Sunday, August 10, 2014

Joseph F. Spillane's "Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform"

Joseph F. Spillane is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is the author of several books, including Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States, 1884–1920.

Spillane applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform, and reported the following:
The prisoners called it “Bop City”—the New Deal-era reformatory prison at Coxsackie designed to rehabilitate the young male offender. Nearly as soon as it opened, high ideals gave way to grim reality. Violence was one of the main features of life behind bars there, and page 99 gets right to it. Some of the violence was formally sanctioned, like the popular boxing program that produced two future world middleweight champions in Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta. LaMotta recalls here how well appointed the gym was, and how popular with the young inmates.

Most of the violence at Coxsackie was unsanctioned, undertaken in the maintenance of reputation that page 99 calls “the primary currency in the economy of prison social life.” A white inmate recalls here picking out a large African American inmate and attacking him without provocation: “what I wanted was achieved; the other inmates sized me up as someone not to be messed with, and that was all that mattered to me in my first days in general population.”

Page 99 highlights another important element of Coxsackie—the voices of the inmates themselves. While a historical account of life behind bars inevitably will fall short of the richness of actual lived experience, it was my hope that those who spent time behind cars there would recognize it as an honest and authentic account. Toward that end, Coxsackie uses inmate testimony wherever possible. Page 99 shows two kinds of testimony. The first is drawn directly from the actual prison case files, such as the young man who swears to authorities that, “even if God hit me, I’d swing back.” The second is taken from former inmates who included accounts of the prison in their later autobiographical work. LaMotta’s account, for example, is taken from Raging Bull.

Tens of thousands of young men spent time in just this one prison. In their day, they were largely invisible, their voices mostly muted to the outside world. Coxsackie represents an attempt to hear what they were saying.
Visit Joseph Spillane's website.

My Book, The Movie: Coxsackie.

--Marshal Zeringue