A legacy of justice and social reform

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:50

Warwick - When Mid-Orange Correctional Facility closes its doors in a few months, it will mark the end of just under a century of justice and social reform for this historic campus. Ninety-nine years ago the first program began here to help inmates break away from a destructive past. Here’s a brief history The Wisner Tract First occupied by Native Americans, this land was purchased in 1766 by Capt. John Wisner as part of the division of the Wawayanda Patent. In early days a stone house stood on the property where he and his family lived during the Revolutionary War. The farm was handed down through the Wisner family and about 1841 Henry Board Wisner fancied a larger and drier dwelling, so he had an imposing house erected of brick which was manufactured from clay pits on the property. His mansion still stands on State School Road today just a few feet back from where the original colonial era stone house was. Thomas E. Durland who had married one of Henry B. Wisner’s daughters, passed it to his grandson Col. T. D. Landon, the last of the family to own it. New York City Farm Few realize today that the practice of housing inmates in need of rehabilitation here actually began in August 1912, when Mayor William Gaynor of New York City visited to check the site for a new “colony” for men addicted to alcohol to be erected by the city at a cost of one million dollars. The city had just purchased the Wisner-Durland farm at Wickham Lake for this purpose from Landon. The inebriates’ colony was dubbed “The New York City Farm” and was one of the very first substance abuse facilities in the country. The farm was the site of ground-breaking treatment programs for alcohol and drugs. Developed by the facility’s medical director, Dr. Charles F. Stokes, former Surgeon General of the United States, one of the “quick cure” treatments was described in the New York Times on Jan. 28, 1917. The city appears to have become discouraged with the operation of the facility the following year, however, and the project was ended in the fall of 1918. By the following spring advocates of substance abuse treatment were lobbying for the reopening of the facility to focus more on drug abuse cases, and it appears to have continued operating until around 1929, under ownership of the New York City Department of Correction. New York State Training School for Boys In 1929, the State of New York took over the facility and a new experiment in social progress commenced just as the Great Depression was taking hold of the country. Delinquent boys housed at Randall’s Island would be transferred to the facility, with the view that by removing them from an environment of violence, gangs, and poverty they could be rehabilitated. The New York State Training School for Boys was a high-profile program and housed hundreds of boys organized into “cottages.” The boys, most of whom were city born and raised, experienced fresh air, sunshine, classes in practical skills such as woodworking, farming and other educational programs. The school was formally dedicated on Oct. 15, 1933. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a great interest in it, visiting several times. She devoted four of her “My Day” columns to the school and her observations and concerns. Many of the boys had been exposed to the most horrific traumas during their youth, and she felt deeply that they deserved to experience kindness and lack of physical want. Mid-Orange Correctional Facility Times changed and eventually the idea of reform schools fell from administrative favor. The school was closed in 1976 and the property transferred from the state Division for Youth to the Department of Corrections that October. The campus was enclosed by fence, new buildings were added, and the first inmates of the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility arrived on June 29, 1977. Beginning with a population of 400, the prison’s population ballooned up to 1,000 during the war on drugs of the 1980s until more space was opened in new facilities. The many programs the prison offered in recent decades were described in an Aug. 24, 2001, article in The Warwick Advertiser, which showed among other things the community’s willingness to interact with the inmates. And today, one of the important programs that will be sorely missed in our town will be community service days, in which crews of inmate trustees helped clean up and maintain our parks, mow our historic cemeteries and assist with projects for many of our local non profits. Share your memories and stories Now that Mid-Orange is closing, it is time to write more about its history and that of the Boys’ School, before the memories are gone - so many people in our area who were employed there or were residents have stories to tell. A blog has been set up so that these stories can be easily shared, at warwickcorrectional.wordpress.com. Or if you’d rather, e-mail them to sgardner@rcls.org, or write a letter to Sue Gardner, Albert Wisner Public Library, 1 McFarland Drive, Warwick NY 10990, and they will be preserved in the local history room and the archive of the historical society. Photos are important also, so if you have some to share, leave a message at the library for an appointment to have them scanned, 986-1047 ext. 3. Sue Gardner is the local historian at the Albert Wisner Public Library in Warwick.

Read this
Two classics of Afro-American literature detail experiences that had a transformative effect on boys’ lives at the what was then called the New York State Training School for Boys: “Manchild in the Promised Land” by Claude Brown and “Out of the Burnin” by Ira Henry Freeman.
“Frenchie,” a pseudonym for Conrad E. Mauge used by Freeman, described that “he had never been in the country, and recalls that he had never had an intelligent conversation until he talked with the State School librarian one day.”
That conversation helped Conrad see that a whole world he never knew about before was ready to open before him, and the State School helped many boys climb into a better life.