Bedford Hills Correction Facility

Within criminal justice circles, Bedford Hills is a byword for its trail-blazing past and for the imaginative correctional program it offers today. Bedford is not so well Known to the general public. It doesn't have the showy prison props. No intimidating wall, no forbidding cell-houses. It doesn't dominate the Hudson, like its neighbor Sing Sing; instead, it sits hidden in an inland wooded swale. But the real reason for Bedford's anonymity is that its inmates are women and women do not usually inspire fear and the attention that goes with it.




Seen as insignificant in terms of physical menace, and almost too few to be seen at all (only 3,500- or one in 20 - of New York state's 70,000 prisoners are women), females were an afterthought for most of prison history. Bedford changed that in a hurry. Opening in 1901 as a reformatory for women aged 16 to 30 who were convicted of lesser offenses, it soon became a showplace embodying the most progressive correctional ideas of the day: education, systematic psychological studies of inmates in a state-of-the-art diagnostic clinic and segregation of psychopaths and defectives.

Overcrowding and dwindling finances eventually overcame the founders' zeal, however, and Bedford lapsed into an unambitious program of custody. In 1933, a women's prison was added, and in 1970, the reformatory was discontinued altogether, After a brief transition period, Bedford settled into its current role: in a statewide network of diversifled institutions and programs for women including medium- and minimum-security institutions, work release centers and Shock Incarceration camps Bedford serves as the system's only maximum-security facility

While fulfilling its assigned function within the system as a whole, Bedford maintains its own diversity. Inside the security fence are more than 50 buildings in a variety of styles and ages. Some of the women are housed in cells in three-story brick buildings constructed in the 1960's. Some live in modern "cookie-cutter" dormitories. Fiske Cottage, built in 1933, serves as "honor housing" with individual rooms, to which the inmates hold the keys, for 26 women. New mothers reside with their babies in a nursery.

Bedford is the receiving and classification center for all females sentenced to prison terms. An Office of Mental Health satellite unit at Bedford provides psychiatric services to all the state's female inmates, and a statewide female regional medical unit is under construction, with occupancy anticipated in June. Bedford is the only women's facility to offer the Family Reunion Program of overnight, private visits with spouses, children or other family members.

From Newgate to Local Jails

In the early years of New York's prison history, females were held either in the men's prisons or local jails. At Newgate, the state's first prison, women were housed in rooms apart from the men, but were otherwise treated the same. Not so at Auburn, to which women from upstate counties were sent. There they were taken to a stuffy attic, whose windows were closed and darkened to prevent communication with the men outside. Isolated, ignored, with almost nothing to do, the women lived in dreary misery. (The upside was that unlike the men who were worked like animals they didn't live in fear of the fore-man's whip.)

At both prisons, the women were guarded by male personnel until 1832, when Auburn hired a matron in spite of the Legislature's refusal to appropriate funds.

Starting in 1838, the state used a building at Sing Sing as its women's prison. It was quickly overcrowded. The chapel was converted to housing, but the inmates soon began spilling out of the cells into hallways and offices. Finally, in 1877, the state gave up trying to make room in the men's prisons. The Sing Sing unit closed, and the women were farmed out to county jails in Rochester, Buffalo and Brooklyn. Crowded with young and old, pickpockets and cutthroats thrown together indiscriminately, the local jails were terrible places for anyone, but especially for state-sentenced prisoners facing years of confinement.

Demand for Women's Reformatories

The situation of the women, now abandoned entirely by the state, appeared even worse against New York's recent triumph at Elmira. Opened in 1876, the internationally renowned reformatory promised to salvage young men's lives through a revolutionary program of education and parole. Shouldn't the futures of young women also be of concern? Influential citizens led by Josephine Shaw Lowell, the first woman commissioner on the State Board of Charities, and Abby Hopper Gibbons, president of the Women's Prison Association, called on the Legislature to create reformatories for young female misdemeanants. After 11 years, the Hudson House of Refuge for Women opened; a western counterpart opened in Albion in 1893. (Also in 1893, a prison was set up in a building on the grounds of Auburn for women whose crimes or ages were inappropriate for a reformatory.) Only the downstate region lacked a reformatory.

New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford

A bill authorizing a reformatory in Westchester County passed the Legislature in 1892. The following year, the 107˝-acre Cromwell farm at Bedford Station on the Harlem Railroad line was purchased for $10,000. Ground was broken in the spring of 1894, but appropriations were grudging. Seven years passed before the reformatory was ready for occupancy.

As a reformatory, Bedford did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Prison Department, but was controlled by a board of managers appointed by the Governor. The board offered the job of superintendent to Katherine Bement Davis. With a doctorate from the University of Chicago, Davis represented a new breed of women administrators. During her 12 years at Bedford, she hired other female scholars and initiated scientific studies that would influence the future of corrections here and in other states.

The unfenced Bedford campus consisted of an administration building, laundry, power house, gate house and stable. New inmates were housed in a reception building with cells as well as rooms, and were later assigned to one of four cottages, with a total capacity of 238. The cottages were classified according to age, marital status and behavior. Each had its own flower garden and kitchen.

The first inmates arrived on May 11, 1901. They were expected to work half a day in the laundry building, in the basket and hat-making shops, or at cooking or making clothing.

Davis stressed outdoor work and the "fresh air treatment," partly for reasons of health, partly out of necessity. Inmates milked cows, raised chickens and slaughtered pigs, supplying all their own milk, eggs and pork and much of their vegetables and beef. They planted trees, shoveled coal, painted cottages and put up fences. They drained a swamp, built a conduit for a steam laundry and built a road. They graded an embankment. They made an artificial pond and then harvested the ice. After Davis herself learned how to make concrete, inmates laid thousands of square feet of cement walkways, floors and stairways.

The other half of the day was devoted to education. (Davis accepted the superintendency, she said, on condition she “could run it as a school and not a prison.") The three R's were taught as well as mechanical drawing, stenography, typing, chair caning, cobbling, book-binding, painting and carpentry. Davis gave singing lessons, the assistant superintendent taught a daily gymnastics class and the physician gave a weekly talk on physiology and sex hygiene A staff member directed inmate productions of plays and Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. In summers, a recreation director was employed.

Science and Riot

This idyllic program couldn't last. Within three years, crowding was a problem, aggravated by the closing of the Hudson reformatory (convened in 1904 to a school for girls aged l2 to 15). Bedford was forced to double up the rooms and to use corridors for makeshift dormitories. Three new cottages were built between 1907 and 1911, but by now inmates were sleeping in the gymnasium and dining rooms. Seven more cottages were added in 1915, but it was too late: Bedford was already slipping out of control.

There were too many inmates, and the wrong kind. The new probation option was drawing off the most promising prospects for reform, leaving drug addicts, illiterates, foreigners and the "feebleminded." Davis grew concerned about troublemakers and incorrigibles. In the summer of 1909, a volunteer made psychological studies of selected inmates, giving rise to the idea of a comprehensive study to see whether the misfits could be identified and segregated from the reformables. Davis obtained a grant to hire a psychologist. Genealogists and field workers were provided by private parties who were determined to do something about rising crime caused, they were convinced, by hereditary feeblemindedness. Not surprisingly, the studies tended to confirm the suspicion that the reformatory was flooded with mental defectives.

At about the same time, Davis persuaded philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to purchase a 71-acre tract of land adjacent to the institution. Rockefeller built and staffed a 'Laboratory of Social Hygiene," a diagnostic clinic where new admissions would be screened for mental defect, and put the laboratory at Bedford's disposal for the nominal charge of $1 a year.

Davis departed soon afterward to become commissioner of the Corrections Department for New York City. Now under less inspired leadership, the inmates became practically uncontrollable. the State Board of Charities investigated the reformatory in 1915, issuing a public report blaming the troubles on mismanagement, abusive discipline, overcrowding and the --scapegoat of the day--feebleminded prisoners. they also cited "unnatural attachments" between black and white inmates. The next year, ostensibly at the request of black inmates, the cottages were segregated by race something Davis had refused to do. They would remain segregated into the 1950's.

Meanwhile, the clinic's social scientists found a new classification of troublesome women: "psychopaths" people who, though intellectually normal, could not and would not get along anywhere. To subdue the psychopaths, the Laboratory of Social Hygiene still using Rockefeller money established a Psychopathic Hospital in 1916. Among the treatment facilities was a "hydrotherapy room," where patients in restraints could be nearly totally immersed for up to two hours.

With disorder reaching scandal proportions, Governor Alfred E. Smith ordered a second investigation. In 1919, the Commission of Prisons heard testimony that prisoners were shackled to their beds for days at a time, that they were flogged and that they were handcuffed to a wall with their toes barely reaching the floor while their faces were pushed into cold water. Officials admitted the charges in part, and with an explanation. Prisoners were cuffed to the wall, "but never with their feet off the floor." The faces of excited or hysterical girls were sometimes "dip a solution to the "menace of the feebleminded."

The next year, a Division for Mentally Defective Delinquent Women (DMDDW) was created on the site of the former clinic. The DMDDW could receive defectives direct from the courts or by transfer from Bedford; in either case, commitments were indefinite.

Inmates saw the DMDDW as another psychopathic hospital: a way for the reformatory to get rid of troublemakers. When they realized it also meant their three-year reformatory sentences had become life terms with the stroke of a psychiatrist's pen Bedford erupted into riot. While baffling among themselves with knives and clubs, 150 women held state troopers and town of Bedford police at bay until they were finally "clubbed into submission."

Though Bedford would continue to be called a reformatory for another 50 years, the institution envisioned by Lowell and Gibbons was dead. In 1921, the law requiring a female superintendent was eliminated so that a strong male hand could keep the lid on. From then until the appointment of Henrietta Addition in 1940, Bedford was run by men.

Reorganization: From Westfield State Farm to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility

With the appointment of Dr. Amos T. Baker as superintendent in 1921, and with commitment to the DMDDW a visible threat, order was restored at Bedford. Major changes were not far off. On January 1, 1927, as part of a reorganization of state government, the reformatory was placed under the new Department of Correction, which began preparations for the removal of defectives to Albion in 1931, thereby making room for there-location of the women's prison from Auburn to the "Rockefeller Group" buildings in 1933. The prison and reformatory operated as two distinct institutions, one-quarter mile apart and separated by a road, each section enclosed by a fence. The new complex was renamed the Westfield State Farm.

Except for an occasional escape (one woman who scaled the fence was soon found in White Plains, drunk and bloody from the barbed wire), Westfield functioned uneventfully until the l970’s.

In 1970, Westfield State Farm was reorganized. Females were removed from the prison section to make way for males, while the reformatory became a general confinement facility for women. The two sections constituted a single institution, renamed Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The men and women were kept apart, but a few coed activities were conducted, such as a creative writing class and dances.

In December, 1973, the male section was administratively separated from Bedford, becoming Taconic. Then, in 1989, in response to the rapidly rising female census, Taconic converted to a medium-security women's facility, still distinct from maximum-security Bedford Hills.

New Programming Directions

In addition to the standard DOCS programs, Bedford has developed new initiatives to help inmates deal with persistent problems in areas including parenthood, domestic violence and AIDS. What is striking about these programs is that, though managed by employees, they are staffed by inmates.

Bedford's nursery, where new mothers may keep their babies for up to 18 months, is the oldest prison nursery in the United States. There is also a Children's Center with toys and books, arranged to make children feel comfortable while visiting their mothers. Both the nursery and the visiting center are staffed with inmate child care workers. Other services to mothers use inmate counselors, including education and advocacy in custody and foster care situations, and an education program using films and intensive workshops to improve parenting techniques.

ACE (AIDS Counseling and Education) is an inmate organization promoting safe behavior and the elimination of fear and stigma associated with AIDS and HIV. ACE conducts workshops on housing units and every other area of the facility. ACE runs prograrms for those living with the virus and encourages expression through art, poetry and song. It also works with outside groups to provide support to women coming out of prison.

Several programs teach inmates alternatives to violent behavior. Another helps inmates to cope with domestic violence in their backgrounds.

Bedford is like a caring community, whose 840 residents aid and support each other. The facility has received many awards in recent years, and representatives from France, England, China, Scotland and other states have paid official visits to see its programs in action.

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Article is from DOCS TODAY May 1999

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