Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Charlie Gibson’s Prison Reform League Targets the Deer Island Prisons

Charles “Charlie” Hammond Gibson, Jr., often referred to as “Mr. Boston” by neighbors, was deeply involved in his community. Ever the public servant, he volunteered in various city government departments and interest groups over the years. Making a foray into the social movement known as progressivism, Charlie proposed significant prison reforms as the secretary for the Massachusetts Prison Reform League from 1913 to 1916.

A principal concern of the League during that time was the bleak Suffolk County House of Correction on Deer Island. Since Boston’s earliest years, Deer Island had been designated as a place to send pariahs—a holding area for the enemy, the ostracized, and the ill. The island was first used as a detention facility for Indians during King Philip’s War in 1675, then as a quarantine station in the late 1600s and again in the 1840s for sick Irish famine refugees.

Thousands of society’s unwanted had been buried on Deer Island by 1858, when the House for the Employment and Reformation of Juvenile Offenders, a misdemeanor detention center for boys, was established there. Various incarnations of low-security prisons inhabited the area thereafter, most notably the Suffolk County House of Correction, which included two prisons, from 1882 until 1991.

The Massachusetts Prison Reform League was born out of the Social Gospel branch of progressivism, which applied Christian ethics to social issues, including inequality. The League was recognized by one local newspaper for having “won the international medal from two Worlds Expositions for its success in the abolition of dark, solitary confinement, known as dungeons, and for other advanced reforms.” It was also praised for its efforts to work “in unison with the clergy of Boston, the judges, prison commissioners, and other officials” to “build up libraries where most needed, to brighten and cheer the sentence of the friendless despondent inside the prison, the sick and dying.”

The League’s mission in 1913, as printed in the City Record of Boston, centered on reforming Deer Island’s prisons, guided by the belief that “influences surrounding prisoners should fit them rather than unfit them to be better citizens after their release.” As the “honorable secretary,” Charlie Gibson wrote out the recommendations; his name appears under them in the City Record.
The Suffolk County House of Correction dealt only with misdemeanor-level crimes, and the League’s reform campaign focused on making sure the prisoners’ treatment was commensurate with the crimes they committed. Charlie scribed, “It is important to erect buildings or shelters at a moderate cost and without the usual precautions of iron bars and cells for the housing of prisoners who have simply offended against public order.”

Many of the prisoners were serving terms for public drunkenness. The League proclaimed, “Habitual drunkenness should be treated more as a disease than as a crime.” It also argued that those convicted of public drunkenness “should not be brought into contact with criminals convicted of more serious crimes.” For a group with religious affiliations, this type of thinking appears to have been an anomaly, as most contemporary Christian reform associations viewed alcoholism as a vice and a sin.

In 1991, the Suffolk County House of Correction moved its inmates off the island to a building in South Boston, and the three-century-long history of involuntary residency on Deer Island came to an end. It is not clear how long the Massachusetts Prison Reform League existed past 1916, when Charlie left, but it is clear that the reformers improved the circumstances of Massachusetts inmates, having abolished the electric chair and the use of “dungeon-like” cells in the state’s prisons.

By Maddie Webster, museum guide and intern


Albert Nelson Marquis, Who’s Who in America, 1922–1923, vol. 12 (Chicago: A. N. Marquis and Company, n.d.).

“Deer Island Prison,” New England Magazine (1898).

“Facts About History: Deer Island” (Massachusetts Water Resources, November 1999), Government Documents Collection, https://archive.org/stream/factsabouthistor00mass_0/factsabouthistor00mass_0_djvu.txt.

“The Prison Reform League,” The Sacred Heart Review 38 (November 1907), http://newspapers.bc.edu/cgi-bin/bostonsh?a=d&d=BOSTONSH19071109-01.2.13.