Correction's Katharine Bement Davis:
New York City's Suffragist Commissioner

-- Progressive Penology Movement --

KBD Vassar Portrait

Katharine Bement Davis worked 10 years teaching to earn her way into Vassar College where this Class of 1892 photo was taken. (Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.)


Josephine Shaw Lowell, the reformer who helped gain passage of the law setting up the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) as a separate city agency, also helped start Davis on the career path that led eventually to Katharine heading DOC.

Daughter of abolition activists, Josephine met and married Union soldier Charles Russell while she was doing Civil War relief work. She was widowed at age 20 in 1864 when he died less than a year after they had wed.

Thereafter, Josephine worked tirelessly for sundry social causes, including the establishment of schools for blacks in the South. In 1876, she became the first woman commissioner on the State Board of Charities and founded in 1882 the Charity Organization Society. "Friendly visitors" from the society went to the dwellings of the poor with homemaking and child-rearing help, wrote evaluations and made referrals for financial aid. They were the first social case workers.

A major advocate for separating management of charity institutions from that of penal institutions, Lowell also played a leading role in the 1894 election of fusion reform Mayor William L. Strong. At a 1895 hearing by Strong on the legislation to split the Department of Public Charities and Correction, her testimony in support received top billing. With the Mayor's backing, the separation took place Jan. 1, 1896, when DOC began operating on its own.

Abby Hopper Gibbons

Four years earlier, Lowell and Mrs. Abby Hopper Gibbons, successfully lobbied the New York State Legislature to pass, and Governor Roswell Pettibone Flower to sign, a bill authorizing a reformatory be built in either New York County or Westchester for women, ages 16 to 30. The governor, from whom Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital gets part of its name, appointed a board of managers to oversee the establishment and operation of the facility.

The previous Legislature had passed such a bill, but then-Governor David Bennett Hill vetoed it. Undaunted and in defiance of her 80-plus years, Mrs. Gibbons had again taken the cause into the Capitol's corridors, chambers and hearing rooms. Daughter of Quaker philanthropist and abolitionist Issac T. Hopper, she had founded on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1845 a kind of half-way house for female offenders and named it in his honor. The Hopper family and home continue to this day helping problemed women and their children.

The gallant Mrs. Gibbons, long the head of the Women's Prison Association of New York (WPANY), died within a year of the reformatory bill's enactment. Among the last things she did was promote Miss Alice Standford, of Ossining and later Pelham, for the reformatory board appointment that failing health had forced the octogenarian to decline for herself. Also a WPANY leader, Lowell too promoted Miss Standford, daughter of Militia Major General Lyman Standford, for the managers board.

'A Reformatory, Not a Prison'

Mrs. Gibbon's last words, according to her friend Miss Standford, were, "Be sure, Alice, thee make it a Reformatory and not a Prison." She expressed the same sentiment to all the managers in what likely was her last letter to the board: "A reformatory pure and simple is my aim. The word 'prison,' pray keep in the background. Criminals are made what they are by association and treatment. Let us turn over a new leaf and remember that they are human."

The distinction between reformatory and prison that Mrs. Gibbons insisted upon was more pronounced in her time than in ours when facilities called reformatories seem identical to those called prisons. Establishment of correctional facilities for women, emergence of the reformatory movement and increasing dominance of Progressive principles in American penology were lines of historical development that converged at the institution that Gibbons and Lowell helped found in northern Westchester.

Penitentiaries in the early 1800s -- whether the solitary-work kind as at Cherry Hill, Pa., or the congregate-work kind as at Auburn, N.Y. -- also housed women inmates. So did the city's Bellevue Penitentiary. Arguably the first separate women's correctional facility in America was Mount Pleasant Female Prison in Ossining that opened in 1839, with what was probably the nation's first nursery behind bars. Situated on a hill overlooking the Hudson, this walled-in Doric-style structure was just across the road from Sing Sing. Administratively, it was part of that complex but enjoyed considerable autonomy under the chief matrons who handled its day-to-day management. Its inmate housing reflected Sing Sing design on a smaller scale (three tiers of 24 cells each). Overcrowding to nearly twice its capacity forced Mount Pleasant's closing as a female prison in 1877. County and city jails were then mandated to keep women sentenced to incarceration, both felony and misdemeanor terms.
Return to Top of KBD Chapter 7

Even Before Elmira

In 1876, Elmira Reformatory opened under the innovative career penologist Zebulon Brockway who had managed institutions in Albany, Rochester and Detroit. While running the Michigan prison in the 1860s, he set up a kind of female inmate annex modeled after a Lancaster, Ma., home for delinquent girls that he had visited. Like the Massachusetts girls' shelter, Brockway's female annex emphasized classifying and housing the inmates in "family" groups, provided incentives to induce learning and obedience, stressed domestic education, and hired higher calibre employees who might also serve as role models.

Brockway promoted his House of Shelter reforms, for male as well as female inmates, during the 1870 convention of the newly-formed National Prison Association in Cincinnati. It issued a Declaration of Principles that through succeeding decades took on the aura of sacred creed for penologists. The list of Progressive principles included inmate reformation as the main penal purpose, inmate classification based upon prison behavior, incentives to encourage good behavior, and indeterminate sentencing with early release being among the incentives.

The distinction of being the first all-reformatory facility (that is, not an annex) generally goes to Brockway's later and much larger institution, the mostly male reformatory that opened at Elmira, N.Y., in 1876. At Elmira, first-time felons 16 to 30 years ago were given opportunity to earn early release through behavior that reflected their "reformation" resulting from participation in the educational and moral uplift programs.

More than a decade would elapse before the first all-female reformatory would open in New York: the House of Refuge at Hudson. Five years later, a second such facility opened: the Western House of Refuge in Albion. Gibbons and Lowell played roles in establishing both institutions, but the third women's reformatory that they succeeded in having built would outshine the earlier two and become a national and international model of penal reform for both male and female inmates.

The law setting up New York's third female reformatory required at least two women managers. The other woman originally appointed was Aria Huntington of Syracuse, daughter of Bishop Huntington of Central New York. David N. Carvalho of New York City, John Barry of Mt. Vernon, and Samuel William Johnson of Rye completed the first board. With three of the five managers from Westchester (Standford, Barry, Johnson) and only one from New York City (Carvalho), the board decision to seek a site in a still-rural section of the increasingly suburbanized county to the north of the city came as little surprise.

In 1899, Lowell herself became a member of managers board and tried to move the work forward to completion.

*Copyright 1997 by Thomas C. McCarthy and the New York City Department of Correction. All rights reserved.