to provide socialized treatment for adolescents for whom there is some hope of redemption."

Studies showed, however, that only in a small percentage of cases was a youth charged with a felony "considered suitable to be handled as a youthful offender."

The Association questioned the criteria used in determining suitability, noting that "certainly the hit-and-miss methods which have been followed during the past century and a half give scant hope that any effective program to prevent crime or rehabilitate delinquent youths can be developed without study and research."

100th & 102nd Annual Reports
-- 1944 & 1946

The youthful offender laws, which were passed with the Association's assistance in 1943 and 1944, were designed to prevent young offenders from being stigmatized as criminals. While state law already laid out a patchwork system of separate courts for children and adolescents, these laws were primarily targeted at wayward minors, a legal classification that did not necessarily rely on criminal behavior in order to be invoked by the courts.

The first laws dealing with wayward minors were aimed at helping young women who might become prostitutes; for example, in 1866 New York City enacted such a law dealing with "the so-called incorrigible girl." The wayward minors laws permitted a court to commit persons under age twenty-one to the House of Refuge, if they were found to have "deserted their home without good and sufficient reason, or who kept company with dissolute or vicious persons against the lawful commands of their parents and guardians."

By contrast, the youthful offender was defined as a person between sixteen and nineteen years of age, who had committed a crime not punishable by death or life imprisonment, and who had not been previously convicted of a felony. The act provided that when such a person was found guilty the court could adjudicate him as a youthful offender, whereupon the conviction would be nullified. While the court still retained jurisdiction to impose or suspend a sentence, or commit the youth to a charitable or reformatory institution, the appellation of "criminal" would not accompany that person for the rest of his life.

In later years the Association lobbied to remove any evidence of an arrest from the youthful offender's criminal record, arguing that the Legislature's intent of avoiding future inquiries about a criminal offense by a youthful offender was severely undercut if the record of an arrest still remained public.

Experience with the Youthful Offender Act revealed that military enlistment officers and potential employers were "not familiar with the workings of criminal law" and often misunderstood the "provisions of the unique and unusual" Youthful Offender Law. Having a record of an arrest would ultimately lead to "further queries about the offense itself, which in turn is the very point that the Legislature originally intended should be avoided."

The Association also sought to extend the youthful offender status to age twenty-one. This effort was accompanied by the recommendation that "no youth may receive the benefits of youthful offender treatment more than once [since] to permit successive adjudications is inconsistent with the purpose of the ... law." Finally, the Association participated in discussions with members of Congress on the benefits of enacting a federal version of a Youthful Offender Act, which ultimately became law in 1950.

The Association's work in understanding and trying to ameliorate juvenile delinquency was not confined solely to its legislative activities. In the post-World War II years the Association undertook a number of practical projects as well, the most prominent of which was the Central Harlem Street Clubs Project.

The impetus for this project was the constant gang warfare in slum areas, which were bereft of parks or swimming pools but replete with pool halls and gin houses. The deaths, drug addiction, and sexual offenses that epitomized gang behavior were a constant cause for public alarm, so in 1945 the Association formed a group to wrestle with the problem. The project was funded by "individuals and foundations" who contributed a total of nearly $164,000.

By 1947 the Association's staff had started working with three gangs:

  • the Noble Dukes (ages seventeen to twenty),
  • the Capitols (ages thirteen to sixteen), and
  • the Copians (ages fifteen to nineteen).

The Association was "in close contact with approximately 135 boys, and [had] casual relations with about 500 other boys and adults."

The street clubs project had three objectives:

  • to work with the "anti-social street clubs from the inside," in order to channel their energies toward "socially constructive ends";
  • to expand the project to other neighborhoods, using adults in the community as examples and mentors;
  • and to establish a research program to evaluate the effectiveness of this work.

Six field workers devoted their fulltime efforts to this project.

By 1950 the street clubs project was hailed as a qualified success. While there was "no significant change in the boys' practice of reefer-smoking, drinking or gambling," the gangs had given up their weapons, "stopped much of their stealing and truancy," and become engaged in "more organized recreational programs."

The dedication of the Association's field staff in listening to the gang members' problems and trying to help them "become independent in their search for a constructive solution" demonstrated that "young persons, even those who rebel against society, will try to please and win the approval of someone they feel cares enough about them."

The Association's efforts in undertaking the Central Harlem Street Clubs Project earned praise from many quarters, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the time president of Columbia University, who noted that the project was undertaken by "people a little tired of philosophy and theory, who wanted to do something about delinquency."

Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, and Sexual Psychopaths

The period after World War 11 was also noteworthy for the recognition that certain variants of criminal behavior required different treatment from the usual options of probation, incarceration, and parole. Three areas in which the Association was active in voicing its opinion during this period were alcoholism, drug addiction, and sexual offenders. . . .

A Bowery "bum."

In the midst of World War II an active police campaign was undertaken to remove all the tramps, vagrants, and alcoholics from the notorious Bowery. More than seven hundred "bums" were taken off the streets, arrested, placed in institutions, and soon released. The Association noted that "no one knowing the problem would dare say that any good was accomplished except to keep these people off the street for a few nights. This cycle of arresting and imprisoning people because of their alcoholism was referred to by the Association as "serving life sentences on the installment plan."

Beginning in 1946, the Association recommended in its annual report that chronic alcoholism be recognized as a problem and that "ways and means for research and the development of treatment procedures" should be developed. The Association observed that the number of alcoholics being imprisoned was increasing rapidly, with futile results:

Some declare [alcoholism] is or is not a medical issue -- a moral issue -- a correctional issue -- a psychiatric issue -- it is not this and not that. Casual and hasty consideration of the situation defies decision as to just which field of the sciences should be primarily responsible.

Sheriffs and wardens are fed up receiving the same prisoners time and again, putting up with them during many sobering-up processes, finally getting them on their feet only to find they are due out. And being out means they're due back again. Such situations . . . indicate our inability to deal with thousands of alcoholics who wind up in jail because there is no other place for them. One Hundred Second Annual Report -- 1946, p. 17.

In 1952 the Association participated in the work of a committee to study alcoholism formed by the Welfare and Health Council of New York City. Part of this committee's role was to educate correctional officers in the problems of alcoholism; other aspects dealt with research into the problem and recommendations for future action.

In 1958 the Association was calling for a study of the question "as to whether alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and vagrants (including indigent aged persons) should be dealt with in a penal atmosphere ... or whether they should be placed in the custody and under the control of medical, health and welfare authorities."

One Hundred Fourteenth Annual Report -- 1958, p. 14.

Among the highlights of the committee's findings were the facts that two-thirds of the 15,000 annual commitments to the Rikers Island Workhouse were for alcoholism; that New York City had approximately 200,000 to 300,000 alcoholics and "excessive drinkers," of whom one out of seven was female; and that the life of an alcoholic was shortened by twelve years. The committee recommended that the crime of alcoholism should be completely removed from the penal system and treated as a public health problem, and that screening and treatment facilities should be developed within the correctional system for criminals with alcoholic problems.

Starting in 1948, the Association began to focus its attention on the problem of drug addiction. That year it supported legislation that would provide for compulsory rehabilitative treatment for narcotic addicts, noting one expert's view that "a narcotic addict . . . will never complete a cure unless he is placed under some form of compulsion." Since 1990, programs have existed that confront the convicted drug dealer with exactly this choice: Rather than serving a jail term an addict can enroll in a two-year drug treatment program; if he completes it the criminal charges are dismissed.

According to New York's director of criminal justice, "we have the advantage of being able to use the coercive power of the criminal justice system to get people to stay [in the program]." The treatment programs cost approximately $16,000 per year, compared to $25,000 for a prison bed."

In the late 1940s heroin was the narcotic of preference among New York City's five thousand "known drug addicts ... representing about 80% male and 20% female." ." Furthermore, given the high cost of supporting a drug habit-$25 to $100 per day-"the relation of this to criminal activity is obvious." In 1951 Thurgood Marshall, then special counsel of the NAACP, appeared as a guest speaker at one of the Association's monthly meetings. In addition to his remarks on lynching, coerced confessions, road gangs, and the objectives of the nascent civil rights movement, he noted that the "narcotic situation" is "more serious than most people realize," terming it "a cancerous growth, threatening the health of our nation regardless of race."

Thurgood Marshall (left), then NAACP special counsel, spoke at Association meeting.

In 1959 the Association observed that "Mayor [Robert] Wagner finally gave support to the idea that drug addicts are not a correctional but, instead, a medical problem. This has been our contention for some time." As a result, New York City opened special drug treatment wards in three hospitals. . . Lastly, beginning in 1943, the Association began to champion a legislative and medical approach in dealing with sex offenses, primarily rape and sodomy by assault. That year the Association recommended in its annual report that legislative consideration be given to a "sexual psychopath law," which would make it "possible to keep sex offenders confined in institutions even after the expiration of their sentence, if in the judgment of competent authorities they are not reasonably safe to be at large." . . .

In 1947 the Association was active in seeing such a law introduced and passed by the Legislature. It was vetoed, however, by Governor Thomas Dewey, who noted that while the "problem to which this bill is directed is one of the most serious in the field of criminology ... we are not justified ... in demolish[ing] the important safeguards which surround personal liberty in our State."

An alternative, interim solution was then worked out by the governor, the Association, and other interested parties: An experiment would be conducted at Sing Sing Prison under the auspices of the Department of Mental Hygiene. Selected inmates who had committed sexual crimes would become part of a study to gather information about sex offenders "and to develop to whatever extent is possible therapeutic procedures.... It is hoped that this plan will result in substantial contribution for the solution of a baffling problem."

In 1949 an intensive study of 102 inmates under the direction of a psychiatrist was completed and forwarded to the governor and the Legislature. In 1950 a bill was enacted and signed into law, reflecting substantial contributions and efforts by the Association to treat the issue in a dual medical and legal fashion.

The law provided for psychiatric study, examination, diagnosis, and treatment of sex offenders in correctional institutions, under the auspices of the Department of Mental Hygiene rather than the Department of Corrections, and for the establishment of clinics within the prison system. The law gave judges the discretionary authority to sentence certain classes of sexual offenders to an indeterminate sentence ranging from one day to life imprisonment. Beginning six months after conviction, and every two years thereafter, the parole board was empowered to review the sentence and decide, based on a medical evaluation and other factors, whether to continue the sentence or grant parole.

Less than five years after the passage of the sexual psychopath law the Association raised a red flag as to its effectiveness. It noted that "in the not too distant future serious consideration needs to be given [to] the necessity of making this law mandatory rather than discretionary." By 1957 the Association took the stance that neither the legal nor the medical and research benefits of the law had been achieved.

Courts were hesitant to apply its provisions and were generally unwilling to sentence sexual offenders to lengthy, indeterminate sentences, while the Department of Mental Hygiene was having problems retaining qualified personnel to conduct the research and treatment programs mandated by the law. . . .

Thus the debate in New York focused on the antiquated industrial infrastructure in state prisons, the exceptionally low wages that inmates could earn by law, the widespread idleness in the state's prison facilities because of the lack of any real work, and its concomitant adverse effect on morale, discipline, and rehabilitation efforts.

The Great Depression strengthened the hand of organized labor in arguing that prison labor held an unfair competitive advantage. Heeding those pleas, by 1935 Congress had effectively outlawed the interstate transport of prison-made goods, thereby relegating all of the nation's prisons to some form of state-use system, with inmates employed only in farming activities, public works and road construction projects, or industrial applications for which the state was the only customer.

While the Association had long opposed "the exploitation of prison labor either for private or public gain," throughout its history the Association consistently fought against federal and state legislation reducing the scope of permissible prison industries. Its rationale was that those bills generally "offered no solution of the vexing problem of prison labor, but would work additional hardship on the taxpayers ... and would result in increased unemployment among inmates, with its attendant demoralizing effects."

Nearly a year before the United States entered World War II, the Association was at the forefront in urging that inmate labor be put to use in assisting the defense preparation effort. The Association's report for 1940, dated February 3, 1941, contained as its first recommendation to the Legislature the suggestion that idle manpower in state prisons be used for national defense preparation efforts. Those pleas went unheeded until after Pearl Harbor.

Police Brutality and the Third Degree

Another by-product of the crime-wave era was the emergence of police brutality in obtaining confessions from a suspect -- the Third Degree -- as a civil rights issue for those accused of a crime. In 1929 the Association researched the court records and found "strong grounds for suspecting that severe practices are employed to obtain information from those who come into the hands of the police."

Among the abusive methods in use throughout the United States at that time were solitary confinement, whipping by rubber hose, forcing a suspect to look at a deceased victim in the morgue, placing a skeleton in a suspect's cell, and handcuffing the suspect to a chair for thirty?seven hours.

The Association lamented the fact that while "some States have passed statutes against [the Third Degree] there seem to have been practically no convictions under them." The Association also observed that "there is no practical redress for the individual ... though the officers are civilly liable to the injured party for mistreating him, this remedy is in practice of no avail.

In 1958 the Association was calling for a study of the question "as to whether alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes and vagrants (including indigent aged persons) should be dealt with in a penal atmosphere . . . or whether they should be placed in the custody and under the control of medical, health and welfare authorities."

One Hundred Fourteenth Annual Report -- 1958 p. 14.

For several years the Association urged the Legislature and the State Crime Commission to investigate the matter, but to no avail." In 1932 the issue received intense public scrutiny, as the local prosecutor was compelled to indict four Nassau County policemen for the second-degree murder of a suspect [Hyman Stark] being held for questioning under their custody. Interestingly, there was strong public sentiment against the prosecutor for seeking to curtail police actions in fighting the crime wave. . . .

In order to curb these abusive police practices, the Association favored a requirement that any person arrested as a suspect in a crime be brought before a magistrate and given the opportunity to make a statement, after which time he would be committed for a trial and the police would not be permitted to question him. . . .

The applicable law in New York at that time already provided that a suspect "must in all cases be taken before the magistrate without unnecessary delay." Its weakness lay in the fact that the police interpreted "unnecessary delay" to mean sufficient time to extract a confession. . . .

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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