Elizabeth Munger, Superintendent
Connecticut State Farm for Women

[Prison World, Jul-Aug 1941]


EDITORS' NOTE: The editors of the Prison World invited one of the outstanding administrators of female institutions to submit a statement discussing the problems encountered in dealing with the female prisoner. We are pleased to present these remarks by Miss Elizabeth Munger, Superintendent and Warden of the Connecticut State Farm and Prison for Women, Niantic, Connecticut. Miss Munger is a graduate of the University of Chicago and her early experience was gained in settlement work in that city followed by several years of journalism and volunteer war work during World War I. Later Miss Munger was Assistant Superintendent of the New Jersey State Home for Girls at Trenton and since 1926 has fulfilled her present responsibilities. She has been active in the affairs of the American Prison Association for many years and is recognized as one [of] the foremost women in correctional work.


Although nearly half a century old, the Woman's Reformatory in America still enjoys the distinction of being the latest of our so-called experiments in penal administration. Its development has been entrusted almost exclusively to women, who, in the pioneer days, naturally turned for their inspiration to the more successful reformatories for girls (where the problem merges within certain age brackets) rather than to similar institutions for adult males. In their building program, they borrowed from the reformatories for girls the cottage system, with its "house-mother" and home-like surroundings; in their general operating programs they borrowed the therapeutic, occupational, educational and training systems; they adopted the indeterminate sentence, with variations, parole and even for a time took over many of their juvenile disciplinary devices.


It is not surprising, therefore, to read in Dr. Eugenia Lekkerkerker's exhaustive study of "Women's Reformatories in the United States," the following observations: "The best reformatories are dominated by ideas of protection for women and social hygiene ... and actually are not any more 'prisons' than are our private institutions for neglected girls; we might almost say that women's crime in scarcely taken seriously in America. The men's reformatories, on the contrary, are prisons often differing little from ordinary prisons and penitentiaries; their inmates are regarded as criminals, often dangerous, and certainly not suggesting a need for protection."

Undoubtedly, the outward aspect of our institutions gives the same impression to less astute observers but the very fact that we have achieved this appearance with so vexatious and complicated a problem shows that we have taken it very seriously indeed.


Protection vs. Punishment

It is true, however, that the idea of protection rather than punishment is the keynote of our policy and that this largely explains many differences between our institutions and the reformatories for men. The women sent to us need protection - protection against their own personal liabilities and against environmental evils and dangers. For the most part, they are victims rather than aggressors. Even those convicted of crimes of violence are found to have been victims of drink or drugs or of some insane infatuation. The percentage of inherently criminal women, who are a menace to public safety in their own right, is almost negligible. This idea of protection of women is shared extensively by the committing courts. Otherwise, how explain the longer sentences imposed upon women sex delinquents for offenses in which men are equally involved? Even when the evidence against the man in the case is particularly flagrant, he, more often than not, is let off with a fine or a suspended sentence. (It is interesting to note, in this connection, that the reason often given is that "he has a wife and children.")


Lack of Regimentation

Another more obvious difference is the much smaller populations in the women's institutions, making possible an informality and lack of regimentation almost never found in men's institutions. This is particularly fortunate because these women are too individualistic, too self-centered and too variable in temperament to adapt themselves amenably to much regimentation. It is a valuable safety-valve against emotional outbursts to allow the maximum of freedom of movement and expression, within the bounds of orderly conduct, and this with the smaller populations and cottage groupings can be achieved.

The first model reformatory for women was opened in 1900 at Bedford Hills, New York, by Dr. Katharine B. Davis. In the years of her administration, she made history not only in her work with women but in the whole field of penology. A woman of rare capacity, brains and courage, she laid the foundation for most of our advanced practices today. Social hygiene, psychiatry and psychology first made their decisive entry into the penal field on her invitation because, to her logical mind, a thorough-going diagnosis of the individual mental and physical ailments was the only sound basis upon which to plan an effective program of care and treatment. And it was she who first advanced the still tentative but entirely logical plan of a clearing house to which all offenders might be sent for examination after conviction and before sentence. Since the Bedford of her day, we have seen a second great landmark in the opening of the Federal Institution for Women at Alderson, West Virginia, in 1927, the culmination of a really remarkable development. It was fitting that a disciple of Dr. Davis, Dr. Mary B. Harris, was the one chosen to guide its early destiny. Dr. Harris' book, "I Knew Them in Prison," covers the problems arising day by day in all types of institutions for women and girls so thoroughly brief an article such as this can scarcely be more than a short supplement. !

At the present time there are twenty-four reformatories for women in the country. Many of them are still struggling with pioneer conditions and unsympathetic legislatures while groups in several of the remaining states are working against the same odds for the establishment of such institutions. Our cause is not a popular one with the law-makers. They are inclined to be a little more respectful to those institutions which have taken over the "dangerous" criminals from the States' Prisons, but regarding the sex delinquents or "fallen women," they still entertain the traditional attitude of hopelessness.


Results - Not Statistics

"What percentage," they will ask cynically, "are permanently reformed?" As if one could answer that question truthfully about anybody! If any of them were sufficiently interested in the problem to have read the Gluecks' "Five Hundred Delinquent Women," they would find an answer to confirm their skepticism. We, however, who are undaunted by the unfavorable conclusions in that study, can point to other facts and figures. For instance, at Niantic, with a capacity of two hundred and fifty, we receive approximately two hundred new cases every year and parole or discharge an equal number. The mathematics alone tells something. A tabulation of the last two thousand cases committed to our institution reveals that less than eight per cent were recommitted. (The greater number of the latter were alcoholics whose previous records showed them in and out of jail innumerable times.) While this is perhaps wholly negative evidence, it is constantly being reinforced by the receipt of voluntary testimonials from women who have long since passed from our care.


Although much smaller than men's institutions, the populations in our reformatories are much more heterogeneous. To be explicit, in our institution we have an age range of from sixteen to old age; a mental capacity range from the low-grade feeble-minded to superior intelligence; an educational range from illiteracy to college; earning capacity from zero to highly paid specialized ability; offenses from illegitimate pregnancy to second degree murder; backgrounds from the most squalid and neglected to those in our best American tradition - to say nothing of the degrees and varieties of marital complications. Add to this the well-known vagaries of feminine temperament and notionalism and you have some idea why team work is difficult and mass handling, even if desirable, practically impossible.



Such a situation calls for the individualization provided by the now generally accepted classification process. After some twenty years of continuous employment of the system, it is difficult for me to imagine running any kind of institution without it. Besides serving as a basic formula for treatment and training it is a valuable aid to discipline and, by judicious handling, it can be applied to the indeterminate sentence on an individual basis without upsetting the morale. Once you have established confidence in the integrity of your purposes, it is comparatively easy to convince most of the women that they cannot all be treated exactly alike because they are not all exactly alike. For instance, when a woman has met all the conditions for parole laid down by the Board of Directors, there seems to me to be no virtue in insisting on her remaining just for the sake of serving out a given period. When the minimum is fixed by the court, of course, we have no choice in the matter. On the other hand, if the prognosis is extremely poor, it should be equally possible to delay parole as long as possible. It is in these latter cases that disciplinary trouble is apt to develop and the thorough understanding obtained through the classification studies helps immeasurably in handling the situations. !

When we examine the material which filters in from the various courts, we find certain types of problems which are common to all of us. There is the psychopathic delinquent woman, the subject of constant conference discussion and still an unsolved problem. However much she upsets our scheme of administration, we may as well make up our minds to the fact that the type is with us to stay and we must make the best of it. Once we give up the idea of trying to shift her to some other institution where her activities would be even more upsetting, we can get down to some working basis. One thing we have learned: she cannot be disciplined in an ordinary way. We have to treat her with the utmost tact and caution to avoid making an issue and when we cannot avoid an issue, treat the ensuing "episode" as they do in hospitals for the insane. If she must be locked up, there should be no hard and fast rule as to the length of time. Recovery from the episode should be the signal for release. The cottage system lends itself well to the handling of such cases because they can be transfered from one group to another whenever the usual infatuations, antagonisms or irritations begin to develop. In these cases we also must make up our minds to be content with lesser degrees of improvement in personality make-up and, after discharge, consider that any slight gain in stability, together with a record of no illegal acts, should be counted as positive achievement.


Problems of the Medical Service

The maternity problem varies greatly in size in our institutions, but, since it is a natural by-product of sexual delinquency, we should be equipped to handle it as efficiently as any outside hospital. Even if actual deliveries can be arranged with outside hospitals, it is still necessary to provide special care during the gestation period and for the infants afterward. Maternity problems occurring in the institutions for girls should be transferred to us until after confinement. Not only is duplication of the service costly and unnecessary but the conspicuous display of illegitimate pregnancy is entirely out of place in an institution for impressionable younger girls. The disposition of the baby should be an individual matter based upon the physical and mental fitness of the mother to assume responsibility for its care. If she or her family can provide a proper home, a baby born at our institution may be placed while still very young; if not, the child is committed to the Bureau of Child Welfare before it is two years old, and placed in a boarding home until a plan for its future can be worked out either with or without the mother's cooperation.

Besides the medical services in maternity and pediatrics, women's reformatories must be prepared not only to maintain a large venereal disease clinic but to minister to a wide variety of disorders and afflictions. By nature, women are inclined to take their ailments, both real and imaginary, very seriously. A well-established psychoneurosis sometimes obscures the picture so that we can exhaust our own facilities and those of the best outside hospitals without ever finding a physical basis for the trouble. One woman at our institution remained a bed patient throughout a whole two-year sentence without our finding any symptoms of physical disorder.

A recent ruling in our state by the Tuberculosis Commission has added a new problem to our medical department. The Commission has decided to refuse all transfers of our tubercular patients on the ground that it is unfair to subject their presumably non-delinquent patients to association with our women. Although the number involved is less than two per cent, it is necessary for us to provide permanent isolation quarters for them. While we deplore the fact that they have to be deprived of the expert treatment accorded other tubercular patients in the state, we are no worse off than the State's Prison for Men in this respect.

Once over the withdrawal period, the drug addict and the alcoholic, as a rule, do not present difficulties within the institution. The case of the drug addict, like that of the psychopathic delinquent, has long been a controversial subject among women superintendents because there are those who strongly object to their being stigmatized by criminal court commitment. (Again, the idea of protection.) No doubt, there are many who should be treated in a private sanitarium but, if their families cannot foot the bill, where else can they go? The crowded state hospitals will not keep them long enough to do any permanent good and there is some question as to whether there is not as much stigma attached to state hospital as to reformatory commitment. Moreover, is there really much difference between the status of drug addicts and that of alcoholics?

One difference between them - and that in favor of the drug addict - is the chance of success on parole. In the one case, a return to the habit must be effected by deliberate seeking and by a devious route, whereas, in the other case, suggestion and temptation stare one in the face at every street corner and on the pages of every newspaper and magazine.

Once the unfortunate necessity of commitment has been accepted, the longer period of rehabilitation under conditions admirably adapted to the purpose and the authoritative supervision in the community afterwards has proved highly successful in the case of drug addiction.


Broad Outlook

As the modern reformatory is planned, there is the ever-present opportunity for escape. At Niantic, we have come to regard escapes - or rather attempted escapes, because few ever get very far - as all in the day's work and regard them as a normal manifestation. In the old days there were severe penalties for these attempts - mostly borrowed from the juvenile institutions. The hair was cut very short and a distinctive dress, sometimes red and sometimes a dingy brown, would be worn after perhaps a month of isolation. The punishment dragged on and on for months after the offense. We have learned, happily, that severity of punishment never is a real deterrent. Now we simply treat the offender, upon her return, as we would any new admission, with the usual two weeks' quarantine and nothing more. Lest anyone question the wisdom of this procedure, we can testify to the fact that we have had fewer attempts at escape than ever we had under the old method.

This does not mean that we favor no safeguards against escape. After all, safe custody is a primary responsibility imposed by the courts. It would be highly imprudent to plan a reformatory without security at night for the new inmates who are still "on probation" and for those few who continually and consistently have demonstrated their unreliability. Although some institutions have successfully shown that no locks or bars of any kind are required for the majority of their inmates, most of them have adopted the annunciator system which gives the alarm in the matron's room if the door is opened, and most of them have some cottages with protected windows. At any rate, our institutions have demonstrated that the maximum security construction in use in almost all men's prisons is entirely unnecessary.


It has been said by some enthusiasts that we should not build expensive, substantial buildings as a "monument to delinquency" because we shall outgrow this type of institution just as we have outgrown the older prison-like structures; but, having worked for fifteen years to get the inmates out of the old fire-traps here at Niantic, we feel we would not exchange the satisfaction of having our women safely housed for even so rosy an optimism.


Parole and Morale

The great burning question in any institution is: "When can I be paroled?" Each case in our institution has a hearing at the end of nine months or six months, or even earlier, depending upon the individual circumstances. The prison cases must wait until the expiration of their minimum sentence. Having worked under both centralized and decentralized systems, I feel that, for women, the decentralized system is better adapted to the close supervision required. However, in larger states, where close contact with the institution is impossible, there may not be much choice between the two systems. We have, in our institution, five parole officers and we try to keep their case loads down to thirty or thirty-five. Two of our parole officers live in the two largest centers of population and the others live at the institution. They all have an opportunity to study each case at the admission and parole classification meetings and they hold frequent conferences which result in a high degree of cooperation in the matter of transfers in the field, visits, returns to the institution and emergency calls. Records are centralized and available to the authorities of the institution and enable us to direct the course of events, in emergencies, when the officer requires assistance.

To the criticism that we parole too many to domestic service, we would point out that over two-thirds of our women come from the ranks of domestic service and this is one labor market which is unfailing. Moreover, it provides decent living quarters while earning and, last but not least, it engages in the task of readjustment the active services of fine, intelligent house-wives whose efforts on behalf of our women are often the most potent factor in their successful after-careers.

As a special preparation for parole, we form what we call a "parole class" several times a year. It is made up of the women who are within a few months of their parole hearing. This group meets several times a week and various members of the staff, such as the physicians, the teachers, the steward, the director of classification, give talks on personal hygiene, on care of their clothing, on household economy, on social matters and to each girl is assigned a member of the staff as "big sister" or sponsor. During this period the big sister sees her protege often, establishes a friendly interest in all her problems and occasionally takes her off the grounds to get her accustomed to normal outside contacts.

The standards for satisfactory parole conduct in the case of women are, of necessity, considerably higher and the rules more rigid than for men. If a man keeps his job and remains sober, he can go pretty much where he pleases and his private life in his own affair. In the case of most of our women, so much freedom would inevitably bring disaster. In the early stages of parole, she sometimes cannot be allowed to go anywhere alone. Even going to church alone holds its perils. The trouble, of course, is not entirely or always in the woman herself. The forces in the community which originally caused her downfall are still there and she seems foredoomed to attract them to her again. We might almost say parole for men should insure the protection of the community while parole for women should insure protection from the community.

In this article, I have tried to touch on only a few of the many problems discussed by women superintendents and I have also tried, as was suggested, to point out some of the differences between the problems of handling men and women offenders.


Advancing Onward

In conclusion, it seems to me that women superintendents have shown a characteristic housewifely trait in the way they have developed the women's reformatories. They have shaken out the dust and rubbish of tradition that have for so long been accumulating in the older institutions and they have had the courage to discard the old worn-out ideas and implements of punishment to make the way clear for a thorough-going modern program of rehabilitation.