“Incorrigibles” tells the stories of young girls imprisoned in New York State over the last 100 years. Drawing on personal narratives of the women themselves, the project investigates the “justice” in juvenile justice and social services. Archival documents from the New York State Training School for Girls (1904-1975), accounts by living former inmates confined during this era and documented performances by young ‘at-risk’ women today portraying experiences from their lives come together to create this compelling and urgent narrative.
’Incorrigible’ is a term I encountered again and again while studying various source documents, including records from the New York State Archives and from The New York Training School for Girls based in Hudson, New York. The term was used to describe and categorize the young girls (ages 12 – 16) who were incarcerated there. The term expressed to me how they were perceived and labeled by the people around them as ‘unable to be corrected or reformed.’ Digging through documents and historical images spanning the period between 1904 and 1975, I discovered letters the young women at the Training School wrote to their families — detailed reports of doctor’s examinations, legal decisions made by the court that led to their incarceration and letters written by parents to the institution. One of the young women deemed ‘incorrigible’ and incarcerated at the Training School during the 1930s was legendary jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald. Today, scientific research into the neuroplasticity of the brain makes a strong case for the argument that incorrigibility ‘is a term inconsistent with youth.’ This view was further validated in 2012 by a ruling by the Supreme Court.
The Training School’s history holds significant meaning for contemporary debates around penal reform, child welfare, juvenile justice, use of solitary confinement, and the role that race, gender, income, and immigrant status play in determining what is a crime and what kind of punishment is appropriate. “…we got sent to isolation. And isolation for me was horrible. They had the lights on. You were in a locked up room. The walls were padded. I was told the next time I got in trouble it wouldn’t be reformatory school. It would be jail,” says Sharon Anderson, now in her fifties.
Liz Stenson, a passionate woman in her early sixties recounts, “We were there because nobody wanted us, so our common bond was we felt rejected. I ran away from Hudson Training School four times.” Liz was eight when she was sent away to a foster home and twelve years old when she was sent to the Training School.
Inspired by the stories of these women and a trove of archival evidence from the Training School and in-depth contextual research, Incorrigibles is a work that sets out to make visible the deep patterns, both linguistic and penal, that have laced not only our own perception but also the strategies to deal with what North American society has perceived as threatening and disruptive in the behavior of some young women, then and now.
Given the recent class action suit that Public Advocate Letitia James (along with ten foster children) filed against the New York City Administration for Child Services (ACS) and the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) and the abuse to prison pipeline report recently issued by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms Foundation for Women, this project is all the more timely.