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.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

This is going to sound incredibly trite, but one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the constant interaction between spillane_2012drug-using young men and the criminal justice system. How obvious this is—and yet, how little time we spend, as historians, actually describing this process! David Courtwright’s Addicts Who Survived offered an early an evocative example of what could be done, but historians have not returned to the front lines of the drug war as often as we should have.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I’ll be perfectly honest and say that no historical account is ever going to capture the richness of actual lived experience behind bars. Were they still alive today, the young men whose case files I reviewed would be anywhere from their early seventies to their early nineties. My hope is that this account would resonate with their experience, but I’d love to see a more sustained effort at collecting oral histories from these populations. They lived through something remarkable; to lose their stories would be a terrible thing.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

To be honest, people have occasionally told me that I have a voice for radio (or perhaps they said a face for radio, not sure), so perhaps I’ll suggest myself for the recording!

3 thoughts on “The Points Interview: Joseph F. Spillane”

  1. The story of Riverside needs telling as much as this reformatory, or the PHS facility in Lexington, Ky. Riverside was the subject of a History Channel series, Life After People (S1E8), due to its abandonment in the early 1960s and subsequent deterioration. Started as a leper colony, it went through several conversions before it housed adolescent addicts, and then was shut down after a follow-up study showed it had “cured” no one. Riverside in the 1950s was a grotesque caricature of Lexington. It was far from a hospital — starting with the admission process. incoming patients were forced to undergo enemas under observation to ensure they possessed no drugs. There are still Riverside attendees alive today, many identifiable by their unique “jail-house” Riverside tattoo, of Fu Manchu smoking an opium pipe.

    • Thanks John! Jessica Kovler has a book coming out soon that will deal with Riverside– be on the lookout for her posts on the blog next month.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The Points blog has an interview with Joe Spillane the author of new book from John Hopkins University Press entitled Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Spillane’s book focuses on a failed experiment in New York that sought to reform young men instead of simply punishing them. Unfortunately, New York’s experiment was a complete disaster. Spillane’s book helps explain why that happened.

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