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What is a Reformatory?

By Elizabeth West
Updated May 16, 2024
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A reformatory is a detention facility primarily aimed at reforming offenders rather than simply incarcerating them. The first reformatories housed youthful first-time offenders, and there were also adult correctional facilities for women and men. Reformatories are commonly called youth detention centers or correctional centers, and the term reformatory is often reserved for adult facilities. Juveniles are steered toward community and home-based programs.

Reformatories were first established in the US around 1825 in New York State. The first reform schools concentrated more on discipline than education. Boys and girls were initially incarcerated together, and later segregated. In 1876, Zebulon Brockway established the rehabilitative model in his boys’ facility in Elmira, New York, stressing education and training, parole supervision, and the indeterminate sentence, where each inmate was held until reformed but no longer.

The reformatory was popular until money considerations and limited resources began to take their toll. Brockway’s school set the standard for many more locations despite later allegations of cruelty toward his charges and indifferent and ineffectual application of his strategies. At the turn of the twentieth century, the newly-established juvenile courts system began to refer to the institutions as trade schools or industrial schools. The militant institutions began to give way to rural, family-style facilities with cottages and a homier atmosphere, following models in Europe.

Women's facilities were horribly squalid at the beginning of the twentieth century. The reformatory was established by religious advocates to improve conditions and the dismal survival rate of babies born to female prisoners. Women were given an education and some vocational training to aid them upon release. Like their male counterparts, women's reformatories became correctional centers, with less emphasis on reintegration.

The military-style juvenile reformatory reappeared in the 1990s with the establishment of boot camps, which are tough, no-nonsense programs for youthful offenders designed to rehabilitate through discipline. An offshoot of similar adult programs in the penal system, shock incarceration at juvenile boot camps proved to be no more effective in reducing recidivism than any other reformatory setting. Some facilities even garnered allegations of abuse.

Most juvenile offenders are sent to community programs or small group homes where they can receive drug rehabilitation, counseling, education, and vocational training services. Programs are designed with lofty goals in mind but they must be implemented properly to be effective, a difficult task when jurisdictions cut budgets. Recently released inmates in any of these programs need support to return to their communities, schools, and jobs.

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Discussion Comments

By indemnifyme — On Aug 17, 2011

@ceilingcat - It does seem like a privately ran juvenile detention center would be a bad idea. However, I don't think it would be impossible for someone to create a reformatory that actually succeeded in rehabilitating people.

I mean, obviously the harsher tactics of the 19th century reformatories wouldn't be used. I just really can't believe with all the strides we've made in science and psychology someone can't come up with a way to reform juvenile offenders!

By Valencia — On Aug 16, 2011

@CaithnessCC - I really want to do the ghost tour at the Mansfield reformatory haunted house event, but it's so difficult to get tickets. You have to book a long time in advance.

I think that the reformatory system is a good idea if it is actually practiced. In many cases people were just locked up to keep them out of the way of the prospering folk.

I imagine plenty of people died in Mansfield prison, so all that angst and feeling will mean a lot of spirits are hanging around the building.

By ceilingcat — On Aug 15, 2011

It seems to me that no matter how well intentioned some of these programs start out as, they don't work. I read an article recently about a huge legal scandal on the East coast.

A judge was convicted of sentencing juveniles to a privately ran "reform" facility for pay! Because the facility was privately ran, the people who ran it were making a profit. They kicked some of the money back to the judge for every juvenile he sentenced to be "reformed" there.

Eventually the truth came out, as well as allegations of child abuse at the facility. Before that the facility had represented itself as helping to rehabilitate youthful offenders.

I'm not say there is no way to reform a juvenile offender, but I doubt incarceration really does the trick.

By CaithnessCC — On Aug 15, 2011

I have a strong interest in history and punishment, so I really enjoyed reading this article. It's fascinating to learn about the changes to the system through the years.

Last year I went to the Ohio state reformatory, which is now a museum dedicated to preserving the magnificent building and its history.

It's fascinating to me that the architecture was designed to affect the inmates behavior, the idea being that they would repent. It is beautiful but I think all that gothic influence would have been quite intimidating.

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