Building “a prison without walls”

Wallkill Correctional Facility (Mid-week Pictorial, July 1933)

At a time when New Yorkers are choosing up sides on the issue of bail reform, while Ulster County gets used to the idea of having both a district attorney and a county sheriff who come down on the “restorative justice” side of policing, rather than emphasizing the punitive, it’s tempting to think of public attitudes about prisons as having been on a course of gradual enlightenment since the days of chain gangs and the electric chair. But in truth, the tension between advocates for prison reform and “get-tough” policies has swung back and forth for centuries now. Sometimes one approach predominates, sometimes the other.

In the 1920s, even before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, crime rates in the US were perceived as skyrocketing – although some historians argue that the notion that Prohibition gave a huge boost to organized crime may have been propaganda fostered by proponents of alcoholic beverages being re-legalized. Law enforcement agencies of the time didn’t keep very detailed statistics, so in retrospect, it’s hard to say for sure. We do know that more people were being arrested and convicted; the population of New York State prisons rose from 6,600 in 1920 to 9,700 in 1926. By contemporary standards, those numbers seem paltry. But rightly or wrongly, there was a public perception that crime was rampant and more malefactors needed to be locked up.

In 1926 the New York State Legislature responded to the perceived “crime wave” by enacting what became known as the Baumes Laws, whose provisions included a “fourth strike” policy that mandated a life sentence for anyone convicted of a crime four times. The policy change resulted in a significant bump in prison populations. The three maximum-security facilities for adult males in the state at the time were primitive – Auburn had been built in 1816, Sing Sing in 1826 and Clinton/Dannemora in 1844 – and soon became desperately overcrowded. Great Meadow, originally built without a wall and opened in 1911 as a prison for first-time offenders, was upgraded to maximum security in 1928, the inmates having been forced to build their own wall around themselves.


Worsening conditions sparked three prison riots in New York State by the end of that decade. An escape attempt from Clinton in July 1929 resulted in three inmate deaths and a fire. A similar attempt at Auburn six days later yielded four escapes, two prisoners and two guards killed, six buildings destroyed. A second, well-coordinated Auburn riot in December involved 50 inmates, eight hostages and a tear gas attack, with eight prisoners shot down and three leaders of the revolt later executed.

This last uprising captured the public imagination, in 1930 inspiring a Broadway play by John Wexley, The Last Mile (whose success propelled star Spencer Tracy to a Hollywood career), as well as a George Hill movie, The Big House. Public opinion had already begun to turn against the Baumes Laws during the sensational trial of Ruth St. Clair, a young woman sentenced to life in prison for her fourth conviction for shoplifting. And awareness was growing that the unrest in prisons was largely in response to harsh conditions and the lack of programs to keep the inmates productively occupied. Suddenly, the pressure was on state leaders – including an ambitious governor eyeing a run at the White House in 1932 – to come up with some more humane approaches. Eleanor Roosevelt and Felix Frankfurter were both encouraging FDR to enact reforms as well.

The State Legislature appointed a Commission to Investigate Prison Administration and Construction, chaired by FDR’s law school classmate Sam Lewisohn. The commission’s report recommended a more rehabilitative approach, including education and vocational training, and the construction of lower-security facilities for first offenders to reduce overcrowding. So, Governor Franklin Roosevelt replaced the commissioner of corrections with a reformer named Walter Thayer, and by 1931, construction on the first of these new prisons without walls was underway, on a five-farm, 950-acre site in the Town of Wallkill with a spectacular view of the Shawangunk Ridge.

Alfred Hopkins, the architect of Wallkill Correctional Facility, as well as the two other reformatories that soon followed at Woodbourne and Coxsackie, favored Gothic-style stone buildings meant to evoke a university. According to William B. Rhoads in his Ulster County, New York: The Architectural History & Guide, a sculptured relief on one wall of the Wallkill facility’s courtyard represented “an idealized but exhausted male figure supported by an heroic female, with Gothic lettering below referring to the Biblical ‘furnace of adversity.’ Admittedly, Ivy League dormitories have larger windows without the steel grids that bar the prison windows, and the expensive stonework of the elite universities was replaced here by concrete-block walls with cast-iron trim. From the beginning, the goal of Wallkill was to educate inmates to prepare them for a better life as productive citizens after serving their sentences, and Hopkins’s collegiate Gothic provided an appropriate setting for learning.  It was the architect’s belief that ‘beautiful architecture’ exerted ‘a beneficent influence’ upon prisoners and prison personnel in achieving the ‘regeneration of the prisoner.’”

The first prisoners arrived in 1932, and the facility was completed the following year, with Leo J. Palmer its first warden. Inmates lived in four three-story housing wings, each containing 42 cells, with bathrooms and recreation rooms on each wing, much like a college dormitory. They were allowed to keep the keys to their own rooms. A separate building housed a mess hall, laundry, gymnasium, vocational shops and schoolrooms; two chapels were added in the 1940s.

“Individual treatment and training,” as mandated by the Lewisohn Commission, was the order of the day at Wallkill. In 1935, a new position of director of education for the state Correction Department was created, and Walter M. Wallack, EdD, a product of Columbia University Teachers’ College who had been educational advisor to the commission, was hired to oversee the new initiative. A two-track academic course was developed at Wallkill, leading to either a Regents diploma or high school general equivalency, and the vocational curriculum offered training in 24 trades.

Wallkill organized the New York prison system’s first “service unit,” the forerunner of today’s guidance units. The staff assigned each inmate to a plan of activities to remedy his deficiencies, as preparation for post-institutional life in the community. Dr. Wallack insisted on education programs for the guards as well, and in 1936 Wallkill became the site for the nation’s first school for security personnel.

Wallack succeeded Palmer as warden in 1940 and served in that capacity until 1966. Before retiring, he founded the prison’s optical manufacturing program. Students learned to grind lenses that met national standards, soon filling prescriptions for Wallkill inmates, then for other Department of Corrections facilities and for agencies of the City of New York. In 1992, they began providing eyeglasses to state Medicaid recipients. Today, Wallkill’s Optical Shop employs 110 inmates on two shifts, manufacturing 135,000 pairs of glasses a year.

Other innovations at Wallkill included the first prison Alcoholics Anonymous program in New York, in 1945, and the first overnight Family Reunion Program, in 1976. In 1984, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation purchased 50 acres of land adjacent to the facility to set up a sanctuary for retired racehorses, which are cared for by inmates. They are also responsible for 70 dairy cows and a 150-animal beef herd.

These days, Wallkill Correctional Facility is classified as medium-security, and is no longer a “prison without walls,” a chain-link fence with razor wire having recently been erected around its perimeter. But inmates can still walk freely around the facility. There was one documented escape attempt in the 1970s, but never a riot. And when an inmate has served his time, he comes out with marketable skills and the hope of a life on the right side of the law. After nine decades, Ulster County can lay claim to restorative justice being a well-established local custom.