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.