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The Points Interview: Joseph F. Spillane

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

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).


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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

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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!

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