The Points Interview: Joseph F. Spillane

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is pleased to welcome our fearless co-founder, Joe Spillane, an Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the University of Florida. His new book, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform, is out now from Johns Hopkins University Press (2014).

screenshot_1153Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Coxsackie is primarily about the rise and fall of a New Deal-era reformatory for young male offenders, built in New York State. Intended to educate and reintegrate prisoners, the Coxsackie experiment quickly deteriorated into an unpleasant mix of stultifying work, violence, and racial conflict. By the immediate postwar years, the reformist vision of reintegration and social inclusion was already giving way to a racialized vision of isolation and exclusion. In this sense, Coxsackie and New York’s other reformatories reveal the deeper origins of our modern systems of mass incarceration.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I’m particularly interested in the role that the postwar heroin epidemic plays in the history of Coxsackie. Modest by contemporary standards, the surge in heroin use among young people in New York City between 1948 and 1951 was an important policy moment.   As late as 1937-1938, New York City recorded only a single arrest on narcotics charges among adolescents. In early 1948, however, Coxsackie received its first heroin user—by 1951, the reformatory housed roughly one hundred users at any one time. Liberal reformers were aghast, feeling that heroin addicts were not proper subjects for reformatory efforts, being effectively ungovernable in the rehabilitative context. They urged that young offenders be sent to the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, where New York City had begun experimental residential treatment efforts. But North Brother Island would accept only “noncriminal” addicts. For those convicted of a criminal offense, then, there was only the revolving door of the criminal justice system. It is a helpful and early reminder that the real story for most young users and addicts at mid-century was not Lexington, North Brother Island, or other treatment ventures, but the banal and ongoing hardship of arrest and imprisonment.

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