Within the granite and brownstone walls of Providence’s imposing Gothic courthouse, Manuel shifts nervously from foot to foot. For the second time this year, Manuel stands alone before a judge, awaiting his sentencing. The son of Portuguese immigrants, Manuel’s struggling family has no money to spend on an attorney; the right to free legal counsel is decades away. Earlier in 1925, Manuel had been arrested for violating property rights and committing theft. This time, he was picked up by the Providence Police Department because of truancy. After reviewing Manuel’s record and listening to the testimony of the arresting officer, the judge is finally ready to announce his sentencing – “Six weeks at Sockanosset.” As the judge slams down his gavel, a look of relief creeps across Manuel’s face.
From 1881 until 1985, the Sockanosset School for Boys served as a juvenile detention facility and reformatory. Rhode Island citizens had first determined the need for such a facility as early as 1847, when the Providence City Council approved the establishment of a school for the “confinement, instruction and reformation of juvenile offenders and young persons of idle, vicious or vagrant habits.” For three decades, children of both sexes were sent to the Providence Reform School in Tockwotton House in the city’s Fox Point neighborhood. By 1880, however, concerns over the school’s management and new approaches to “reforming” juvenile delinquents led to the creation of two new institutions: the Oaklawn School for Girls and the Sockanosset School for Boys.
In 1881, construction of the new boys’ school began on the Howard Reservation in Cranston – a site that already included the State Asylum for the Incurable Insane, the State Prison and Providence County Jail, and the state-run almshouse. Five stone cottages were built between 1881 and 1895, each with its own schoolroom and a dormitory intended to house up to fifty boys. The school complex also included a house for the Sockanosset Superintendent, an infirmary, a gym, and an elegant stone chapel. By locating the reformatory on pastoral land away from corrupting urban influences, the founders were following the prevailing doctrine of the nineteenth century: urban chaos and idleness engendered lawlessness. With that belief foremost in their minds, the school’s administrators kept the boys busy on the Howard Reservation’s 225 acres of farmland.
The early years of Sockanosset were highly regimented. The boys spent hours doing physically demanding activities like farm chores, building repair and construction, and coal shoveling. However, forward-thinking school administrators began to shift towards a program of education and rehabilitation. Social reformers insisted that the crimes of juveniles were typically motivated by social circumstance. Roy L. McLaughlin, the Superintendent of Sockanosset during the 1920s, noted that “most of the boys come from ‘broken’ or ‘badly bent’ homes.”
Sockanosset slowly shifted from a reformatory designed to contain and discipline the unruly to a school where classes and vocational training focused on preparing boys for life after Sockanosset. A key part of this training were the vocational classes offered by accomplished craftsmen. At one point, Sockanosset boasted a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, a farm school where they raised much of the food they ate, and a printing shop where they printed The Howard Times. Items created by boys at the school were the showpiece of the Rhode Island exhibit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
During its height in the early twentieth century, Sockanosset was known as a respected vocational school. Some boys may have been truant or committed minor offenses in hopes of being sentenced to Sockanosset. As in Manuel's situation, boys being sent to Sockanosset knew they would receive regular meals and practical vocational training.
As the century progressed, however, a lack of funds and overcrowding at the school necessitated the termination of the very programs that had made Sockanosett so forward-thinking for its time. After over one hundred years of operation, the school finally closed in 1985.