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Elmira Correctional Facility, also known as "The Hill", is a maximum security prison located in Chemung County, New York, in the City of Elmira. The supermax prison, Southport Correctional Facility, is located two miles away from Elmira.
Elmira was the site of a prison camp for Confederate prisoners of war from 1864 to 1865. In 1869, the New York state legislature voted to use the site to build a new prison which would receive male first-time felony offenders between the ages of 16 and 30.
The prison, which officially received its first prisoners from Auburn Prison in July 1876, began a new era in the science of penology as the first "reformatory". The harsh methods of the "Auburn" and "Philadelphia Systems" including corporal punishment, striped uniforms and lockstep marching, were rejected along with the earlier reforms fostered by the Quakers in Pennsylvania. Under its warden Zebulon Brockway, imprisonment was designed to reform each inmate by an individualized program. Brockway rejected pointless hard labor, a regime of silence, religious and morality lectures, and strict obedience enforced by brutality.
Among the programs begun at the reformatory included courses in ethics and religion, vocational training in various trades and extracurricular activities such as a prison band, newspaper and various athletic leagues.
Influenced by the methods of Walter Crofton's "Irish system" as well as Alexander Maconochie's experiments in Australian penal colonies, discipline was largely patterned after military academies. Inmates would be dressed in military style uniforms often marching to the tune of a military band.
Inmates were classified by three "grades", with newly arriving prisoners being placed at second grade for their first six months. Those who became the most responsive and cooperative prisoners earned a first grade, with the opportunity to earn additional privileges or "marks", including earning a reduction of their sentences or being granted parole (although inmates could be demoted if failing in their duties). Those inmates who were less responsive to rehabilitation or had behavioral problems were placed at third grade.
However, under instituted indeterminate sentencing, tension was often high among the general population as prisoners were rarely informed how long the terms of their imprisonment lasted. Brockway's later use of corporal punishment, the "Paddler Brockway" system that would eventually result several prisoners' being transferred to mental asylums, caused some to question the reformatory system.
Still, the Elmira system was influential in prison reform. Two central ideas emerged from the Elmira system: differentiating between juvenile and adult offenders, and acknowledging the possibility of prisoner rehabilitation.
Despite its mixed results, the Elmira Reformatory would influence the construction of 25 reformatories in twelves states over the next 25 years, reaching its height in 1910. Although the education programs introduced in Elmira were the first to serve inmates in a correctional facility, the majority of the teaching staff were often unqualified and its complex grading system made progress difficult to maintain. Eventually, all well-behaved inmates were placed in first grade with a few in second grade and those under punishment in third grade.
However, following Brockway's resignation, the reformatory reinstituted to standard custody and treatment methods and eventually converted to the Elmira Correctional and Reception Center, an adult maximum security prison holding approximately 1,800 inmates.
Convicted murderers Timothy Vail and Timothy Morgan escaped on July 7, 2003, by digging through the roof of their cell. Vail seriously injured himself during the escape, and the two were captured three days later and placed in solitary confinement in different prisons.
In the late 1970s through late 1980s, Elmira and Corning Community College had a partnership whereby college professors volunteered to lecture within the prison, and inmates were able to earn an associate degree. However, during the recession of 1990–1992 there was a public outcry over spending taxpayer money to educate felons while many middle-class families struggled to pay their children's college tuition. As a result, the program was cut. There were attempts to revive the program in later years but by the time George Pataki, the former GOP governor finished his budget cuts the program was completely erased from memory.