This housing unit constructed in the 1930s is now named Building 23, a dormitory for Albion inmates.
"To give (women) moral and religious training"

Albion Correctional Facility

When Albion opened 105 years ago, its inmates dressed like ladies and were trained for service in the homes of real ladies. Today, they wear welder's helmets and work with steel in an industrial production shop.

Forever changing, Albion was a pioneer in the women's reformatory movement and then became the world's first institution for female "defective delinquents." In the 1960's, it was a rehabilitation center for drug addicts; in the 1970's, a community preparation center for men. It went coed in the 1980's but is entering the 21st century as a general confinement facility for women.

Credit for creating the Albion institution belongs primarily to Josephine Shaw Lowell, "the Queen Victoria of New York." Lowell, born in 1843, lost her husband and a brother in the Civil War. She then devoted her life to social action, helping to establish schools for freed blacks and supporting woman's suffrage. In 1876, she was appointed the first female commissioner on the New York State Board of Charities, an umbrella organization with oversight of a multitude of public and private agencies serving the poor, sick, blind, insane, alcoholic, orphaned and otherwise needy. As a "guardian of the dependent classes" Lowell assumed a leadership role in two important developments in New York's correctional history--reformatories for women and institutions for the mentally retarded.

Reformatory Movement

The system of prison management that emerged in Auburn and Sing Sing in the 1820's relied on punishments to maintain order. More progressive ideas advocated at the 1870 Congress of Corrections led to the creation of reformatories, the most famous being the Elmira Reformatory, which opened in 1876. Elmira and its imitators stressed reform through education and rewards. More paternalistic than the "old penology," reformatory treatment was thought especially appropriate for young women. In the 19th century, they were viewed as childlike and more in need of protection and guidance than men.

A decade after Elmira, New York opened three women's reformatories in rapid succession. Largely due to prodding by Josephine Shaw Lowell, New York's Legislature passed a bill in 1881 to establish a 'house of refuge." Appropriations did not immediately follow, so Lowell bombarded the lawmakers with letters and pamphlets. The state's first women's reformatory opened in Hudson in 1887.

Within two years, Hudson had reached its capacity of 234 inmates. Lowell pressed the Legislature for two additional female houses of refuge. One in Bedford Hills would open in 1901. The other, for the western sector of the state, was authorized in April 1890. An old farm site in the town of Albion was selected as the site for the "Western House of Refuge for Women," and construction began in April 1892. . . .

. . . . when it came to building reformatories for women, the architecture softened, in keeping with the image of women as soft, passive, tractable and congenitally domestic. No cellblocks for Albion--rather, seven residential "cottages," set on 97 acres of rural land adjacent to a park. The cottages--with flowers, tablecloths and pictures on the wall were intended to promote "the idea of family life, each cottage with its own kitchen, its pleasant dining-room adjoining, which matrons and girls use in common, and the living or sitting room in the second story, where the family assemble in the evening for diversion."

Albion officially opened on December 8, 1893, but the courts did not send an inmate for nearly a month. . . .

. . . . "Abusing her mother" was not an atypical offense at Albion, designed as a "refuge" for reformable women aged 16 to 30 years charged with misdemeanors such as petit larceny, drunkenness, prostitution and "waywardness." Many women were committed for violation of the middle-class double standard: sexual activity which in a man would not have been considered an offense at all. Over 80 percent were sentenced for public order offenses, at least half for sexual peccadilloes.

Many commitments were on the complaint of the family or a cuckolded husband. . . .

. . . .All such offenses earned an indeterminate sentence of zero to five years; in 1899, it was lowered to three years.

The mission of the Western House of Refuge was to "give such moral and religious training as will induce (the inmates) to form a good character and such training in domestic work as will eventually enable them to find employment, secure good homes and be self-supporting."

Albion provided academic education through the sixth grade level. More important than schooling, though, was the vocational program of "supervised housework:" sewing, knitting, crocheting, "cookery," table etiquette, planning and serving meals and cleaning.

Mothers care for their babies at Albion State training School circa 1940.

Albion purchased a steam-operated washing machine, but then realized that most homes looking for domestic help were not so equipped. So it was mothballed--washing was done by hand. Classes in typing and stenography were added in 1899. An "industrial building" opened in 1910 featured a "finely equipped domestic science department" with dining room furniture, coal and gas stoves and two sewing rooms.

To make their charges acceptable in middle-class homes, Albion strove-- through "edifying lectures" and the example of dignified matrons to instill concepts of femininity, decorum, submissiveness and social graces. Conformity to these ideals earned privileges, such as permission to swing one's arms freely while walking rather than clasping them behind the back, prettier uniforms, decorating one's room and early release through parole.

Women who earned parole were closely monitored not only by Albion's parole officer but also by area ladies who employed them as live-in domestics. Wages were retained by the lady of the house, "excepting such amount as the latter thinks necessary for the girl." The parolee was required to "consult employer as to her amusements, recreation, and social diversions." Employers were "authorized and requested to open and read all mail sent and received by a girl" and to "guard her morals, language and actions."

Parole could be revoked for "sauciness," "obscenity," and other demonstrations of independence. . . .

. . . . Parole revocation was usually for the same types of behavior as led to their commitments. . . . Some were returned to the reformatory for stealing from their employers; many for getting pregnant . . . . Another because "she made appointments with entire strangers, male, to go auto riding. Stayed out very late nights. Once all night."

Some women, on the other hand, returned of their own accord, usually because of illness or because they couldn't get along with their employer. Albion's managers may have been holier-than-thou, but they were evidently kind--certainly, no one went back to Sing Sing or Elmira on their own.

Defective Delinquent Movement

New York established its first "school for idiots" in the 1850s. The Syracuse Asylum worked to improve residents' functioning through education and training. But before it could sink on its own into a slough of custodialism--as the prisons and mental hospitals had--it was pushed there.

Josephine Shaw Lowell was a loud voice in a chorus arguing that "idiocy" was but one manifestation of a generalized "defect" encompassing insanity, pauperism, crime and virtually a forms of antisocial behavior. Since the defect was hereditary according to Lowell, the cause of social problems was "the unrestrained liberty allowed to vagrant and degraded women." She engineered the establishment in 1878 of the Newark Custodial Branch for Feeble-Minded Women openly designed prevent crime by curtailing the reproduction of "feeble-minded women of child-bearing age."

The new approach was eagerly seized upon by reformatory managers, particularly at Bedford and Elmira. They now had a answer to their discipline problems--"lock these incurables away," they seemed to say, "and let us work our magic on the deserving and the salvageable." A prolonged propaganda campaign finally resulted in legislation in 1920. It provided that women found "mentally deficient to an extent to require supervision, control and care," an charged with or convicted of crime, would receive indefinite life sentences. A section of the Bedford Hills reformatory was designate the Division for Mentally Defective Delinquent Women (MDDW).

When the women transferred to the Division for MDDW realize they were now imprisoned for up to forever, they became desperately disruptive. Meanwhile, the Albion reformatory was also finding defectives in their midst. Better, officials reasoned, to place the irremediable defectives in one institution and the reformable "normals" in the other, rather than to continue mixing then in both.

On July 1, 1931, the Albion State Training School (as there reformatory had been called since 1923) was redesignated the Institution for Mentally Defective Delinquent Women, a "sister institution" to Napanoch--the first such institution for women in the United States and probably in the world.

A month later, Dr. Gordon F. Willey became the first male to head the institution. On October 1, special trains began transporting Albion's "normals" down to Bedford Hills and bringing Bedford's defectives back on the return trip.

In 1932, sensitive to stigmatizing, Albion reverted to the title of State Training School, but remained the state's institution for female defective delinquents.

Conditions in the 39-year-old institution were atrocious. The dorms were condemned as "a fire hazard," the rooms had no heating and plumbing was a rarity. After a 1932 investigation declared that the reception building was an "antique" and "a fire-trap of the most pronounced type," the Legislature allocated $1.5 million for reconstruction: three new brick dorms Each had a capacity of 120, were arranged around a quadrangle onto which faced a new administration building, school and other structures. (So collegiate did the rebuilt institution appeal that the superintendent received inquiries as to the entrance requirements.)

Albion's annual report for 1938 drew a dismal portrait of the population. Their 373 inmates ranged from 16 to 63 years of age, with a median mental age of 9 years, 8 months. Their offenses ranged from vagrancy to second-degree murder with a large proportion of sex offenders. . . .

. . . . Staff somehow persevered. Save for scrapping the genteel pretensions, the change to the seemingly hopeless did not much alter the facility program. The Three Rs were taught, but greater stress was placed on "social attitudes," emotional maturity and self-control, manners, safety and personal hygiene. As in the reformatory days, the inmates were still being prepared for domestic service. Laundry and sewing were taught, as well as answering the telephone and doorbell, taking messages, "simple chemistry of soups, powders and cleaning" and "physiology of the knee and its protection," the latter aimed at prolonging scrubbing careers.

Beginning around 1938, vocational training was formally integrated with institution upkeep, and staff from every discipline were part of a coordinated program. The psychologist, for example, "worked directly with the laundry supervisor, serving teachers, the cafeteria chef and staff house and dormitory matrons in the development of occupational analyses, progress records and instruction sheets."

The success of the stepped-up educational effort suggested that perhaps the defectives weren't so defective after all. A creeping skepticism tempered the interpretation of intelligence tests, and the prison defective population began to plummet. Albion's census peaked in 1939 at 398. By 1955, it was down to about 160 and the defectives began to be phased out entirely.

Gov. Averell Harriman signs legislation in 1957 authorizing the Western reformatory for Women.

Rebuilding and New Populations

With the defectives being phased out, Albion reopened its reformatory in 1957; the two groups were separately housed. In 1967, a third sub population of women was introduced when the state Drug Addiction Control Commission opened a unit at Albion, In June, 1971, with the state in a fiscal crisis, the entire campus was closed. The reformatory and training school populations were transferred to Bedford Hills and the DACC women were sent to the Ray Brook Rehabilitation Center.

Just a year later, Albion was back in business. The renamed Albion Correctional Facility opened in September 1972 as a 300-bed minimum-security facility for men. Three years later, Janice Warne Cummings, who had been superintendent from 1969 until the 1971 closing, returned after a stint at Bedford Hills. Although men had often directed female facilities, Cummings was the first woman to superintend a facility for males in New York state. Cummings would immediately oversee a $2.3 million building and renovation program a new industrial building, an automotive/maintenance building and a gymnasium/recreation complex were completed in 1977.

Later that year, with the Department's census bursting among both sexes, a medium-security unit for females opened at Albion to relieve pressure at Bedford Hills. Males and females were usually kept apart, but a few activities -- college courses, religious services, and the facility choir -- were integrated. In 1984, more beds for females were added. By the end of the year, Albion began sending males to the just-completed Orleans Correctional Facility next door. By 1986, Albion was again an all-female inmate population.

The DOCS population was still growing. In February 1991, work began on a $30 million, 643-bed expansion. . . .

. . . . Once Albion counseled domesticity; today, it counters domestic abuse. Once it instilled lady-like graces; today, programs deal with aggression behavior control, anger management and alternatives to violence.

And today, uniquely in a female facility, the practice kitchens have yielded to a Corcraft industrial metal shop where inmate welders, sheet metal fabricators, spray painters and assemblers manufacture shelving and charcoal grills.

Little remains from Albion's infancy. After three major rebuilding programs, only the chapel still stands . . . .

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NYCHS logo DOCS Today logoNYCHS is honored to be permitted to present these excerpts from the Facility Profile: Albion article appearing in the September 1998 issue of DOCS|TODAY. All rights to the text and images remain with DOCS. To access 2003 on-line issues in Adobe Acrobat format (PDF), including the unabridged Facility Profile articles, visit the DOCS|TODAY menu page on the DOCS web site by clicking on the logo above.