Much has been told about the history of reform schools. In fact, my book Abominable Firebug, tells a great deal about the history of the United State’s first reform school, Lyman School for Boys, in Westborough, Massachusetts. Why were there any reform schools in the first place?

-- Here is a very simple answer --

When a child is born, he or she is helpless. The child has no control over the family into which the child was suddenly thrust. The child has no control over the town or city and neighborhood in which the child lives, the school the child attends, the people the child meets, or the things the child learns. The child is truly helpless. If a child were able to choose a family well, there would be no need for reform schools. Unfortunately, children are not given these choices.

Realizing this, early juvenile justice reformers recognized that juvenile law offenders needed to be treated differently than adults. Therefore, there were many experiments throughout juvenile justice history attempting to fix or reform children that had “gone bad” through little or no fault of their own. Of course, in recent times it was realized that reform schools did nothing to reform. Any positive changes in a child’s status were the direct result of the change of environment in which the child lived. The same was true of any negative changes as well. Many children sentenced to reform school for status offenses like truancy or stubbornness became more capable criminals after encountering experts in reform school.

The first group home (house of refuge) for juvenile delinquents opened in 1825 in New York. In 1846, Massachusetts opened the Lyman School for Boys, which was the first state-run reform school. By 1876, there were more than 50 reform schools or houses of refuge around the country. In 1896, nearly every state had a reform school, and many states had even created reform schools for girls. Even though reform schools were created for “good” reasons, their existence often resulted in child abuse of the most egregious kind. It was egregious because the resulting abuse was state-sponsored and therefore immune to any control or containment by law. For instance, in many reform schools, children were tortured in almost unimaginable ways. The masters (guards) who maintained the institutional discipline were of the vilest character possible. Reform schools attracted these mental defectives for employment. Today, no state officially refers to its juvenile correctional institutions as “reform schools,” although such institutions still exist.

Incidentally, after I took the photograph at the top of this page, I received a letter from somebody who claims to be concerned. He stated, in part, quoted exactly; “Since you took photos of the facility without permission and without any staff review I am concerned that they may possess material that could pose a risk to the safety of staff or inmates if the material came into possession of individuals intent on doing harm.” He instructed me to call him immediately to discuss this matter. I will certainly not validate this demand with a response.

This is an excellent example of the arrogance of those running so called correctional institutions. Without any oversight from the persons paying their wages, they tend to develop the attitude that they must control everything, even light reflected off old buildings on the property of which we are part owners!

Early on, reform school children became a source of free farm labor as this Lyman School memo shows.


If you were a farmer, of good character of course, you could rent a big strong boy to help with the farm chores. All you had to do is feed, clothe him, and find a place in the barn for him to sleep. The Lyman School superintendent would prescribe any additional conditions in this memo:



This memo pad was printed by the students in the Lyman School print shop. The printers probably felt very strange providing the documents for their friends to be loaned into slavery. Perhaps not -- they were the ones who printed all the letterheads for who many knew as corrupt Commonwealth of Massachusetts politicians and of course the proclamations from the governor’s office as well.

It’s all about money. Later on, the Lyman School for Boys, like other such reform schools, was closed when such activities were ruled illegal, and the expense of providing an education and health maintenance for these boys became prohibitive. Jerome G. Miller threw the final knife into the Massachusetts reform school systems in 1971 when he unceremoniously closed them all.

No doubt there were many boys who attended reform schools who led very successful adult lives, but because of the stigma attached to “reform school” they kept it quiet. We get to hear only about the few criminals who attended these schools, such as the Boston strangler. The lives of many children, both male and female, were sometimes drastically changed as a result of the state’s abuse of its power over the residents of many reform schools. Both boys and girls were sometimes vasectomized, castrated, or otherwise sterilized. In Massachusetts, only the inmates of mental institutions were sterilized so if such activity was deemed necessary, the child would be sent to the Mattapan, Bridgewater or Danvers institutions.

In the ‘fifties, the time-frame for my reform-schooling reported in Abominable Firebug, indentured servitude at Lyman was a long time ago gone. There were new reformers in charge like Mr. Borys and Mr. Kenney. However, at institutional foster homes such as the Stetson Home for Boys in Barre, Massachusetts, indentured servitude of minor children was the way residents paid for their ‘keep’. Farmers were exempt from child labor laws so some very large and successful farms were developed to take advantage of this free labor. If a child’s attitude became problematical or the child became sick and unable to work, the child would simply be returned like any other defective merchandise.

Two authors attended the Lyman School for Boys and lived to write about the experience. The first was Mark D. Devlin, the author of Stubborn Child, (ISBN 0-689-11476-1), and the second was Richard B. Johnson, the author of Abominable Firebug, (ISBN 0-595-38667-9) These are both very different books although they tell about some of the day-to-day activities at the Lyman School. Abominable Firebug devotes an entire chapter to the Lyman School’s three ‘Rs’, rules, regulations, and routines.

WARNING! Reform schools are now being privatized (read deregulated). This means that some businessmen could set up an incarceration factory where children are imprisoned and abused to maximize the return on investment for stockholders. Really bad boys might even have their organs harvested to help defray the cost of confinement. This is not the plot of a bad movie. This is actually on-going in China as you read this. In the corporate lawless view of these new privatized institutions, many boys are worth more dead than alive. Organs from healthy teenagers will bring top prices on the growing transplant market and, inside penal institutions, the only law is the law laid down and maintained by the masters (guards). No other law reaches inside many of these institutions.

If your child gets picked up for being near the scene of a crime, in all the confusion, you just might end up signing something like this.



Notice how trivial is has become to make something look very official these days! Since children are no longer the property of their parents, such a permission slip might not even be necessary anymore. It does not take much of an imagination to envision staged fights to the death, where the hapless participants are rushed off to the harvesting room before their last heart beat. Physical abuse and even death is now called therapy. Various therapies used to control teenagers could have only been developed by deranged persons with extreme mental disorders in spite of repeated attempts to train persons employed in the juvenile corrections business. These persons are attracted for employment to these new juvenile correctional centers in spite of recent attempts to establish and maintain the civil rights of persons incarcerated in these facilities.

Many people think that such talk is the ranting’s of crazies. They haven’t been exposed to the extremely cruel and abusive environment within our country’s juvenile correctional institutions. Hopefully, once you read my book, you will understand how these things can and do happen. In the meantime see what the US Government says about rape in our juvenile correctional facilities. It’s a real eye-opener.

There exists an interesting quandary: If one would want to work in these kinds of places, that mind-set is disqualifying! So, these places employ persons who are unqualified, perverts, or both. This is because they are designed for child abuse. A properly designed juvenile correctional facility would keep the guards separated from the residents until (if ever) there was a problem requiring intervention. Counselors would live and interact with the residents. There would be no question about who is in charge because the counselors get to go home at the end of their shifts and they also get to call in the guards if some extreme disturbances need to be quelled. This makes the juvenile correctional facility run somewhat like a group home on the outside. You only call the police if something is out of control. The counselor becomes the big brother in a surrogate family. Persons who like to act like big brothers, who are willing to learn about psychology, and have a definite need to be wanted, appreciated, and perhaps even adored would be attracted to this new employment environment. For sure, there would still be the need for a few of the hostile and aggressive “Type A” guards who get their kicks by manhandling children, but for the most part, they are kept at bay by the “big brothers.”

The major problem with the juvenile corrections industry is the “out of view, out of mind” syndrome. Most people really don’t care what happens to the nation’s youth when they get in trouble with the law. Since there are really relatively few youth that end up in juvenile correctional institutions, the fates of these few are largely ignored. When somebody in one’s family becomes a victim of a state’s juvenile justice, that’s when there starts to be some eye opening revelations of what’s been going on behind those walls. My book, Abominable Firebug, reveals the secrets behind the walls of the Roslindale, Massachusetts Detention Center. In the time frame of my incarceration, this was a place of extreme cruelty, child abuse, and child rape. On the other hand, the state reform school at Westborough, the Lyman School for Boys, one of the places Jerome Miller was quick to close, was a relatively nice place to stay because some new management and caring staff had been recruited to make amends for an extremely difficult and controversial past.

Today’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the average person just doesn’t give a damn. If this image was shown on the evening news tube:


The response might be something like; “Hey Martha, grab the clicker and change the channel...” So trying to get people interested in what’s happening to somebody else’s children is a long uphill battle.

Abominable Firebug Abominable Firebug
Abominable Firebug Abominable Firebug
Abominable Firebug Abominable Firebug
External links
Author’s website