Closing Counterproductive Institutions

The Massachusetts Experiment

In the early 1970’s, Dr. Jerome Miller was appointed Director of the juvenile correctional system in the state of Massachusetts. After attempting to reform the system, he decided that it was so institutionally counter-productive that he would close down the 11 reformatories under his direction. In the early 1990’s he wrote a book describing this process: Last One Over the Wall (Dr. Jerome G. Miller, Ohio State University Press, 1991).

On the basis of his report, I have tried to identify the principles that he used in achieving a revolutionary change. They include:

  • Listen to what the youths in the system tell you about its effects on their lives. No external or internal evaluator can provide such useful information. In the long run, evaluation inputs, programs, etc. can be radically misleading. The goal is whether the lives of the inmates are changing. They are the best judges of whether that is true.
  • If the lives of the youth don’t really change in spite of your reforms, assume that the problem is the very nature of your institution. Close it. Seek another way and you will find something better than the institutional way.
  • In seeking another way beware of developing a visible plan. Plans will only delay the process and provide a useful target for bureaucrats, unions and politicians with interests in maintaining institutionalism.
  • Start your closing by focusing on those inmates or clients who are thought to be the worst, most damaged, vulnerable, etc. If you succeed in finding another way for them, it’s all downhill for the rest of those who are institutionalized.
  • Trust that the community will create diverse, effective alternatives. Use a Request for Proposal seeking any sector of society willing to work with the de-institutionalized youth. In Massachusetts, the response to Miller’s Request for Proposal was “overwhelming.” Applicants included YMCA’s, art schools, child care agencies, universities, private and religious charitable organizations, psychiatric and drug treatment programs, etc. This diversity provided a great increase in appropriate options for the youth. It also created an alternative community of political support for dealing with youth in a non-institutional way.
  • There will always be powerful forces with self-serving interests in maintaining institutions. The most important deterrent to “re-institutionalization” is to ensure that the institutional money leaves the system to support alternatives. Create an alternative constituency to use the money in support of the young people.
  • While many young people can go home with additional funded support, there will be the necessity for small programs and residential facilities. In dealing with them, do not use “effective management” as a criterion for evaluating them. The better a program is managed, it will lead to the inverse of what is needed by the youth. Unruly youth don’t need more management. If management methods are the focus, “suffering of young people” will increase.
  • As alternative community options develop, keep them small, dispersed and diverse. Young people need options appropriate to their interests. Because each is unique, we need diverse opportunities and support if we are to serve them appropriately.

I knew Dr. Jerome Miller quite well and together with my colleagues at Northwestern University, we conducted research for him. Therefore, these principles are derived from my personal experience with Dr. Miller as well as from his book, The Last One Over the Wall. Any misinterpretations are wholly my responsibility.

Home page image: cogdogblog

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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