In the United States, the 19th Century marked the beginning of the use of juvenile
detention center facilities. Juvenile detention programs were really only a
subset of a larger American effort toward “reformatory” institutions
and attitudes that also encompassed rehabilitation of young women (usually
those pregnant out of wedlock) and young adult men (who were found guilty of
some crime or vice).
The name “reformatory” in itself is a synonym for a center was multifaceted. Not only were
its residents meant to be reformed in terms of abiding by the laws of man, but
their religious spirit was also to be
reformed as part of the country’s Protestant lineage.
As for the concept of the juvenile detention center in
particular, some institutions really took the idea of parens patriae to
heart. As surrogate caretakers, many juvenile detention facilities sought to
provide for their resident minors on all counts, including educating them in
the hopes of immunizing them against the ills of society. Thus, a juvenile
detention center might have been
referred to in the past as a “reformatory school.”
The legacy of detention centers as places of learning is
one of decidedly mixed success, as curricula were not subject to today’s more
rigorous standards and some schools even lost sight of their educational goals
in trying to maintain disciplinarian sensibilities. To some extent, though,
detention centers still provide educative resources and other amenities.
Another critical mission of juvenile detention that was
prominent in past years and, though to a lesser extent, is focused on in more
recent times in the United States is the idea of vocational training. Granted,
school-age education was still of primary importance among centers, but in
terms of job and life skills, some heads of facilities saw a mandate to attend
to these concerns.
Probably the most famous of these centers, which was not
actually a juvenile detention center but nonetheless had all the elements of a
juvenile reformatory, was the Elmira Reformatory, founded in and helmed by
Zebulon Brockway in 1876. The Reformatory, which provided vocational classes,
physical activity and education to its delinquent male inhabitants, is remembered by some for its contributions to
differentiating between adult and juvenile criminals.
However, reports also suggest Brockway ruled Elmira
with an iron fist, often keeping inmates in line through acts of violence.