Zebulon Brockway: History, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

In this lesson, Zebulon Brockway will be introduced. Upon completion, the reader should have a firm grasp of the influence Mr. Brockway had on the American prison system as well as the contributions he made.

The Prison System Today

An offender has been serving a sentence for a crime for several years. The offender has been trying to make good use of every single day as it is marked off on the calendar hanging in the prison cell. Each mark brings the possible parole hearing date closer, and time passes quickly due to working in the kitchen five days a week and taking classes. An education the offender never thought was possible has been achieved, and skills have been learned that will help to support the offender's family upon release. There have been no infractions that have led to disciplinary action, either. The offender has been a model prisoner so far and is looking forward to being rewarded with an early release. This is possible in today's prison system but has not always been the case.

Zebulon R. Brockway

Zebulon R. Brockway made great strides in reforming the prison system, helping it to become what it is today. He was referred to as the Father of Prison Reform and the Father of American Parole. It took hard work and dedication on Brockway's part to earn those titles, but his contributions to the American prison system made that possible.

Brockway was born in Lyme, Connecticut, in 1827. He lived nearly 100 years, passing away in 1920. During his lifetime, he was also a husband, father, and even the mayor of his town (at the age of 77). However, his career in the prison system is what he is most known for.

Zebulon R. Brockway


Brockway first went to work for the prison system at 21 years of age. His first assignment was as a clerical worker at the Wethersfield State Prison in Connecticut. His mind wasn't suited just for clerical work, and he quickly began to look for solutions to the problems he saw in the prison system. All of his positions after his initial position were authoritative in nature, beginning with the assistant superintendent position at Albany County Penitentiary in New York.

Brockway moved to the Detroit House of Correction where he was head and began to implement what he believed would be solutions to some of the prison problems at the time. One particular incentive he introduced was profit-sharing for prisoners. He also pushed for education and moral teachings for the prisoners. The indeterminate sentence was also introduced, which gave offenders the ability to be paroled sooner for good behavior.

From 1876 to 1900, Brockway was the superintendent of the Elmira Reformatory in New York. This is where he implemented the Elmira System. The focus at Elmira was to rehabilitate first-time offenders at the facility. Offenders worked during the day and received either vocational training or education at night. As offenders completed assignments or religious programs, they could earn points. These points ultimately led to early release for the offenders via a formal parole program. The idea was that hard work and good behavior would result in early release from prison.


Brockway wrote a lengthy autobiography that chronicled both his personal life and his career in the prison system. It is titled Fifty Years of Prison Service: An Autobiography. Every assignment that Brockway had is detailed in his autobiography, giving the reader an intimate view of his life as a penologist.

In Brockway's autobiography, his stance on the effects of punishing a prisoner versus rehabilitating him are clear. Of particular interest is a passage in his book where he states, ''The central aim of a true prison system is the protection of society against crime, not the punishment of the criminal.'' He goes on to point out that protection is the object and punishment is the instrument; however, he states that there can be no real protection against crime without actually preventing crime, and that ''prevention must be placed fundamentally in the principle of a true prison system.'' Essentially, Brockway's focus was on preventing crime instead of punishing a criminal who commits a crime.

Working hard could lead to early release from a prison such as this

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