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Women’s Reformatories, Police Matrons, Etc.

October 18, 1885 — National Prison Association Meeting, Detroit MI


The questions which are to occupy the attention in this section of the National Prison Association this afternoon, are of vital importance, affecting as they do the life and vigor of the nation, for its strength lies in the virtue of its women, and the purity of marital life.

In every country of the civilized word there is apparent at the present time an increasing interest in prisons and prison reform — a far more intelligent line of thought is observable. As the investigation has progressed, the condition of women prisoners has claimed more serious attention. During the last decade the subject has been presented in some form to the most of our legislative assemblies, either by gubernatorial messages, bills, or petitions, varying in degree in proportion to the enlightened public opinion upon the subject, but all bearing the same impress, to wit: an awakened consciousness to the danger that is threatening the life of our nation by the alarming increase of crime among the women and girls of our land, and the rapid increase of a criminal class.

It is cause for encouragement that a great change has been wrought in the public mind by the combined forces of the benevolent, the philanthropist, and the Christian, who, seeing the danger that threatened their homes and their country, have laid aside their prejudices, thrown down the barriers which have hitherto separated them, and joining hand to hand have united in one grand noble effort to stop the ravages of the invading foe. Some progress has been made. Instead of our public men taking hold in a sort of perfunctory way, as was the case during the first agitation of the subject, there are may of them now found foremost in the ranks, who, with a hearty good will, lend their aid in the solution of this difficult problem. As yet, in but few of the states has there been much advance made in the establishment of separate prisons or reformatories for women or girls, under the control of women. Some progress has been made in a few of the states in placing women in more advanced positions in regards to reformatory or industrial schools for girls, but none of the states, I believe, except Indiana and Massachusetts, have shown their faith by their works, by establishing State prisons of a reformatory character, and placing them in the hands of women. Indiana leads the van in the completeness of her confidence in woman’s powers. Her embryonic faith enacted a law for the establishment of a reformatory for women and girls; erected a building, and appointed a financial board composed of men, and a philanthropic board, composed of women and a male physician, but all the officers for the interior government of the reformatory, to be composed of women, selected and appointed by the superintendent, who herself is appointed by the Board of Managers. The embryo grew and developed until the completion of a full-grown faith became manifest about ten years since by the transfer for the reformatory to a Board of Managers composed of three women, clothed with full powers, as in other State  Prisons. As the full-grown faith began to bear fruit, some of the seeds thereof were carried by some unseen power of the States of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York (States with wealth and intelligence, and who should have opened their hearts to receive it), and lodged in the fertile soil of Massachusetts, which State is always found in the foremost ranks in efforts for fallen humanity. Soon there sprung up from that seed, that grand, noble institution known as the Reformatory Prison for Women, but her faith in woman’s capacities not yet perfected, as is evidenced by the fact that her Board of Commissioners is composed of three men and two women. Nevertheless, it is a grand institution — an honor to the State. Of the benefits arising from the above named Institutions, I shall speak more fully further on.

The need of separate prisons, or reformatories, for women and girls, under the absolute care and supervision of women officers, should be apparent to all, and is one of the most important questions that will claim the attention of the National Prison Association. With the exception of the two States above mentioned, female convicts are confined int eh same State Prison as men, in a small department either in the basement, attic room, or some other circumscribed place, as a rule poorly ventilated and illy adapted to any reformatory measures. The prisoners are usually employed in washing the clothing of the men prisoner, or in making or mending them — a custom deleterious to the women, and no advantage whatever to the State, for the invalid corps in the men’s prison is just fitted for that kind of work, and would be benefitted by having it to perform. Thus kept in a narrow, contracted place, no systematic plan can be carried out. Female prisoners, as a rule, are ignorance of any system or discipline. Provision should be made for a thorough, systematic raining in all kinds of housewifery, in order to fit them for an honest livelihood upon their release, No reformation can be effected without industry and systematic labor. It is probably that all of our prisons where women are confined have a matron, who has the oversight of the female prisoners, but that officer is usually selected not so much for her peculiar fitness for the place, and known success in reformation, as for some favoritism or personal preferment. They have but little power, have o control over the finances, and therefore cannot develop any plans for the reformation of the convicts. To expect the to do so under such circumstances would be to require them to make bricks without straw.

Indeed, the thought of reformation does not enter into the discipline of such prisons. Two points only are taken into consideration: the punishment and prevention from escape of the prisoners. However exalted the warden may be, and earnest and conscientious to do his whole duty toward the female prisoners, the class from whom he must select his subordinate officers are rarely men who are noted for their virtue or their immaculate purity. The guards in some of the prisons (it may be in most) have keys to the women’s prison, and in some cases have keys to their cells. The results in some instances have been most terrible: where helpless women, — incarcerated criminals we grant, — but not always debased or thoroughly degraded. It may be some of them, with a love for fine dress, jewelry, etc., and without the means to gratify it have been tempted to steal from their employers, and have been arrested, tried, and convicted of larceny, and sent for a term to the State prison. Their reputation is gone, but their virtue is still preserved, and their sense of virtue is as keen as any woman’s. They are placed in such an institution and may be forced to minister to the lust of the officers. They are powerless, they are only convicts, and have no redress.

I am not drawing here imaginary pictures, or stating something that might possibly occur, but giving you a faint sketch of what has actually taken place within my own personal knowledge in this, our country. Could I convey to you some ideas of the terrible abuses which have been unveiled int the investigations which my husband and myself have made into the condition of our prisons and prisons system, you would at once be convinced of the need of some reform as regards the case of female criminals. I would not for a moment convey to you the thought that this is a picture of that which exists I every prison where women criminals are confined under the care of men. We have some noble wardens in our State prisons, who could gladly better the condition of the female prisoners if they could; but with all their other duties, it is impossible for them to bring to bear their powers in the work of reformation which should be carried on in a woman’s prison.

Again, men cannot reform debased women. Most women who have descended so low as to be incarcerated in a prison under sentence, have lost self-respect and the finer sensibilities of their character. Many of them are women of easy virtue, having been debased by men and accustomed to use their powers to influence them for evil. Hence men are at a disadvantage in undertaking to deal with them. It is also attended with great danger to themselves. First, the demoralizing effect of such influence on their own lives and character. Second, their reputation, although it may be of the purest and most exalted, is placed in the hands of the vilest and the lowest, and may be blasted irretrievably. The cost is too great for pure-minded men, and any other kind would not be permitted to enter the walls of such a prison for humanity’s sake. Hence the need of a women’s and girls’ reformatory to be under the entire supervision of women. To this some female convicts object. They greatly prefer being under the management of men. When the female prisoners were removed from the Southern prison, Jeffersonville, Ind., to the Women and Girls’ Reformatory at Indianapolis, they protested vigorously against the change. They, for certain favors, have been allowed privileges; money had been given in some cases, to others liquor and tobacco. And when these perquisites were all withdrawn, and they were placed in the pure atmosphere of God-fearing women, the change was not agreeable to them — strong proof of the need of a separate prison.

Let us examine some of the objections. The strongest one in the mind of the tax-payer is that there are so fee women criminals in the different States, that we cannot afford to erect and sustain another institution. We ask why is it there are not more women and girls sent to prison? It is not because there are not more criminals, for there are thousands of women and girls in the United States who should be in the woman’s or girl’s reformatory. In the city of Chicago alone there were about 8,000 arrests of women and girls during the past year, all of whom passed through the stationhouses. A large portion of these should have received a maximum sentence subject to conditional release and been committed to a woman’s prison or reformatory, to be kept under training and surveillance until reformed.

If a woman or girl is arrested, convicted of criminals sent to our workhouses or penitentiaries, it only adds a stigma without any benefit. Her labor is not remunerative. There are no reformatory measures — she associates with those deeper in crime than she is herself and in most cases comes out vastly worse than when she entered. Hence many judges and juries, when young women or those even more hardened in crime are brought before them, cannot find it in their hearts to send them to such prisons as we have; they are, therefore, in many cases, either acquitted, let off with a light fine, or dismissed on promise of good behavior. Thus they have the stigma of having been arrested and tried with no corresponding benefit to them or the State. Said a leading judge: “I have had twenty such cases during the past year, every one of whom I should have sent to a woman’s prison, but I could not send them to such as we have.” Many others have borne the same testimony.

Another objection urged is that women superintendents are not capable. We answer unhesitatingly there are women in every State of the Union with as great capabilities for the proper and successful conduct of such institutions, financially, morally, and religiously, as can be found among the men. Indiana has thoroughly proved this. The four consecutive Governors, under whose administration the board of managers (all ladies), have served, have borne the same striking testimony, viz.: that it is the best managed of any of the institutions in the State, the most careful and economical in its expenditures, thorough in its discipline, and successful in the work of reformation. Over 80 per cent. of those who have passed through the reformatory are now doing well. The prison can reform criminals, and send them out better men and women, law-abiding instead of law-breaking, producers instead of consumers, is doing the best thing for the State, morally and financially.

The object of all prison discipline should be reformation. In order to effect this, reformation must first take place in the public mind. The idea of prisons and their purpose in the public mind at the present day does not differ materially from that which pervaded the minds of the people during the reign of the ancient monarchies of Egypt, that of detention and punishment. Reformation implies re-forming or making over — a complete remodeling. This should be the prime object in every prison. If men and women so conduct themselves as to be unfitted for liberty, unsafe to the interest of the state or community, and their incarceration is necessary, it is prima facie evidence that those individuals need reforming or making over, and when the state takes the position of a parent, and assumes control over them, and the right to punish, she also assumes the responsibility of the care of those persons, and is bound to bring to bear such discipline as may be reformatory in its character, and to use all possible means to surround them with all of those influences that may be helpful in producing that change.

For woman the means used should be of an uplifting character. She can not be reformed until hope is kindled and her self-respect in a measure established. In order to effect this all of the officers should be God-fearing women of the purest type, who have learned to govern themselves, presenting to the prisoners and example to follow. The discipline should be firm and decided. The three principal adjuncts — education, industry, and religion — should all be brought to bear freely upon the character. There should be perfect system in the industrial department, and all of them should be taught all kinds of housewifery to fit the for service, a position which the most of them will have to occupy. They should be made to pass through all the grades and perform the work well, and when their time expires they have the means of an honest livelihood within their power.

The training and discipline of the mind is invaluable; to be taught to think, to reason from cause to effect. As a class they think or reason but little, hence all should have the privilege of school a portion of each day, if capable of learning. All should be taught to read understandingly, for the mind will act, will feed on something, and should be supplied with the right kind of food and trained to appropriate it.

Religion is an important adjunct, while industry is absolutely essential, and the discipline and training of a school is so beneficial for the mind, yet a personal saving knowledge of God through Christ Jesus is the prime factor in the reformation of a convict. Hence the need of church services, Sabbath schools, and prayer meetings, good books to read, and a variety of labor. With these all combined in the hands of conscientious women of financial and executive ability and the power of controlling others, a large number of the women and girls, who are now floating form one prison to another might be reformed.

The Indiana Reformatory for women and girls is reformatory in its character. It is composed of two branches entirely distinct and separate, yet under the same board of managers and superintendent. The one is penal, to which are sent those who are convicted of crime, such as murder, manslaughter, horse-stealing, arson, counterfeiting, forgery, and larceny, for all of which crimes prisoners have been received in that institution as in any other State prison. The other department is for girls young in sin, and those exposed in the midst of evil. These are committed during minority and may go out on good behavior or “ticket-of-leave,” under the surveillance of the board. The Massachusetts Reformatory has the same system of “apprenticeship” but rather better developed. Every effort is made for their reformation.

But, says the sceptic, a woman who has sunk so low as to come under the action of the law, is beyond reformation. Much is said about the depths to which women may fall, that their powers of corruption are immense, far in excess of the men. While we always have claimed that women are equal to men, we have never yet admitted the point that she was superior to him in ability to sin or to entangle others. In reply to the objection that a bad woman can not be reformed, we refer you to the marvelous success of the Indiana Reformatory, which had for its head for many years, Sarah J. Smith, one of the noblest women and most successful prison officers which the world has ever produced.

Station-houses and city prisons are places of almost unmitigated evil. Through the station-houses of large cities there pass annually many thousands of prisoners, many of whom are exceedingly vile and corrupt beyond description. Among there are thousands of women and girls, who have grown hardened in crime, and vie with the men in their profanity, obscenity, and lust; others are young girls, upon whose faces still may be seen the bloom of youth. Others, so young as scarcely to conceive of what crime is, having been abducted or enticed, under some specious charm, and ruined before they had any conception of womanhood. Again others, the victims of misguided confidence, full of shame and with home blighted, rushing helplessly or madly along down the vortex of crime and misery. Others are shop girls, who through love of dress or from pressing poverty, have been tempted to purloin from their employers. Again, some who are wrongfully accused by some thoughtless or hard-hearted employer are thrust into the station house to await arraignment before the police court, in some cases friendless and alone. All these are hustled together, often so crowded that there is not room, even so much as to sit on the floor, while all around their open cells, shut off only by bars, very frequently may be seen one surging, sickening mass of men and boys, filling the corridor contiguous to the women’s cells, and pressing so close to the bars as to converse freely in such language as would make any one blush to hear it. There are also received destitute women, strangers, who have no place to sleep and are given shelter for the night, also lost children. In the police stations of Chicago during the past two months over 600 lost children were cared for until restored to their homes. Throughout the United States, with but few exceptions, those station-houses are under the care of men, some of whom have received their positions for political services rendered to the dominant party, and but few of them on account of peculiar merit for the position, and until quite recently there were no matrons in any of the station-houses. But through the efforts of the ladies of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union matrons are now permitted to have a place in the station-houses of some of the cities of nine different States. In some they are permitted by sufferance only, philanthropic ladies paying their salaries, whilst in others they are now employed by the municipal authorities to stay in the stations and have some care over those arrested by the police or received for the night, such as lost children, destitute women, etc.

These matrons have no power, except a moral one. This step at first met with strong opposition from the police, but many of them now fully acknowledge the benefits derived therefrom through every department of the prison. This is a move in the right direction, but far short of what it should be. Desirous of seeing the working of this system. I visited recently one of the police courts of the city of Chicago, where was revealed to my startled vision the fact as above stated, of near 8000 arrests of women and girls during the past year who had passed through the station-houses of Chicago alone. Upon pressing my way into the court-room I found congregated, about 250 persons, composed of a few weeping mothers, or anxious-looking fathers, or brothers and sisters, but by far the larger portion of them, a lecherous, low mass such as daily gather into the police courts and feed upon the filthy garbage which is there presented. Large numbers were arraigned of all classes. In the midst of it all stood the noble matron, her very presence a benediction. As the female prisoners were arraigned she drew near the bar. One among the many was a young girl, about nineteen, arraigned for drunkenness, a bright, handsome young face, not inured to crime. She had never been before the court; modest and diffident she was overwhelmed with shame. When her trial was ended the matron took her by the hand and gave such words of encouragement and hope as only she could do, and at once sought to devise means for her reformation. Another case followed. A young woman, well-dressed, arraigned for larceny, in ah house of ill-repute. The matron again stood by the bar, facing the spectators, and here the value of her presence was most perceptible as a restraining power over the attorneys and others, causing the trial to proceed with becoming decency. Two little school girls, not yet in their teens, were brought as witnesses against a fortune-teller who had beguiled them into her den. There the matron stood by to protect those little children. And thus I might go on giving ou instance after instance of the good effect of her presence in that court-room, but I have just lifted the veil to give you a glimpse of the work that is needed and the force of a God-fearing woman. Her opportunities even thus limited are great. Sometimes an unsophisticated girl is brought in who has come from the country in search of higher wages; she is alone, her house, house of correction, or county jail, where female prisoners are incarcerated, there should be a woman’s department under the control of a capable, middle-aged Christian women, who have full powers in every way. The finances needed for the conduct of such a department should be placed in their hands. There should be a thoroughly organized graded system of reformatories, with a supervising board empowered to transfer and adjust the inmates from one institution to another as might in their judgment seem best for the good of all; building should be erected in each State, inexpensive, but fitted to the work to be done. Laws should be so amended as to cause the arrest of keepers of brothels and houses of assignation and prostitutes, street-walkers, and drunkards, and upon conviction thereof they should be sent to a woman’s reformatory prison for not less than one nor more than two years for the first offense, and upon second conviction should receive a maximum sentence, subject to conditional release on giving full evidence of reformation.

The work for discharged prisoners is in its infancy. In a few of the large cities there are organized associations for the are of discharged female prisoners. In New York there is, I learn, an excellent organization, which is doing good work. The Dedham Home in Massachusetts for discharged prisoners, supplements the work of the reformatory prison for women in affording a temporary home for discharged prisoners until they can obtain employment. Especially is this association valuable in caring for discharged prisons with young children, for whom it is so difficult to find employment. Their board is paid for a few weeks from the State appropriation for that purpose. But, owing to the admirable plan adopted by the reformatory of providing for them homes previous to the expiration of their sentences, the number needing such a home is decreasing annually. The Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls provides homes for all who will accept, and most of them are very grateful for such provision, and as their time of release draws near special care is taken to fit them for their departure, and a correspondence is kept up with them after their release, for their encouragement, and but few of them disappear from our sight. This work, I trust, will claim the special attention of this conference.



Source: Rhoda M. Coffin, Her Reminiscences, Addresses, Papers, and Ancestry, ed. Mary Coffn Johnson (New York: The Grafton Press) 1910, pp. 173-189.