History of Chemung County 1892 - Towner
Chemung County NY
Our County and its People - A History of the Valley and County of Chemung
by Ausburn Towner, 1892
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Retyped by Karen Dyal
See 1897 Year Book of the Reformatory
See Helen Samson Article

  • It may be observed, and perhaps with some concern, that neither the State nor the national governments have been very generous toward the county as regards any permanent investments therein. This armory is one of the only two buildings in the locality that are not of purely local foundations. The other one is the reformatory. This institution occupies one of the most commanding and sightly spots in the valley on the hills west of the city of Elmira, and is an imposing and striking edifice. It is the embodiment of the idea of one man, and has passed from an experimental stage up to a high plane of usefulness and excellence.

    The idea existed a good many years and first took practical shape before the legislature of the State in 1869. In March of the following year a portion of the land occupied by the institution was purchased, and again in the year following that an additional amount was bought, making the total about 280 acres. The building commissioners appointed were Charles C. B. Walker, of Corning; Stephen T. Arnot and Frank H. Atkinson, of Elmira; A.H. Miller, of Owego; and Amos


    Pillsbury, of Albany. The latter named gentleman, however resigned and Joseph Warren, of Buffalo, was appointed in his place. Operations were at once begun and the building was ready for occupancy in 1876. Up to that date the appropriations for the institution had amounted to the sum of $875,000. Z. R. Brockway was appointed general superintendent of the institution in May, 1876, and has held the position since. The system which governs is his and he has perfected it to the minutest detail. Generally stated it aims to ascertain if there is anything good in the person sent to tarry within its walls, and if there is to develop and strengthen it, while tendencies that are bad are to be eradicated or, if not that, suppressed. Much is to be considered to reach these ends: heredity and environment must be known, and these given each inmate is a study by himself. It is an unusual case that the system is unable to reach, although the reform is not always possible. Sufficient is definitely ascertained, however, to mark the effort as successful. Up to September 30, 1890, there had been received since the opening of the institution 4,550 persons. Of these 3,485 had been discharged and 1,065 were in the institution on the date named. Of these 3,485 14 were absolutely released without parole and 2,611 were paroled.

    On entrance an inmate is placed in a grade from which he can rise or descend according to his conduct. Six months decides his direction for him. If advanced six months more of proper conduct releases him on parole, and six months of good conduct on parole releases him entirely from the oversight of the institution. Trades of all kinds are taught in the institution, and there are schools attendant upon which and progress therein enter into the marks of the inmate, going toward his ultimate release or his degradation. On Thanksgiving day, 1883, there was issued in the reformatory the first number of a newspaper called the Summary. It is edited by the inmates, and all of the mechanical work upon it is also performed by them. It is much more than a creditable production in matter and manner, and the interest in it has spread so far that its circulation is by no means confined within the walls of the institution. Its mail list is large and goes all over the country.


    The annual report to the legislature of the managers of the institution is printed by the inmates, and is a piece of work of which no job office would be inclined to feel ashamed. The report for 1890 has an appendix full of illustrations, all the work of the inmates, drawn from photographs made by inmates.

    Those suitable for the purpose have been formed into a military organization, which is well drilled and proficient in the manual of arms. The institution also furnishes its own brass band to head the battalion on its parades or to enliven its practice. There are also gymnasium facilities, and all means are taken to care for the physical as well as mental health of the inmates.

    Z. R. Brockway, the head and originator of this humane and provident system, has made it the study of his life. He has spent forty years in perfecting it. He began as the clerk of the Wethersfield (Conn.) prison, going thense after two years to assist Amos Pillsbury at the Albany (N.Y.) penitentiary; thence after three years to Rochester, N.Y., where he remained seven years. While there he assisted in drawing the plans of the Detroit (Mich.) House of Correction that is conducted on a plan somewhat similar to the Elmira Reformatory, and when it was opened he acted as it’s superintendent for thirteen years. From Detroit he came to Elmira. It is seldom that a man is permitted to see with his own eyes the practical carrying out, on so extensive a scale, of ideas and theories that reach so far and touch humanity so deeply and to such an extent, not only in the present, but in the future.

    There are about 1,200 inmates confined in the institution at the present time. The Board of Managers is composed of the following named: President, William C. Wey; secretary, James B. Rathbone; treasurer, Matthias H. Arnot; and William H. Peters and Benjamin Swartwood.