Due to Retire, Elizabeth Munger Can Look Back at 20 Years With Reassurance About Prison Uplift

[New Haven Register, 29 Dec 1946]


"Infatuation with a man or the influence of a broken home may lead a woman to immorality, but neither will commit her to an institution. Most women are here just because they weren't clever enough to keep away from the law."

With the philosophy that "few women are really bad, just unfortunate," Miss Elizabeth Munger, superintendent of the Connecticut State Farm for Women in Niantic, keeps as many as 400 prisoners at a time toeing the mark - and without high walls and armed guards.

During her 20 years on the farm staff, well-tailored, softspoken Miss Munger has crusaded for individualized treatment of the "girls," better accomodations, simplification of laws. The individualization has become so deeply embedded into her own personal philosophy that she is well-known as a good friend to whom the women may bring their problems for a free "talk-out" whenever they feel they must, and one who will understand.

But it's not an easy job. The farm is a combination prison, maternity hospital, nursery, hospital for the treatment of infectious diseases, home for feeble-minded, sanatorium for invalids, mental hygiene [clinic] and place for the cure of inebriates [and drug] addicts. Nearly all the women [have been] committed there only after all [other avenues], including social workers, [penal] institutions, jails and public protection authorities have failed, or after they [have] committed state prison offenses. It might be termed a "house of last resort."



In the midst of it all, Miss Munger's chief worry is making their stay in the institution a constructive experience which will affect their futures. In accordance with her aim to rehabilitate the delinquent women through training and treatment, they receive excellent medical care, learn a trade, and leave the farm with the clothes, money, job and homes they need to make a new start in life.

As the name implies, the State Farm for Women is a real farm, spreading over the Niantic landscape as far as the eye can see. Through its activities it feeds itself almost completely, not only with vegetables, fruits, milk and butter, but also with meat and other foods.

When one enters the grounds after turning near Rocky Neck State Park in Niantic, only three buildings are seen and the impression is that the State Farm is not a large place. But, to the rear of the colonial brick administration building, spread the 1,000 acres of tilled land, two lakes, brick buildings, dairy barns, herds of cattle and other farm animals.



The two modernistic "duplex" buildings with their mammoth spotless kitchens, attractive dining halls, living rooms with thick green carpets, maple furniture and potted plants, were part of the state's public works program. The other women's dormitory, the hospital for babies, the infirmary, the industrial building, are located informally around the large lake. The cannery, piggery and dairy stretch out to the other side and homes of staff members are scattered, relics of the original plant in which the farm was started.


New England College

Except for the rows of freshly plowed fields reminiscent of pastoral Connecticut, it resembles a New England college as the girls walk freely to their assignments.

The farm accomodates approximately 150 women at present, as unusual drop from the normal 250 population which rose to a peak during the war. Their offenses are varied, although most of them have been involved in some kind of sex irregularity.

The population includes everything from women serving life sentences for murder to youngsters in "manifest danger of falling into habits of vice." The average age is about 23, although there are several middle-aged and elderly women committed for chronic alcoholism and drug addiction.

A list of the crimes for which women, about half of whom are between the ages of 16 and 25, are arrested, in order of their "popularity," would include lascivious carriage, manifest danger, intoxication, breach of peace, fornication, prostitution, frequenting a house of ill fame, neglect of children, soliciting and vagrancy.

Some two dozen a year are normally sent to the State Farm from Long Lane School at Middletown for confinement or for incorrigible conduct, and there are about 15 committed for state prison offenses. Since 1930, women offenders convicted for second degree murder, manslaughter, arson, stealing, [and] abortion have been sent to the State Farm instead of the State Prison at Wethersfield which is now limited entirely to male convicts.


Another Problem

Which is another problem for Miss Munger. When the women were first transferred from Wethersfield, the entire legal machinery geared to the management of a large men's prison was transferred along with them. A department was set up for this small segment of the population to be known as "The State Prison for Women." This was probably the best method at the time because the women transferred had already been sentenced to prison. It did not, however, take into account for the future provisions already governing the State Farm for Women for the commitment of minor crimes, a law which is incidentally considered a model of its kind for the care, training and treatment of all women offenders.

In 15 years the State has done nothing to correlate the two resulting in much confusion and some injustice.


V.D. to Drugs

Of the women sentenced to the State Farm, about one-third are said to be infected with venereal diseases, about one-fourth are in an extremely expectant condition and have to be delivered at the farm, more than one-third are mental defectives, some are crippled, many are suffering from alcoholism, others are victims of drugs, still others have psychopathic personalities or are classed as incorrigibles.


The Women

And this assignment rests exclusively on a staff of women in spite of the fact that only a decade or so ago, prison authorities held that women criminals could not be safely governed by members of their own sex. There are three men at the State Farm who have been deputized to act as guards in emergencies, but they have been otherwise employed since they are seldom needed. The staff includes executives, supervisors, a resident physician and laboratory technician, as well as a number of other men who handle the heavy work of the farm.

Individualized treatment begins as soon as a woman is committed. Regardless of the reason, she is immediately sent to the receiving building where the staff, physician, nurses, and the laboratory staff check her physical condition.

Diseased or not, she must spend two weeks in quarantine in this building. One out of every three commitments has a venereal infection and must be confined until the case is arrested. These cases are isolated in their own rooms, have private toilet facilities, even wash their own dishes, thus preventing any chance of spreading the disease.


Aptitude Tests

During the two weeks of quarantine for inmates not suffering diseases a complete psychological examination is made to determine mental caliber and how the woman may be best assigned for treatment and work. Inmates do practically all the work of the institution, farming, laundry, caring for babies, serving, cooking, sewing, cleaning, canning under supervision of the staff. If physically able, they spend at least half a day outdoors doing farm work from early Spring to late Fall.



Every girl is taught a trade, if only house work, and each learns simple home economics. Many girls practise shorthand and typing in preparation for their "parole jobs," and the more intelligent attend discussion classes in current events, history and general information. Foreign women are taught to read and write English. Modern romances and detective novels are most in demand at the library, which requires 25 to 30 new books a year.

Each inmate is given special attention in these first examinations, for much of her future depends upon what can be discovered about her past. The systematic study of individual personalities and abilities is made by a classification committee, consisting of a member of the board of managers, the superintendent who acts as chairman of the committee, the deputy superintendent, a resident physician and psychiatrist and parole officers. Everything that can be known about a girl is investigated, although numerous aliases complicate many of the cases.

Admission classification starts at once on the course of training best suited for her needs, and determines just where she is to be assigned for living quarters. Reclassification later provides for changes of assignment to necessary adjustments. Unless an inmate has been committed for a definite term for a prison offense, she is entitled to a parole classification after nine months at the State Farm. If her behavior record has been good and has shown signs of rehabilitation, if she has a clean bill of health and the committee believes her capable of avoiding the "habits of vice," she may be paroled after that length of time. No inmate is permitted to leave unless a home is waiting for her, usually with a relative.

When a girl is paroled, the farm's parole staff maintains contact with her constantly until she has completed her full time and it can be made certain that she is sticking to the "straight and narrow."

"Our parole records are excellent," said Mrs. Franklin S. Clark, one of the officers, who lives at 525 Edgewood Avenue in this city. Miss Munger says "it's like dusting. Nobody notices the records if they're completely clean, but just leave a speck of dirt and you can't hide it. And that's always the way. People would hear a lot about parole if we had some exciting cases to hear about, but no one is interested in success."



Parole statistics reveal that the girls have profited by their care at the State Farm. For the last biennium, out of 241 paroled, 180 were reported doing well, 24 doubtful and only 37 runaways.

Once in a while it is possible to attain an exceptional conversion among these women. Mrs. Clark tells of a young woman who decided to become a nurse while still in the institution. Today she has a splendid record at one of the hospitals as well as a lovely family.

Such cases may be the exception, however, for more than half of the women sent to the State Farm are said to have a mental age of less than 12 years. Those with higher I.Q.'s are often emotionally unstable, and, although harder to handle until this has been remedied, they are the potential successes.

After the women have gotten out into life again, we often receive letters of appreciation," Miss Munger said, "but no woman ever wants to stay. The biggest question is 'When can I go home?' But they aren't as oppressed at staying as they want you to think they are."

At the movie every week, at the dances the girls have every holiday, there is much "beaming and giggling," and they practically wear themselves out with enthusiasm. "We encourage them to participate in our programs and Christmas pageants. It keeps their minds busy and interested."


No Sulking

No one has time to sulk. The girls begin to get up at 6:30 A.M. and their days are completely planned until lights out at 8:30 P.M. when most of them are ready to sleep. Evenings the girls must gather with their matrons in the dormitories to play games, listen to the radio, or just for feminine gossip sessions. All possessions are stored away when the girls enter, and attractive tailored dresses of gay print material substituted. But they earn spending money as they go along so that they may buy knickknacks for their rooms or flowers for their hair. Pin-up movie heroes, incidentally, are the most popular wall decorations, with plants for the window sills and ribbons about the mirrors in second place.

Life isn't quite so pleasant for the women committed to the prison division. They live in a separate building with bars on the windows and special locks on the doors.

In neither camp, however, are things always smooth. As on the outside too, temperamental guests get their riotous moments. But the tempest is short-lived. The matron notifies the office, and the superintendent or her assistant sends word that she would like to see the errant lady. When she gets to the office, she sits out in the waiting room for 15 minutes or so before she is interviewed so that when she appears, she has usually forgotten what it was all about.

Not all cases are so simple, however. Some women have to be sent to their rooms, sometimes after a struggle, where they must stay until they can settle down.


Few Rules

The farm has few hard-and-fast rules. "I don't believe in fixed penalties based upon specific offenses. Even our general daily rules are as few as possible. Of course, they must get to their appointed buildings on time, do their work and conduct themselves properly. We have to know where they are every minute."

Among the specific rules is that the women bathe once a day, which is hard to enforce because some of them will fill the tub and splash around the water with their hands to make it sound like a bath.

The girls don't know how closely they are checked. If one fails to show up in class, the supervisor notifies the office, which, in turn, calls her dormitory, the hospital, or any other place she may be, and if she cannot be located, the search begins.

"But we want them to feel that their lives are as normal as possible. From all appearances, they go about in complete freedom, but underneath is a complete vast network of control every minute of the day."

Akthough they are often out in the open field for farming, the inmates seldom think of making a break for freedom when the chance is best. They wait until night, try to make rope ladders of their bed clothes, lower themselves from the window - and sometimes break a bone. Ninety-eight per cent of the runaways are caught.

"You always have to be on the alert. Peace is purchased at the price of constant vigilance. Maybe if we had big riots and plenty of publicity we might get more consideration than we do," she added, smiling. "It took a fire to get us some new buildings."


Since 1917

The State Farm for Women came into existence in 1917. After years of work by women's clubs and organizations, the Legislature of that year granted a meager appropriation of $50,000 with which to buy the land of three then existing farms and to recondition the buildings. Since the appropriation was not sufficient for employment of a staff, most of the work had to be done by volunteer workers. First commitments were those of elderly, chronic alcoholics of the hopeless type who had been in the jails dozens of times.

The First World War gave impetus to the building of the State Farm when the Government found itself with a large group of women who made a business of "camp-following." Their assignment to the farm for detention and treatment required intensive work under extremely poor conditions. The farm took care of as many of these women as was possible under the circumstances. In became not only a home for decrepit alcoholics, but a place where a real service to the community might be performed.



The first new building was opened in 1929, to house the infants, born at the rate of two a week and cared for until adoption, in a modern bright maternity hall and nursery. Next a receiving hospital was built where new inmates could be quarantined and treated for venereal diseases. An industrial building was also constructed. When the State decided to take women out of their segregated quarters at Wethersfield, it privided a strong prison building which was placed away from the other buildings on the far side of the lake. The other new buildings were completed in 1940 and the new cafeteria-dormitory only six years ago.


Elizabeth Munger

Miss Munger came to the Connecticut institution in 1926 after having been assistant superintendent of the New Jersey Institution for Girls and secretary of the Women's Committee of the National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor. She was born in Iowa, graduated from the University of Chicago, wrote for a scientific magazine and taught school until she stumbled, quite by accident, into the New Jersey position. During her 20 years' work in handling the many problems that crop up daily at Niantic, she has become nationally recognized in penal institution management.

And even after 20 years of working with these problems, Miss Munger believes that "women are seldom a true criminal type.

"This is obvious to us because we often try to contact men to make them assume some responsibility for their illegitimate children to make it easier all around. In one case a pregnant woman accused a man who only laughed at the summons. He came in with half a dozen other men who all testified that they might have been the father too. And the judge was so disgusted he gave each one of them a good, stiff fine!"

"But it's not always the man's fault, either. I've seen a poor gullible fellow dragged around by the nose by a woman who used him to bring things to her promising all the while to marry him if he would wait for her - and without the slightest intention of doing so.

"There are many more 'culprits' out of the jails who do the same things and get away with it," she continued. "These women just didn't have the money to afford smart lawyers, so they pleaded guilty because, they are told, that is the easiest way out." Miss Munger doesn't blame environment entirely. "Many young people today who have the protection and help of good homes and families are treading into the same dangerous paths which led these girls and women into trouble."



In answer to the growing belief that "women's penal institutions are country clubs," Miss Munger says: "No, far from it! They have to do all the work, all possessions are taken away, all letters are read, packages and gifts are looked over. They can't visit alone, and there is always this watching. No privacy, no freedom ... No, it's far from a country club."

And, because of this, because prison must be disagreeable if only psychologically, she has spent 20 years trying to make it as physically pleasant as possible.



"Miss Munger is progressive," Mrs. Clark said. "She's done so much to improve conditions here that other superintendents wouldn't even think of."

"She may seem stern, but she isn't really," said one of the young ladies who works in the administrative office. "She's always doing something friendly and unexpected - like walking down the hall whistling."

"Miss Munger ought to rest," said Miss Elsie A. Shearer, deputy superintendent. "She's been ill for some time now, and she insists on working just as hard as ever. I keep telling her she ought to take mornings off, but she says she hasn't time."

"I'll be retiring next year," Miss Munger said, seated at her desk. On the walls are civic awards, and, among them, a citation for her work with China Relief. She is of average height, but she gives the impression of being majestically tall. "I'm too old - officially. I suppose I'll travel. After 20 years..."

"Those 20 years have certainly been full of accomplishment," said one of her associates warmly.

Miss Munger smiled. "It's like sitting in the sand," she scoffed in her soft midwestern drawl. "If you sit there long enough you're bound to leave a dent."