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What Should be the System of Treatment
Applied to the Inmates of a Female Prison

June 8, 1875 — Annual Meeting of the National Prison Congress of the United States, New York City


The proper treatment of prisoners will depend entirely upon the object that is to be attained. If punishment be the prime object, then the more severe the treatment, the more uncomfortable the position, the more completely we can surround her with everything that is loathsome, the sooner will the object be accomplished; and when her time is expired, she will be again thrown upon society as a moral cancer, with her evil tendencies intensified and her powers for evil greatly increased.

If reformation will be the object, then all the means should be used that will tend to elevate, mould the character, and strengthen her better nature and her womanly powers.

The position that we shall take in this essay will be, that reformation should be the prime object; that the protection of society is more thoroughly effected by reformation than it can possibly be by the severity of punishment. But in order to effect this punishment becomes more or less an adjunct, for the prisoner must be deprived of liberty and placed under subjection. The State takes the place of a parent, and whilst administering punishment for past offense or crimes, should seek to subdue and remould the character by throwing around her those influences which will awaken a new life, new thoughts, new aspirations, so that when she leaves the prison she may come forth fitted to take a position of usefulness.

It will be admitted by all who have turned their attention to the reformation of prisoners, that the proper construction of the building is essential to good discipline. A comparatively small defect in the plan of a building may render abortive all efforts for a thorough system of discipline. In order to have a perfect system for the treatment of convicts in a female prison, the building should be so arranged as to render every facility for safety, convenience, discipline, industry, the promotion of health, and the thorough reformation of the inmates or convicts. They should be solid, plain buildings, adapted to the purpose. Not so much attention given to mere architectural display (as we often see in State institutions), but more to durability, convenience and adaptation to the work desired to be accomplished.

The women’s prison should be entirely under the control of women, from the Board of Managers to the lowest office. Recent developments have proved that there are those who are fully competent to conduct a female prison with entire success financially, morally and religiously.

If a board of gentlemen for the financial management of a prison cannot be dispensed with, there should be a board of women managers, to whom should be entrusted the power to have in connection with the superintendent, the entire control and supervision of the convicts.

The appointment of all subordinate officers should rest with the superintendent of the prison, subject to the confirmation of the board. No subordinate officer should have the power to inflict punishment. The discipline should be firm, and the penalty decided and certain, but with the right kind of officers little punishment would be needed. A warden of one of the State prisons, who was noted for the frequency and severity of his punishment, assured the writer that with the right kind of officers in his prison containing several hundred men, the need of inflicting severe punishment would be rare.

Flogging and shower baths should never be allowed in a female prison. Degradation from position, privation of food, withdrawal of liberties, with the very guarded use of the dark cell, for a short period in extreme cases, will usually be found sufficient in hands of rightly qualified officers. Too great importance, therefore, cannot be attached to care in the selection of these. Every one conversant with prison discipline knows how much depends on having the right official in the right place. They should be women of sterling integrity, undoubted piety, tact, quickness of discernment, appreciation of character, apt to teach, possessing powers of government, a living example of divine grace over a consecrated soul. Thus the convicts have continually before them an example to follow — a goal to strike for.

Severe punishment or fear may deter a woman from open violation of rules, and may produce an apparent, but never effect a real reformation, the debasing effects, as a rule, only tending to sink her deeper and complete the destruction of her self-respect: and without self-respect she can not be reformed. To effect her reformation she must be elevated. Hope, therefore, should be instilled and kept alive in the mind and heart of the convict, being constantly strengthened by some object yet to be attained. Women are great imitators, easily influenced by stronger minds, hence the wisdom of surrounding the prisoners constantly with the hallowed Christian influence of their own sex.

Both common sense and reason teach that woman is the best adapted to have charge of , meet the wants, and supply the needs of female prisoners. She alone can understand the susceptibilities, temptations, weaknesses, and the difficulties by which such prisoners are surrounded; she alone can enter into the innermost recesses of their being and minister thereunto.

With such officers, man of the rules and regulations may be left discretionary with the superintendent, under the proper supervision of the Board of Mangers. The prison should be as nearly as possible a well regulated household, each member receiving such discipline and training as may be peculiarly needful to her.

The prisoners received into our prisons, as a class, are ignorant, reflect but little, have limited powers of thought, and fewer avenues of resources for development. If the maxim be true, that ignorance is the parent of vice and crime, it is of the utmost importance that this want be met. The mind should be cultivated, and should also be supplied with the food needful for its proper nourishment. Regular, systematic instruction should be given if possible. Attention should be paid to this, so far, at least, as to have evening schools. The education should be practical, and have strict reference to the future. By such culture she would not only be the better fitted for the position intended for her to occupy by our great Creator, when liberated, but whilst, in prison, her mind would be diverted in a large measure from the gloomy thoughts and constant dwelling upon the past, and what she considers her hard fate. 

Both education and religion are forces of incalculable power. But whilst education tends to inspire self-respect by quickening and strengthening the intellect, developing ideas, and furnishing new food for thought, religion is the only power that is able to overcome the evil of the heart. Therefore, religious instruction is the greatest instrumentality that can be used in the regeneration and reformation of convicts. In order to effect this, every right and proper means should be sought out and made available in endeavoring to bring them to Christ, that through faith in His blood, their hearts may be cleansed and they made new creatures. With such a foundation upon which to build — with a Christ life in the soul, and with the impartation of Divine grace, we have much to hope for. In order to effect such reformation we must combine with thorough religious culture, strict moral discipline. In winning souls to Christ, as well as in teaching the practical duties of a Christian life, outside influences may be very useful. Men and women of purity of life and devotion of heart to their Lord, will be a great power. Thought being presented by a new mind in a new phase, is often productive of great results.

The prisoners on the Sabbath should be kept occupied with something interesting or profitable, with singing, reading, pleasant conversation on topics of interest and profit. Chapel services should be regularly held. Prayer meetings are an important adjunct, in which the convict should feel that she has the right to participate in songs of praise, prayer or experience. Sabbath schools are an agency not to be ignored, but will be found to be invaluable aids in awakening to a new life and strengthening the moral and Christian character.

One of the grave mistakes of the present day and a prolific source of evil, is the too-prevailing idea that labor is degrading to woman: that to be engaged in the various departments of woman’s work is beneath the dignity of a lady of culture. The poorer classes imbibe the spirit of their more favored sisters, ignore the various avenues open to them for procuring an honest livelihood, and thus become an easy prey to the tempter. Very few women who are competent and willing to work are ever found in prison. Idleness and pride engender vice. Labor is essential to reformation. It is not only a means of support, but an auxiliary to virtue. Everything in a prison should point out the advantage of industry. Unless the convict is taught to labor and acquire habits of industry, and a love and pride in some kind of work, she will be almost sure to fall. She should be taught to do well all the duties of housewifery, and, if possible, some kind of trade — a trade which could be carried on without machinery — so that when she leaves the prison, she goes forth equipped and girded with the power of supporting herself honestly and virtuously. Habits of cleanliness and order should be enforced, and indolence or laziness severely punished, if they cannot be overcome by milder treatment.

The food should be plain, but good, and of sufficient variety to ensure health. Outdoor recreation is essential to the health as well as to the uplifting and reformation of the convict. Both diet and recreation may be made powerful agencies in the hands of a wise and judicious officer. Every prison should have a well selected library of religious, moral, historical, and other works that may be selected, which will have a tendency to aid in the work of remolding.

To fit prisoners for entrance again into the world, and to combat evil with its temptations, they should be tested. This may be done by increased liberty, and added responsibilities. The system should be so arranged that the latter part of the imprisonment should be merged into liberty. The restraints should in a measure be gradually removed, and so far as may be, the prisoner placed in ordinary life, with trust reposed and an opportunity given to meet and overcome temptation. This, perhaps, can be accomplished by advance of position to powers and trust. The reformation of woman being the prime object, the history of her character and the registry of her crime, open to public inspection, is highly objectionable, for her character is so exceedingly delicate, and her reputation so very difficult to regain when once lost, that everything should be avoided in her treatment or punishment that would impede or retard her recovery.



Source: Rhoda M. Coffin, Her Reminiscences, Addresses, Papers, and Ancestry, ed. Mary Coffn Johnson (New York: The Grafton Press) 1910, pp. 164-171.