Why you should care
Because girls ages 11 to 16 shouldn’t be locked away for behaving like adolescents.
It was just a box of old letters and photos picked up for $5 at a yard sale several years ago in upstate New York. A random purchase that eventually found its way to Alison Cornyn, because some area locals knew the Brooklyn-based artist and had a hunch she might be interested in its contents.
Inside were faded black-and-white photographs, handwritten letters and bureaucratic forms documenting the lives of girls who’d been incarcerated in the 1920s and ’30s at the New York State Training School for Girls, essentially a jail for so-called wayward teens in Hudson. Cornyn, 51, had been delving into the criminal justice system and symbols of government authority and traveled to Hudson to research the men’s prison that took over the training school site.
That $5 collection of archival material launched Incorrigibles, Cornyn’s ongoing “transmedia” art project integrating printed material, oral history and documentary film. Starting with its first exhibition in 2013 — at the Bronson House, the former home of the superintendent of the New York State Training School for Girls — the project seeks to stir debate around the juvenile justice system, child welfare and the treatment and detention of adolescent girls.
“Incorrigible” was a term Cornyn saw over and over as she sifted through the documents — the word authorities used to confine girls, ages 11 to 16, at the school for indeterminate terms, from 1904 to 1975. It was a label, the artist says, implying there was something about the girls — at least from the perspective of doctors, parents and judges — that couldn’t be corrected, that went beyond rehabilitation. So they were locked up.
These girls’ stories had been left in the dust of history.
During its 70 years, the training school housed thousands of female adolescents, including legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who was sent there in 1933. Some had been sentenced for crimes like theft and prostitution. Others got shipped off because the system didn’t have a better way to deal with them. These were runaways, homeless kids, teens from troubled homes who were acting out in school. And once they’d been labeled “incorrigible” in government case files, judges had the authority to confine them even if they hadn’t broken any law.
“These girls didn’t need to be corrected,” Cornyn tells OZY. “It was about how other people were treating them.” And how others perceived them. But now Cornyn is letting the girls speak for themselves, through their writing, images and recorded interviews. “These girls’ stories had been left in the dust of history. No one would have known about them,” says Cornyn. “I wanted them to get the recognition that they should have had.”
To some, the training school exemplified the era of progressive reforms sweeping the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, including the first juvenile court system in 1899, which separated minors from adults. “Education was given greater emphasis,” according to a history of the school published by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which noted that “an incentive to good behavior was ‘going to the dance’ with boys from local public and private institutions.” At its height, about 500 girls lived at the Hudson complex; they took classes and received training in tasks like cooking and cleaning to prepare themselves for low-wage jobs.
“As we remember juvenile justice in its early days, we talk about it as something progressive. It was often portrayed as a place that was going to make the child behave better,” says Ashley Nellis, a researcher for The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.–based criminal justice nonprofit. “But in reality, these reform schools were warehouses for hundreds of students with little more to do than menial labor. There was lots of corporal punishment. There were no legal protections.”
Since then, the country has made some significant strides in juvenile justice. Fifty-six percent fewer minors were arrested in 2015 than in 2006, according to Department of Justice data. And while some are alarmed that girls represent a growing percentage of those arrests, Youth First CEO Liz Ryan says the trend is misleading. It’s far more important, she explains, that the number of girls’ arrests are down, even if those numbers haven’t dropped as quickly as boys’ arrests.
Still, with euphemistic terms like “reformatory” and “training school” largely retired, critics insist that today’s juvenile detention centers retain the worst aspects of the old system, from solitary confinement to sexual abuse. Moreover, large facilities where kids don’t receive individualized attention or services often produce teens who get arrested as adults. “Kids end up in these institutions because they are high need, not because they are at a high risk to offend,” says Ryan.
Lillian Perez, a 61-year-old bus driver in New York City, was about 13 when she arrived at the Training School for Girls in 1970. Perez says she got swept into the system because she was raised in an abusive home and frequently missed long stretches of school because her father locked her in their apartment for weeks. By the time she reached the Hudson facility, she’d bounced through several institutions, including the notorious Spofford juvenile jail in the Bronx, which was shuttered in 2011. Perez says conditions at the training school were hard, but she also says it was an improvement over other places she’d lived.
“I just wanted closure,” Perez tells OZY, explaining why she shared her story with Cornyn. “Why didn’t the justice system investigate what was going on in my home? I never did anything wrong.”
With a forthcoming Incorrigibles book and through community events where teenage girls, some already part of the juvenile offender population, discuss how they view themselves and changes they’d like to see in New York’s youth justice system, Cornyn plans to keep shining a light on the overlooked history of the Training School for Girls and institutions like it that are still operating. And she continues to search for the personal narratives of generations of girls who were essentially imprisoned because “experts” pronounced them incorrigible — a term that’s still used in the New York court system to describe PINS (persons in need of supervision).
“It wasn’t like I was out in the street,” says Perez. “I didn’t have a voice.”