New York House of Refuge
A Brief History
The New York House of Refuge was the first juvenile reformatory in the nation. It was the product of a philanthropic association, originally called the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, organized in 1816. During its early years, the Society was dominated by Quaker merchants and influential political leaders, such as Cadwallader Colden and Stephen Allen. In 1820 and 1821, the Society conducted an extensive survey of United States prisons and then appointed a committee to study the returns. The committee's report criticized the prevailing spirit of revenge in the treatment of prisoners and deplored the imprisonment of individuals regardless of age or the severity of crime. Following adoption of the report in 1824, the Society reorganized for the purpose of establishing a reformatory.
Although the New York House of Refuge was privately managed, the State of New York was involved from the beginning in organizing, funding, establishing inmate commitment procedures, and developing treatment programs. In 1824, the State Legislature incorporated the "Managers of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in the City of New York" (Ch. 126, Laws of 1824). Next followed a statute authorizing courts state-wide to commit juveniles convicted of crimes or adjudicated as vagrants to the New York House of Refuge (Ch. 24, Laws of 1826).
The Society members elected a thirty-member Board of Managers. An Acting Committee, consisting initially of five and later seven Board members, met weekly as the policy-making organ. The Superintendent, appointed by the Acting Committee, was responsible for daily management. The matron supervised the Female Department.
Public funding was an early goal of the reformatory's sponsors. In 1825, the State Legislature began providing funds through both legislative appropriation and the use of revenue raised from surplus funds from a head tax on arriving transatlantic passengers and seamen, plus the proceeds from license fees for New York City's taverns, theatres, and circuses. These revenue sources were deemed appropriate, since the society's leaders and supporters blamed immigration, intemperance and commercial entertainment for juvenile crime.
A private subscription enabled the Society to purchase part of an old federal arsenal in Manhattan in July 1824. The reformatory occupied several other sites in New York City. Eventually the Society acquired $125,000 from the State and Federal Government for a new site on Randalls Island in the East River, which was completed in 1854; housing for the Female Division was completed in 1860.
The reformatory opened January 1, 1825, with six boys and three girls. Within a decade 1,678 inmates were admitted. Two features distinguished the New York institution from its British antecedents. First, children were committed for vagrancy in addition to petty crimes. Second, children were sentenced or committed indefinitely; the House of Refuge exercised authority over inmates throughout their minority years. During the nineteenth century most inmates were committed for vagrancy or petty theft. Originally, the institution accepted inmates from across the state, but after the establishment of the Western House of Refuge in 1849, inmates came only from the first, second and third judicial districts (Ch. 24, Laws of 1850).
A large part of an inmate's daily schedule was devoted to supervised labor, which was regarded as beneficial to education and discipline. Inmate labor also supported operating expenses for the reformatory. Typically, male inmates produced brushes, cane chairs, brass nails, and shoes. The female inmates made uniforms, worked in the laundry, and performed other domestic work. A badge system was used to segregate inmates according to their behavior. Students were instructed in basic literacy skills. There was also great emphasis on evangelical religious instruction, although non-Protestant clergy were excluded. The reformatory had the authority to bind out inmates through indenture agreements by which employers agreed to supervise them during their employment. Although initially several inmates were sent to sea, most male and female inmates were sent to work as farm and domestic laborers, respectively.
In the 1830s and 1840s, the House of Refuge was acclaimed by such visitors as Alexis De Tocqueville, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens. It served as a model for reformatories in other large American cities. In 1857 when it hosted a national convention of reformatory administrators, the New York House of Refuge had the largest reformatory population in the United States. In the same year the New York State Senate Committee on Social Agencies boasted, "The New York House of Refuge is now in the extent of its operations, the greatest reform school in the world" (1857 Senate Document No. 8).