Building a Better Prison: The First Three Decades of the Detroit House of Correction

By Keve, Paul W. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Building a Better Prison: The First Three Decades of the Detroit House of Correction


Keve, Paul W., Michigan Historical Review


After a visit in the mid- 1860s a pair of experts gave their studied appraisal that "the Detroit house of correction holds preeminence among the prisons of its class." (1) From time to time many others expressed similar views about this unique prison, and its superintendent found no reason to disagree. In 1867, as he sat down to write his fifth report to his board of inspectors, he expressed devout religious convictions together with unreserved pride in his administration: "The appliances designed to promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the inmates have been unusually successful; a most promising thoughtfulness pervades the mind of the prisoners; the dawn of better purposes is apparent to the experienced observer, and there are a few cases of radical reform.... For this prosperity permit me here to express my thankfulness and to acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe to the Infinite `Giver of it all'." (2)

The confident piety of the pronouncement was a trademark of the superintendent, Zebulon R. Brockway, who skillfully promoted himself as a businesslike administrator, using innovative, rehabilitative methods. His early recognition as an outstanding warden was fostered not only by the promise and appeal of his fresh ideas but also by the earnestly receptive mood of corrections leaders at that time. After a half-century of experience with massive prisons, state governments and their experts were growing disillusioned about the evident ineffectiveness of their institutions. Particularly the repressive, silent systems that characterized the two great prototype prisons, New York's Auburn and Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary, were increasingly seen as failures rather than the hoped-for cure for criminal behavior. In such a context Brockway's offering of new and more dynamic techniques was certain to capture favorable attention. Though the Detroit facility enjoyed this new freedom to innovate, the quality it actually achieved undoubtedly did not reach the level touted by its superintendent. Nevertheless, in its first several decades it brought notable credit to Michigan as a widely known and well-regarded correctional resource.

Unfortunately, whatever validity Brockway's good reputation may have had initially, it has not survived. His talent for inspirational rhetoric, which had served so well to keep him in the forefront of corrections leaders, appears on modern reappraisal to have masked a capacity for meanly harsh practices in the management of difficult prisoners. In the last years of his career the problem was detected and publicly aired, but while he was in Detroit his performance nearly always won admiration. (3) The later reassessment raises interesting questions about what may have been the true conditions at the Detroit House of Correction. While the questions are much more easily raised than answered, it is apparent that this institution deserves considerable credit for its constructive influence on correctional methods during its time, even after allowing for possible management crudities behind the well-advertised excellence.

When Brockway wrote his glowing account of his well-ordered institution he no doubt knew that his prisoners and his institution were less promising than he had represented. Certainly there is no reason to suppose that this institution had avoided the nagging problems common to other prisons. But the published reports, whether issued by Brockway or other officials, focused only on the positive aspects of the facility, effectively cultivating public esteem for the high moral purposes behind its administration and leaving little or no written record of less commendable matters. Their extent or seriousness remains speculative.

Like its superintendent, the institution comprised mixed elements. Although it was owned and operated by the city of Detroit, the plan from the beginning had been for it to accept prisoners liberally from other jurisdictions.

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