Glen Mills Schools, one of America’s first reform schools, should be one of its last.
On March 25, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services ordered the school to remove all of the boys from its care. After reporting revealed that abuse was an “open secret” and coverups abounded, the state finally took action by revoking all of Glen Mills Schools’ licenses. The state auditor general will launch an investigation, and students and parents have filed a class-action lawsuit.
While a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed that the school had failed to follow state and internal policies for decades, the roots of the problem go back to its founding as the Philadelphia House of Refuge (PHR) nearly 200 years ago. The ideologies that first created reformatories like the PHR, with their misguided reliance on the purportedly positive power of incarcerating children, have opened the door for the alleged abuses and disasters in facilities like Glen Mills.
Exposure of the alleged horrors at Glen Mills gives us an opportunity to discard a very broken model and allow research to inform the creation of a new one — one that actually helps troubled youth live meaningful, productive lives.
Reform schools actually began as an effort to get youth out of prison. Social reformers, including many Quakers, created penitentiaries between the 1790s and 1810s in the hope that the right environment (isolation, silence, labor) would awaken inmates’ minds, bodies and souls to proper belief and conduct. Yet riots, violence, suicide, chronic overcrowding and arson brought penitentiaries’ basic vision of moral reform under fire.