Norfolk’s “Model Prison Community”: Howard Belding Gill and the Social Process of Prison Reform

Date01 March 2021
AuthorMatthew DelSesto
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
The Prison Journal
2021, Vol. 101(2) 127 –146
© 2021 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0032885521991074
Norfolk’s “Model Prison
Community”: Howard
Belding Gill and the
Social Process of Prison
Matthew DelSesto1
This article explores the social process of criminal justice reform, from
Howard Belding Gill’s 1927 appointment as the first superintendent
of the Norfolk Prison Colony to his dramatic State House hearing and
dismissal in 1934. In order to understand the social and spatial design of
Norfolk’s “model prison community,” this article reviews Gills’ tenure as
superintendent through administrative documents, newspaper reports, and
his writings on criminal justice reform. Particular attention is given to the
relationship between correctional administration and public consciousness.
Concluding insights are offered on the possible lessons from Norfolk Prison
Colony for contemporary reform efforts.
criminal justice reform, correctional history, prison administration
When Howard Belding Gill became the first Superintendent of the Norfolk
Prison Colony in November 1927, one of his first administrative actions was
1Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matthew DelSesto, Sociology Department, McGuinn 410D, Boston College, 140
Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA.
991074TPJXXX10.1177/0032885521991074The Prison JournalDelSesto
128 The Prison Journal 101(2)
to scrap the existing building plans and seek planning recommendations from
both correctional officers and the newly founded “inmate council.” Gill dis-
liked the conventional fortress and panopticon-style prison architecture.
For him, the errors of this architecture were most egregiously evident in
Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary (Gill, 1933). Notably, he believed
that the nation had gone on reproducing this initial model even as experience
with that model over 100 years—from the 1820s when Eastern State was con-
structed to the 1920s—had clearly proven its failure. Gill notes that he was
expected to oversee the construction of something like the panopticon-style
(in the 1898 plan for a Massachusetts prison, that Gill saved in his notes,
pictured in Image 1), but, instead, he favored a more community-oriented
design (1934 Norfolk prison map shown in Image 2).
Gill’s diagnosis of the conventional prison’s problems was twofold. First,
it promoted solitary isolation of prisoners. This isolation was problematic for
Image 1: Photocopies of 1894 Massachusetts prison plans and maps, circa
1970s-1980s. Howard Belding Gill Papers, 1912-1989, Archives and Manuscripts
Department, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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