Speaker describes history of the state prison system

Posted 1/16/19

Speaking at the January program sponsored by the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society, David Miller, former superintendent at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, pointed out to …

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Speaker describes history of the state prison system

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Speaking at the January program sponsored by the Town of Lloyd Historical Preservation Society, David Miller, former superintendent at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Napanoch, pointed out to his audience that there were 16-18 correctional facilities within a one-hour drive of his home in New Paltz. It was a sharp reminder of how much the New York State Prison system surrounds us, contributing to our economy and landscape, and adding a poignant note to his description of the history of the system.

Miller’s presentation on the History of the New York State Prison System was based on his research and his own extensive experience working in the system. He began his career in the Highland Residential Center for juveniles. That was during the Rockefeller Administration, he noted, and there was an emphasis on treatment. But that emphasis changed as drugs became prevalent and the focus switched to punishment even for cases involving a small amount of drugs. Miller made a career move into teaching, becoming a superintendent of schools, but eventually moved back into the Department of Corrections.

During his career there, he became superintendent at Eastern and several other facilities, worked in hostage negotiations, and became accreditation manager. After his retirement he continued to train superintendents in the system. As he puts it, “I’ve looked at the system from a lot of angles.”

Miller began his presentation by introducing “a couple of main concepts”: first, that Corrections is always changing, responding to what’s happening in the outside world, and second, there was tremendous expansion of the system until the past few years, when it has considerably retracted. As he spoke, the relationship between the two concepts became clear.

Just as democracy is always changing, he explained, the pendulum of correction philosophy and practices swings left to right, then back right to left. Showing the evidence of this even within recent history, he pointed out that former governor Mario Cuomo had been unable to find funding to build more prisons, but with the perception that crime was rising dangerously, just a few years later, Governor George Pataki built two new prisons, instituted three strikes and you’re out, and brought back the death penalty.

Miller also used recent history to describe the expansion/retraction of prisons. In the early 1980’s, he said, there were about 20,000 inmates in 22 institutions. By the time he retired in 2005, there were 72 institutions, housing 72,449 prisoners. Now, he added, the population is around 50,000 or lower. It changes, he said according to how the public feels. With a great emphasis on drug use, people became scared and willing to spend any amount of money to solve the problem. Now, however, the emphasis on keeping drug offenders locked up is changing to an expansion of programs and services within prisons, such as vocational instruction, recreational opportunities, and drug counselling. Miller, who was in the forefront of this movement as superintendent at Eastern, described it in detail in his recent book, “Punishment Enough: A Different Approach to Doing Time.”

In the Beginning . . .

Going back to the beginning of the state prison system, Miller described the first prison built in New York State – the Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was a fortress-like structure, built in the late 1700’s and in use until the late 1920’s. Initially it had 58 rooms, each 12x28 feet and housing 12-15 inmates. No effort was made to divide them by age or crime, so young offenders whose wrongdoings were minor were side-by-side with violent, hardened criminals.

Soon Newgate was not big enough, and the State built a second prison, this one in Auburn, NY. Under the command of Captain Elam Lynds, the Auburn facility developed a new prison system, known as “congregate.” Congregate, because the prisoners worked together – but that didn’t mean they associated together. The system depended upon complete silence and heavy discipline. Prisoners got up in the morning, were marched to breakfast, took their bucket and dumped it, were marched to work, back to the dining room for lunch, then back to work, followed by back to the dining room for dinner, and then to their cells for the night – all in total silence.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania was developing a different, but no more congenial approach. There, the goal was to achieve penance from the prisoners, and the method was to keep them in their cells all day, to sleep, work, and eat there. About the only excuse to get out was for medical treatment, in which case they were blindfolded. Whether that actually led to penance, Miller did not speculate.

And then – Sing Sing

As the size of the general population grew, so did the number of crimes and the need for more correctional facilities. In the 1820’s, the state enlisted Captain Lynds to head a new prison close to New York City. The site was a small town along the Hudson River called Sing Sing, named after a Native American tribe known as Sinck Sinck, original owners of the land. (Eventually, the town chose to disassociate itself from the prison and named itself Ossining.)

Under Lynds’ direction, prisoners from Auburn quarried marble to build Sing Sing prison. The cells in the first structure, which opened in 1826, were about three feet wide by seven feet long. There was no running water – only a bucket – and no electricity. A few years later, the building grew up to four tiers and then to eight. Later a chapel and a hospital were added.

Controlled by brutality and housing the toughest criminals from New York City, Sing Sing soon got new labels: up the river, the big house, and the last half mile. Describing the punishment imposed there, Miller spoke of “no middle range – more or less a slap on the wrist or execution.” As in Auburn, the prisoners worked together in factories, but were otherwise kept isolated. The administration believed that intrinsic motivation could be encouraged by this treatment, inspiring the prisoners to return to goodness upon release.

Prisoners were marched from one part of their day to the next in “lockstep.” Lockstepping to and from the factories left no doubt as to who they were, with their shaved heads, striped uniforms, and ill-fitting shoes. In several cases in the early years, the treatment led not to reformation, but to suicide.

In the women’s section at Sing Sing, a young female warden named Elizabeth Farnham introduced much more liberal policies for women prisoners in the 1840’s. Although she lobbied for similar changes for men, she was pretty much ignored.

But the early 20th century did bring changes – especially as the prison became a tourist attraction. Prisoners were given freedom to relax in the yard. A library and classrooms added to their choice of activities. Hollywood made movies onsite and major league baseball teams came to play against prisoners. Warner Brothers Studio financed a gymnasium for inmates. Inmates were even invited to help write the rules for prison behavior.

The last century brought a definite swing of the pendulum at Sing Sing. What’s next? Miller put it this way: As superintendent of a maximum-security prison you need to strike a balance between control and rehabilitation. That’s what he worked hard to achieve at Eastern and has been helping other superintendents learn ever since.

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