NYC Parole Commission letterhead, 1941. Founded in 1915, NYC PC was the first US city parole board.

The Correctional Connection of Some New York 'Firsts'©

first Black officer:
Samuel Jesse Battle

Ben Malcom
NYC DOC's first
Black Commissioner:
Benjamin Malcolm

Question: What links

  • NYPD's 1st
    Black officer,

  • NYC DOC's 1st
    female commissioner,

  • NYC DOC's 1st
    Black commissioner,

  • NY Yankees'
    1st baseman 'Iron Man'?

The 1st US
city parole commission.

The New York Police Department's first Black officer, the New York City Correction Department's first female commissioner and its first Black commissioner share with the New York Yankees' legendary "Iron Man" first baseman historical linkages to America's first municipal parole board: the New York City Parole Commission that functioned from 1915 to 1967.

NYC DOC's first
female commissioner:
Katharine Bement Davis
small Lou Gehrig plaque
NY Yankees' legendary
first baseman:
Henry Louis Gehrig

Samuel Jesse Battle became the first African American appointed to the NYPD uniformed force on June 28, 1911, as a result of his successfully overcoming the department's initial rejection.

Having passed the written exam in 1910, Battle -- then a ranking red cap at Grand Central Station -- was denied appointment when a police doctor diagnosed he had a heart condition. The Harlemite -- 6 foot 3 inches tall and weighing 280 pounds -- refused to accept the finding and appealed to the Civil Service Commission. Its medical team pronounced him fit. So the Department had to appoint him but accepting him as a "brother officer" was another matter altogether.

How Battle's quiet perseverance and bravery, including rescuing a threatened white officer, overcame initial hostility of many on the force and how he rose through the ranks by dint of study, hard work and a spotless record is one of those inspiring "New York firsts" stories worthy of repeated retelling but, in fact, is rarely told.

Not very long after Patrolman Battle was assigned to Manhattan's West 135th Street Station in 1913, a new administration came to power at City Hall and initiated a series of progressive reforms of the municipal jail and prison system. One of those reforms would figure significantly in the last decade of what would prove to be Battle's 40-year city service career.

The Correctional
Connection of
Some NY "Firsts"©
*Copyright on text. © 2002 by the New York Correction History Society and Thomas C. McCarthy. Noncommercial use of text permitted with citation of the society and the web site

For How the NYC
Parole Commission worked

text from its
1937 annual report.

John Purroy Mitchel surprised most people, even supporters of his successful 1913 campaign as the Fusion-Progressive Party candidate for mayor, when he picked Bedford Hills Reformatory Superintendent Katharine Bement Davis as his Correction Commissioner. Upon her appointment Jan. 1, 1914, she became not only the Department of Correction's first female commissioner but also the first woman to head any major municipal agency in the city's history.

Dr. Davis -- Katharine held a Ph.D. in political economics from the University of Chicago, the first earned by a woman -- was in charge of 5,500 inmates -- mostly males -- in nine city prisons and jails operated by 650 uniformed and civilian employees -- mostly males -- with a $2 million annual budget. Thus she had become quite possibly the country's highest ranking female municipal agency executive in terms of department size, status and powers. Her "elevation" to that position was a breathtaking development in the midst of the women's suffrage struggle then taking place. She put her high visibility at the service of that cause by becoming one of its leading spokeswomen. [More on that aspect of her life can be found elsewhere on this site in the biography Correction's Katharine Bement Davis: New York City's Suffragist Commissioner.]

Among the many reforms that Commissioner Davis initiated was the creation of the New York City Patrol Commission in December, 1915, becoming its first chairperson. Indeterminate sentencing, with possible parole as an incentive for inmate efforts at rehabilitation, had been a principle of progressive penology for decades. The innovation Katharine championed was the principle's application on the municipal level. That no other city in the nation had such panel did not deter Davis. In fact, she viewed that as an opportunity for New York City to show national leadership.

The 1915 law ended the definite term aspect of city penitentiary and workhouse sentences, and eliminated the payment of fines as an alternative to incarceration. It substituted sentences for an indeterminate period not to exceed three years for all penitentiary inmates and an indeterminate period not to exceed two years for workhouse frequent repeaters.

As set up by Davis, the city parole panel consisted of five commissioners including the Police and Correction Commissioners serving ex-officio. The other three panel members were appointed by the mayor specifically to serve as Parole Commissioners.

On Oct. 11, 1939 at the World's Fair "City Hall" in what is now Flushing Meadow Corona Park, Queens, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia announced the appointment of Henry Louis Gehrig as a member of the Parole Commission for a 10-year term to begin the following January. Little more than two months earlier, the original "Iron Man" of baseball had stood before a microphone at Yankee Stadium home plate and uttered to the hushed fans filling every seat and every standing-room-only space his farewell to the game he loved and that loved him back:

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

I have been in ballparks for seventeen years, and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. . . . So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

The colorful and daring Babe Ruth had infused the game with his zest, verve and excitement but reliable and decent Lou Gehrig had ennobled it with his own natural dignity, grace and character.

LaGuardia acknowledged this aspect of his appointee by explaining:

I believe he will be not only a capable, intelligent commissioner but that he will be an inspiration and a hope to many of the younger boys who have gotten into trouble.

Surely the misfortune of some of the young men will compare as something trivial with what Mr. Gehrig has so cheerfully and courageously faced. He expects to devote his life to public service.

The unspoken issue was how much life could be expected for him, never how much devotion could be expected of him. As usual, he gave it his all. Lou applied himself to his new career with the same perseverance and determination that he had applied to his former one.
From 1967 Sidelights

Volume XI Number 3:
State Assumes
Parole Duties

The revised Penal Law authorizing a new statewide system of misdemeanor parole went into effect Friday, Sept. 1, 1967. By further 1967 legislation, the NY State Division of Parole is given the total responsibility and jurisdiction of this new system.

As a result, the NYC Parole Commission ended existence Sept. 1, 1967 and the 4,276 cases under its jurisdiction were assumed by the State Division of Parole. These cases represent 2,766 persons then under parole supervision and 1,510 criminal offenders committed for indefinite periods with a maximum of three years to Rikers Island and the House of Detention for Women. Under the revised law, no persons convicted of a misdemeanor can be sentenced to a jail term of more than a year. This new law directly affects annually more than 2,000 offenders who are permitted to plead guilty to misdemeanors and lower degrees of felonies even though all were originally indicted for felony crimes.

Up to this time in the state only NYC had its own system of misdemeanor parole . . . in existence since 1915 when legislation creating the NYC Parole Commission was sponsored by Fusion Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. . . .

The Parole Commission was comprised of three fulltime Commissioners, 21 persons on its clerical staff, and a professional parole staff of 53 persons. City Parole Commissioners John J. Quinn and Aaron L. Jacoby became members of the State Parole Board and Fitzgerald Phillips retired after 22 years of service to the City. Also, 41 of the professional staff transferred over to the NYS Division of Parole.

The NYC Department of Correction looks forward to a successful and fruitful relationship with the NYS Division of Parole in a continuing service to the inmate population.

To prepare himself for it, the Columbia University-educated Gehrig (he had left after his sophomore year to enter professional baseball) read a shelfload of books and reports on parole and attended commission meetings regularly even before his term formally began. He expressed a firm belief in parole, properly administered, and indicated he accepted the parole post because it represented an opportunity for public service. He had rejected other job offers -- including lucrative speaking and guest appearance opportunities -- worth far more financially than the $5,700 a year commissionership.

Once officially a Parole Commissioner, he immediately scheduled visits to the city's correctional facilities, starting with the Tombs and Rikers, but insisted they be treated as work-related without news media, not as press events. To avoid any appearance of grandstanding, he had his listing on the agency's letterhead, directory displays, and publications read "Henry L. Gehrig" (as in the letterhead from the Municipal Reference Library at the top of this page).

Up until about a month before his death Gehrig went regularly to his Parole Commission office at 130 Centre St. He stopped on doctors' orders after he was hardly able to walk any more. Two weeks later he was completely confined to bed where, another two weeks later, the disease that had been little known until he was diagnosed with it took his life and he gave it his name.

More than 60 years have passed since that rare day in June, 1941 when every front page in America proclaimed the same story: that the great and gentle Gehrig, the Pride of the Yankees, the Iron Man, the player of 2,130 consecutive games, had been scratched from the lineup card of life by a crippler with an appropriately cumbersome name: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. By making it better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, he has -- if not overcome it -- risen above it and made his courage in the face of it, including his performing his Parole Commissioner duties to the virtually very end, an example for others with ALS.
From 1967 Sidelights
Volume XI Number 2:

Fitzgerald Phillips
Correction Alumnus

After 22 years of dedicated city service, Commissioner Fitzgerald Phillips of the NYC Parole Commission retired on Sept. 1, 1967.

Entering the city service on Jan. 14, 1946 as a Deputy Commissioner of NYC DOC, he served in that capacity until Jan. 9, 1950, when he was appointed by Mayor William O'Dwyer to the commission for a 10-year term. He has continued with it for the past 17 years.

With DOC, he served under two commissioners and was appointed as DOC trial commissioner, in view of his background as a lawyer and graduate of Fordham Law School (1925). . . .

Commissioner Phillips stated, It has been my philosophy that DOC and the commission cooperatively must do a constructive job in dealing with the untrained, unemployed, disadvantaged, and uneducated people in our care. . . . every effort must be extended to train the inmate in vocational skills that will enable him to obtain work and become a useful and productive citizen upon release. . . . providing resources and guidance in helping him achieve a sound community adjustment. The ultimate goal of both agencies is to reduce the costly rate of recidivism.. . .

The Commissioner's numerous affiliations include the National Council of Crime and Delinquency, the National Paroling Institute, the American Correctional Association, the Grand Street Boys, the DOC American Legion, James J. Brogan Post No. 623, the NAACP, the Urban League, the City Bar and Harlem Lawyers' associations . . . .

On June 20, 1941, Samuel Jesse Battle, by then a Lieutenant in the NYPD's Sixth Division in Harlem, was named by Mayor LaGuardia to fill the remainder of Gehrig's unexpired term running to January, 1950. The city's first Black patrolman had become its first Black police sergeant on May 21, 1926, and its first Black police lieutenant on Jan. 7, 1935.

After his retirement from city service in 1951, Battle continued to serve the Harlem community through YMCA, NAACP and Urban League programs, especially those to help young people. He died Aug. 6, 1966.

In 1946 -- about the time Battle was into his fifth year as Parole Commissioner -- a young man joined that agency as a Parole Officer, thereby starting out on what would become a long and distinguished career in the correctional field. His name: Benjamin Malcolm.

A native of Philadelphia (May 25, 1919), a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, and a World War II veteran, he started as a NYC Parole Commission officer and advanced through the ranks during the ten years that followed. But then the applicable law was rewritten to set the maximum sentence an inmate could serve in a city jail at one year and to have any longer sentences served in prisons run by the New York State Department of Correctional Services.

The revision of the law, effective in 1967, extended the State Parole Board's release authority to persons incarcerated in local reformatories, transferring the functions of the New York City Parole Commission to the New York State Division of Parole.

In 1970, Benjamin Malcolm received his master's degree in public administration from New York University. On Dec. 14 that same year, Mayor Lindsay appointed him Deputy Commissioner to Correction Commissioner George McGrath. On Jan. 24, 1972, the Mayor named Malcolm as Commissioner. He thus became the first African-American to head the municipal jail agency. He served until Nov. 19, 1977, when he stepped down to accept appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Parole Commission.

In 1984, when Malcolm's term as a U.S. Parole Commissioner expired, New York Governor Mario Cuomo offered him chairmanship of the State Parole Board but he declined, deciding instead to launch a private research company, Parole Services of America, to provide inmates seeking parole with relevant comparative parole data. In that role, he often traveled around the country, but made his home on Roosevelt Island that in past eras had been called Blackwell's Island and served as the main base of the city's correctional system.

Occasionally the former Commissioner would visit DOC headquarters at 60 Hudson St., in the Tribeca section of Lower Manhattan. Learning of the emergence of the New York Correction History Society, he expressed keen interest, noting he had played a part in making some correction history. On May 25, 2001, Benjamin Joseph Malcolm passed on into that history, joining there others who also played their parts helping make some of it, including his fellow former New York City Parole Commissioners Katharine Bement Davis, Henry Lewis Gehrig and Samuel Jesse Battle.

Today, their names are etched firmly in the list of New York "firsts" -- the first female commissioner and the first Black commissioner of NYC Correction, the first Black NYPD officer and the first Iron Man of baseball. But faded from New York City collective memory is awareness that another "first" figured significantly in the lives of these four history-makers -- the New York City Parole Commission, the first of its kind in America.

The Webmaster, New York Correction History Society

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