Cedar Rapids Woman Modernizes and Humanizes Prison in East

Model Institution Headed by Miss Munger, Aided by Several Iowans

[Alice Davidson Kaselow, Cedar Rapids Gazette, 7 Apr 1940]


NIANTIC, Conn. - In the last 14 years the Connecticut State Farm for Women, near Niantic, has undergone physical and psychological miracles. Where were five rickety wooden farm houses to shelter its 250 inmates, there now are eight fireproof buildings, all in brick and of attractive colonial architecture. Where disorder and misbehavior were frequent, there now is perfect discipline and even a measure of happiness for the young women committed to the home.

In short, Niantic has come to be nationally recognized as one of the best of its kind of institution in the country. And the heroine of this story is a Cedar Rapids woman, Miss Elizabeth Munger, sister of Dr. Grant B. Munger and James L. Munger of Cedar Rapids.

She is an energetic, brown-eyed little person with a keen wit and a huge sense of human sympathy. This spring will mark the completion of the building program she initiated here during her first year as superintendent. "I can quit now," Miss Munger said. But she probably won't, because, as she remarked, "There's always something more to do."



Iowans on Staff

Working side by side with Miss Munger on her all-feminine staff has been a group of women from her Iowa hometown. They include her sister Winifred, now Mrs. Richard Adams, director of classification and psychological examiner; Mrs Winifred Cook, mother of Miss Katharine and Tom Cook, case worker and musical director; Mrs. Steele Wilcox, daughter of Mrs. W.W. Hamilton and sister of Mrs. Malcom Bolton, supervisor; and Mrs. Helen Coulter, sister of Miss Mary Clark, retired supervisor who lives near the farm.

Also an Iowa woman is Miss Elsie A. Shearer of Marshalltown, assistant superintendent. Miss Rachel Witwer of Cedar Rapids spent two summers here "helping out," and Miss Maurine Munger vacationed at the farm one season.


1,000 Wooded Acres

When the Gazette's reporter interviewed Miss Munger recently, the State Farm's 1,000 wooded acres were covered with snow, last defiant fling of winter's tail. Miss Munger was ensconced in her large, bright office, directing the entrance of new commitments to the institution, deftly erasing a slight difficulty about housing, smoothly soothing the hurt feelings of an old farm worker.

As she gazed out on one of the fields where green would soon be showing, she reminisced that it was a Cedar Rapids woman, the late Miss Elizabeth Cock, teacher in Washington high school for many years, who first led her into this type of social work.

It happened in the early post-war days when she made a luncheon engagement with Miss Cock, who was spending the summer on the staff of the New Jersey State Home for Girls at Trenton. Miss Cock casually suggested that Miss Munger come over to see the excitement, for the place was a hotbed of unfavorable conditions with almost daily riots and general insurrection.


Helped Plan Model Prison

She accepted the invitation, offered to "lend a hand" for a couple of months if she could be of any help, and she stayed there for five years as assistant superintendent.

While she was at Trenton she worked with Dr. Mary B. Harris, then superintendent of the New Jersey state home, (also known to many Cedar Rapids residents). Later she assisted Dr. Harris in planning a "model federal women's prison" which since has been built at Alderson, W.Va. Miss Munger might have been lured to Alderson, but before the project was completed she had seen the conditions at Niantic and decided that here was "a job that must be done."


Getting Money From Men

The place needed badly someone who could map out a building program, and her experience with the Alderson plans seemed to have been thrown in her lap for this very purpose. She came here with all those ideas of what should constitute a really helpful corrective insitution, and she never let that vision dim.

"It's hard to get funds from a bunch of male legislators for an institution of this kind," the superintendent said, "because it doesn't have much emotional appeal.

"So the first time I went to that body for money I asked for a hospital to care for the 60 to 65 illegitimate babies born here every year. That had 'appeal'." She explained that about one-fourth of the girls who are sent here are "expectant," and their babies, when she came to Niantic, were being brought into the world in draughty hallways and under unfavorable conditions.

When it was proposed, more than ten years ago, to transfer the women confined in the state prison to Niantic, many officials at the capital were skeptical. "No woman can deal with this type of offender," they said. But the prisoners were transferred without a ripple and have responded remarkably to the feminine way of treatment.


Mental Cases Added

Just recently Miss Munger had still a third group put under her care - the "defective delinquents," the mental cases who are too troublesome for the regular institutions harboring simple defectives.

Once this ambitious woman had obtained the hospital fund from the legislature, the going was easier. Building after building went up over a period of twelve years. The PWA funds became available and the program sailed toward completion.


No Political Hurdles

"Just what," the reporter wondered, "was the one most important thing enabling you to transform Niantic, to make it the outstanding institution it is?"

"Lack of political interference or pressure," she answered quickly and positively. "Connecticut is a state in which politics - at least, in my experience - doesn't interfere with the conduct of its institutions.

"The setup is like this: I am appointed by a board of seven directors, and the directors are appointed to seven-year terms, one each year, by the governor. So, you see, even the governor does not have the power to influence their decisions. In a crisis, he can, of course, dissolve the entire board, but this is not apt to happen as the board members are non-political appointees, unpaid and most of them prominent, influential and public-spirited citizens."


Hour to 70 Years Old

In her private life, when she simply forgets her 250 charges which range from hour-old babies and their 16-year-old mothers to 70-year-old Annie who has served 35 years in prison for murdering her husband, Miss Munger lives in a 200-year-old farmhouse on the grounds. This charming place is built around one huge chimney and has four fireplaces. It is furnished with genuinely old furniture, much of it Cape Cod style, and its broad brown ceiling beams contrast with cheerful ivory walls.

Her sister, Mrs. Adams, resides in an attractive home a short distance from the farm, and the other Cedar Rapids women here live right at the institution.

One fact struck the reporter especially: Miss Munger and her aid[e]s made no attempt to suggest that all was sweetness and light at this place. Obviously they have a tough assignment, but they handle it.