House of Refuge and Reformatory life

The construction of a House of Refuge in New York City in 1825, along with an explicit recognition that juveniles constituted a unique, distinct population (“the unfortunate youth”) marked a significant transition in the social history of the United States.[i]  This being said, it should be stressed that the prison reform movement of the mid-19th century in America held a similar philosophy on the treatment of both adult and juvenile convicts; that is, reformers desired to create a system that rehabilitated the minds of the convicted using various methods.

Adult Prisons versus reformatories

Though the juvenile population was considered a distinct entity, reformers and officials leading Houses of Refuge (HOR) sought to reform juveniles using virtually the same methods as those used with adult inmates, such as an emphasis on solitude, schooling, exposure to religion, and labor (though labor was in general less physically demanding).(see Figure 1)  In the 1860s and 1870s this original rigor of the reformers waned, and reformatories transformed into “warehouses for the unwanted”, where the inner cities dumped troublesome, misguided children and promptly forgot.  These “forgotten children” from 1830 – 1855 (the peak years of the HOR) were predominantly poor and immigrant Irish children under the age of 12; their high rates of incarceration in the HOR was subsequently attributed to the natural unruliness of the Irish population.[ii]


Figure 1

Children’s Schedule at HOR

The New York City House of Refuge at its inception in 1825 articulated very clearly how it expected the reformation of its subjects to occur.  For example, the typical schedule for a day in the life of a juvenile might look like the following: a considerable portion of the day would be spent undertaking supervised labor (which was thought to both improve discipline and reduce operating costs), which depending on gender consisted of manufacturing household necessities such as nails or shoes (boys) or doing laundry and sewing uniforms (girls); all inmates would spend a few hours each day gaining basic literacy skills such as reading or writing(see Figure 2); finally, a few hours each day were set aside for evangelical religious instruction (although critically, non-Protestant instruction and clergy were excluded) as well as exercise and other physical activity.(see Figure 3) Some juveniles also received the opportunity to receive instruction in some craft through an indenture agreement; at first this usually meant going out to sea to learn the various crafts associated with sailing, but by the middle of the 19th century resulted in work on local rural farms for the boys and domestic servitude for girls.[iii]


Figure 2


Figure 3


A common theme underlying every protocol and behavior of the NYC HOR was encouraging the virtuosity of its inmates through physical means: immaculate personal hygiene and outward appearance were emphasized (“cleanliness is next to godliness”), schooling encouraged obedience, and positive reinforcement mechanisms such as badges for good behavior were prevalent in the HOR system.  On a more physical level, officials equated themselves, as we have seen in the legal doctrine parens patriae, to the fathers of the household for each individual juvenile, and therefore had the right of physical punishment when deemed “absolutely necessary”.  Whippings inside of houses of refuge were quite common and were (theoretically) to be administered in proportion to the infraction committed by the juvenile.  Furthermore, in the mood of the prison reform sweeping New York at this time, the sting of the whip was intended not to chafe the body but to be “felt upon the conscience.”[iv]

Physical Punishment

            As a mode of instilling discipline, physical punishment was not avoided within the confines of the HOR in New York City, or in any of the subsequent imitators of the New York City chapter.  Although they will not be discussed in this essay, officials frequently turned to a variety of corporal punishment including: hanging children from their thumbs, severe beatings (usually via whip), solitary confinement, the “ducking stool” for girls, handcuffs, and the silent system, each of which was intended to quickly remove any wicked tendencies and foster obedience.  A good example of this atmosphere can be found in Austin Reed’s “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict”, a memoir describing Reed’s incarceration experience in the 1850s and 1860s.  Austin Reed, an African American prisoner that circulated between American penitentiary systems including the New York House of Refuge and Auburn State Prison, had mixed feelings about his time spent at the NYC HOR.  On the one hand, the schooling provided by the House of Refuge provided him with basic literacy – he critically learned how to read and write, which enabled him to document his experience and provide an insider account into a unique institution – but the physical punishment meted out on a daily basis was severe both in nature and duration.  Based on the annual reports issued by the House of Refuge, we can assume that this     Though it was emphasized that punishment was given proportional to the infraction dealt, officials tended to treat small infractions as indicative of vicious propensities needed to be quelled as soon as possible.[v]

Life after the House of Refuge

Generally speaking, the sample schedule shown above existed for those inmates that had not yet acquired an apprenticeship of some kind; it was the hope of the Society of Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents (SRJD, the organization that created the NYC HOR) that after a juvenile inmate demonstrated rehabilitation, he or she would immediately apply to an appropriate master of a certain craft.  The common goal of apprenticeships from the perspective of the SRJD was a “noble pursuit” as far away from a large city as possible.  For boys this equated to apprenticeships on whaling ships or alternatively farms in the countryside, to learn marketable skills; most girls, conversely, were sent to work as domestic servants to cultivate skills in cooking, cleaning, and sewing (see Figure 4).  It should be emphasized that the intended virtues to be cultivated differed from boys to girls: the SRJD intended to foster a sense of “family, industry, and citizenship” in these future gentlemen, and a sense of “piety, cleanliness and industry” in future ladies.


Figure 4


Overall, the treatment of juvenile prisoners in New York City was guided by a strong belief in the necessity of engendering strong virtues in the hearts and minds of at-risk youths in New York City.  All rules, procedures, and punishments were enacted with this singular goal in mind, and were used as justification for the sometimes appalling physical treatment endured by its residents.  However, it is undeniable that at least at first, a genuine, strong effort was made to give academic instruction to individuals who otherwise may not have received such an education.  Despite the fact that this positive concept doubtlessly benefited the children to some degree, other less constructive measures (some intended like severe punishment and some unintended such as overcrowding in later years) diluted the experience for many.

-Nicholas Popo

[i] Report on the Penitentiary System in the United States, Prepared under a Resolution of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in the City of New-York. 1822.

[ii] Pickett, R. (1969). House of refuge: Origins of juvenile reform in New York State, 1815-1857. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press

[iii] “The Greatest Reform School in the World: A Guide to the Records of the New York House of Refuge.” Publications. New York State Archives, 1989. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.

[iv] Kann, Mark E. Punishment, Prisons, and Patriarchy: Liberty and Power in the Early American Republic. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.

[v] “First-known Prison Narrative by an African American.” Yale News. Yale University, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 8 Oct. 2016.


Figure 1- Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Public Institutions On Randall’S Island.” 1875 New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Figure 2- Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New York House Of Refuge On Randall’S Island.” 1868 New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Figure 3- Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Large Boys At Play.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Figure 4- Photographs of Washington State and Alaska, ca. 1884-194  “Crew posing for group portrait on board ship, one holding small dog, location unknown, ca. 1899” University of Washington Digital Collections Accessed October 20 2016