Elmira Reformatory opened in 1876. It was a peculiar institution from the beginning. Mark Twain became acquainted with the Reformatory’s eccentric warden, Zebulon Brockway. He lectured at the prison and was fascinated, if a little unsettled, by what he saw there. The Elmira Reformatory has since been renamed Elmira Correctional Facility, but is known locally as “The Hill.” On a winter day, this imposing institution is visible from Twain’s grave. It is one of the oldest continuously-operational prisons in the United States.
Recently, it has been the site of a large COVID-19 outbreak, at least 590 positive cases as of this posting. Partially as a result of this outbreak, Elmira was recently put in the Orange Zone by New York State, meaning that all schools had to return to Emergency Remote Instruction and many types of retail businesses had to close temporarily. In this, Elmira is hardly alone. COVID outbreaks are happening in prisons across the nation.
In this episode, Matt Seybold talks with somebody who knows as much as anyone about the long, fascinating history of Elmira Correctional Facility. Andrea Morrell is Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Anthropology at Guttman Community College, part of the CUNY system. She has been researching and writing about U.S. prisons generally, and Elmira Correctional Facility specifically, for 15 years. Her book project is call “The Prison Fix.” It is about race, class, and the carceral state through the example of Elmira.
Several selections from this project have already been published. You can download Dr. Morrell’s dissertation, “The Prison Fix: Race, Work, & Economic Development in Elmira, NY” here.
She also talks with Dr. Seybold about the peer-reviewed article “Policing the Carceral State: Prisons & Panic in an Upstate New York Town,” published in Transforming Anthropology in 2018.