Lyman School for Boys

From Asylum Projects
Jump to: navigation, search
Lyman School for Boys
Established 1846
Opened 1848 (First Location)
1885 (Second Location)
Closed 1971
Current Status Closed
Building Style Cottage Plan
Location Westborough, MA
Alternate Names
  • State Reform School for Boys at Westborough


The nation’s first attempt at establishing a juvenile reform facility was built at the Peters Farm on the hill overlooking Lake Chauncy in 1846. It was called the State Reform School for Boys at Westborough. It was built in Westborough; far enough from Boston so as not to be seen and so runaways could not find their way back. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” was coined to describe the institution. It was based on the congregate or centralized system of incarceration, the same as the adult prisons.

In 1884 after 12 years of riots, arson, mass runaways, brutality and a non-existent record of preventing recidivism, a reform movement took control of the program and abandoned the congregate system of the juvenile jails. During that time period, over 6,000 men/boys passed through the doors of the institution. During the transition from the congregate system to the cottage system, the best boys 15 and younger remained at the Peters Farm Reform School while the more aggressive and dangerous boys were sent to the newly opened Concord Reformatory and elsewhere. Legislators also voted to abandon the existing buildings and convey the property to the newly established Westborough Insane Asylum and located the new juvenile facility to Powder Hill overlooking the Worcester Turnpike.

The majority of boys adjudicated delinquent and committed to Lyman were mentally challenged, emotionally disturbed, school truants or stubborn and neglected children (status offences). These boys had been rejected by parents or state agencies and were mixed in with convicted delinquents who committed serious crimes. Boys were committed for a term of two months to five years. As the population of Lyman steadily grew, overcrowding was an ongoing issue that was addressed through legislative indifference.

The new facility opened in 1885 with 100 of the best boys ages ten to 15 transferred from the old Reform School while boys’ seven to ten were deflected to a new facility in Berlin. The new cottage plan provided for custodial and industrial training for delinquent boys. It was intended to resemble a family-style home as opposed to the centralized system of the adult prisons. Each cottage was overseen by a married couple, the master and matron who lived in separate quarters in the cottage, a teacher and a laundress. Each cottage was designed for 30 boys who were assigned by age and ability. The boys slept in open dormitories, ate their meals in the cottage dining room, played in the recreation room but prison lock stepped to their daily work assignments or extra curricular activities.

However, the new building design resembled those of the old Reform School and the daily routine of the boys, their diets, work hours, school hours and recreation time remained virtually the same as the Reform School. What did change were the boys’ living conditions with no walls or fences and no barred windows or doors. Lyman was an open campus. Although the newly-constructed three-story monolithic brick buildings resembled those of other state institutions, they were referred to as cottages, a misnomer. Without having prior knowledge of the Reform School, the forerunner of the Lyman School, a casual visitor passing through the open campus would observe the finely landscaped lawns and decorative flower arrangements, the impressive brick architecture and clean white farm buildings. There were smooth roads and concrete sidewalks connecting all of the buildings. The campus had all the appearances of an open campus prep school.

During the next 70 years, the state purchased adjacent properties and approximately 700 acres of farm land on Powder Hill north of the Turnpike to the Assabet River, along Milk Street and north and east to Lake Chauncy and the former reform school which became the Westboro Insane Asylum. Throughout its history, there was never a master building plan for Lyman. Although the legislature grudgingly approved funding for more cottages, acquired more farm land and increased the farm program to feed an expanding population, there was very little support for educational and vocational programs, which is what these boys desperately needed

The Great Depression had little impact on the legislature, which continued to fund additional building projects to support Lyman’s growing population. During the war years, boys enlisted in the armed forces. The academics program was discontinued for those boys who volunteered to keep the coal furnaces burning and work long hours at the farm and the dairy to keep food on the table. Needless to say, these boys never received any educational or vocational training.

When the United States was thrust into World War II, all the eligible Lyman boys and male staff were either drafted or enlisted. The staffing of Lyman was left up to the women employees and men too old to serve in the armed forces. Consequently classroom attendance was suspended during the war and every physically able boy worked the farm, tended to the boiler system shoveling coal 24/7, worked in the kitchen or shoveled snow during the winter months and landscaped in the summer.

After World War II, Lyman’s population became ethnically diversified. However unlike prior commitments, these boys were violent in nature, psychopathic, illiterate and generally un-incorrigible. As more social services became available at the gateway of the juvenile justice system, more of the younger less troubled boys were diverted away from Lyman. The 50s and 60s brought in street-hardened boys that were not only convicted delinquents but were involved in gangs, substance abuse and weapons.

In 1947, Legislative investigation of Lyman characterized the male faculty as misfits, malcontents and alcoholics who were appointed as political hacks. In the 1950s, Lyman experienced reform movements that would eventually lead to the closing of the facility. In 1950, 200 acres of farm land was sold to help finance the implementation of the 40-hour work week recently made law thus ending the full time cottage parents and the farm help that worked 60 to 70 hours a week. The money was necessary to hire more employees to staff the cottages 24/7. The trade unions further pressured the legislature to cease the use of boys in building maintenance and farm work. They made the point that the boys were nothing more than free child labor. In 1952, the Lyman Trustees were disbanded and the Division of Youth Services was created to manage the state’s juvenile delinquency program.

As a direct result of the boys’ ban from performing any form of routine maintenance, the older buildings fell into a state of neglect the farm lands went fallow, the hay fields uncut and the animals were eventually sold off. The boys were relegated to domestic chores that were eagerly volunteered for rather than spend their idle hours watching television. The boys were allowed to work as domestics in the cottages making beds and cleaning floors, as kitchen help and laundry workers. The boys in trust were allowed to work at landscaping and snow removal.

In 1953, the Legislature discontinued the farming program and released three industrial arts instructors which in affect ended the only semblance of vocational training. However, they did continue with institutional maintenance funding on an emergency basis only, but they approved two new buildings, a central cafeteria and a school building. This brick one-story school building, typical of the era, was built to accommodate the growing Lyman population. However, little thought or planning was done to make this an adequate learning facility. The classrooms would only accommodate 20 students and with a population in excess of 585, the new building was totally inadequate. Once again the legislature failed in their attempt to educate these boys.

By 1960, fewer than twenty five cottage staff per day were interacting in some way with the 590 boys at the school, leaving 155 employees on the Lyman payroll that had no daily contact at all with a boy. Still, every boy was required to attend school classes. However, there was no farm work, carpentry shop or vocational training. No extra curricular activities, for the most part the boys were confined to their cottages

Then, in the mid 1960s, there was a national reform movement against incarcerating juveniles in institutions. In 1968, Massachusetts Governor John Volpe requested the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to investigate Lyman and other state facilities. Their findings identified the Division of Youth Services as a scandalous neglect and mistreatment of children state wide. Lyman had become a dumping ground for political appointments and hacks and for hundreds of boys that were cast off as being lost souls of society. In 1969, newly elected Governor Frank Sergeant terminated the commissioner of the Division of Youth Services and immediately hired another to deinstitutionalize the system. Dr. Jerome Miller, an assistant Professor of Psychology from Ohio State University was hired. Although Miller had little experience dealing with juveniles or for that matter a broken reform system, he did have extensive experience in conventional and non traditional treatment and counseling of adults. But as he would quickly learn, he was clearly out of his area of expertise.

In 1971, the remaining status offenders were removed from Lyman and returned to their relatives or placed in foster care while convicted juvenile delinquents from other closed facilities were moved into Lyman. Two girls cottages were opened at Lyman and, for a short time, the school was coed and the facility continued to spiral out of control. There were frequent runaways and numerous disturbances that required the intervention of the local police to support the staff with maintaining order. Then in January 1972, in a desperate attempt to take control, Miller executed a clandestine operation whereby student supporters from the University of Massachusetts appeared at Lyman and shuttled the remaining boys off the property to Amherst to become part of the new social reform movement. Lyman School for Boys was shuttered after 86 years of service. The employees that resided on the campus became jobless but remained caretakers of an empty facility.

Today, Lyman’s sprawling farmlands have been sold off or conveyed to other state and local agencies. The remaining campus buildings that were not rehabilitated for use by other agencies were abandoned and left boarded up to endure the ravages of time and neglect until they collapse into their own foundations. When Lyman was closed, the school had 265 acres of land. [1]



  • Last One Over the Wall: The Massachusetts Experiment in Closing Reform Schools, by Jerome G. Miller