How Connecticut Treats its Women Prisoners

Offender Rather Than Offense Is Considered In Refitting Individuals For Society At Niantic State Farm and Prison

[Hartford Daily Courant, 29 Jan 1933.]


Lizzie would steal the shirt off your back, if it happened to appeal to her. Even her best friends couldn't trust her. They used to invite her in for the evening and when she had made her departure, they would begin to find things missing: strings of beads, compacts, silver and gold ornaments, and an occasional finger ring. Little things that satisfied her taste in vanities. It wasn't that she was a kleptomaniac. She stole deliberately, and with little or no thought for the consequences.

At last even her friends could no longer excuse her actions as an eccentric whim. She was sent up for a term at the state's prison of a neighboring commonwealth. "They'll teach her to mend her ways," her friends agreed. Once released, however, Lizzie returned to her petty thievery almost at once. Again she was jailed, and subsequently released.


The third time her case was drawn to the attention of the authorities in Connecticut. She was found guilty of a charge of theft and committed to the State Farm for Women at Niantic. [....] Now she is a competent and reliable graduate nurse, holding an excellent position.

"How did you do it, Lizzie?" asked a woman expert on penal matters. "I gave you up long ago as a helpless case."

"At Niantic," the reformed thief replied, "they made me feel I amounted to something. So I decided to show them I could."


Enlightened Penal Policies

This is not the first wholehearted testimonial that has been made by a former inmate at Niantic to the methods used by Miss Elizabeth Munger, superintendent of the State Farm for Women and warden of the State Prison for Women. The rule followed in her organization is: Consider the offender rather than the offense. As a result, a most humane and intelligent system of correction and instruction has been evolved. It is a system in which each individual receives her full share of attention and is classified according to her criminal and social background, the measure of her capabilities and her willingness to cooperate. Rule by fear is unknown at Niantic.

The visitor to the State Farm and State Prison for Women receives a distinct surprise the moment he leaves the main highway which passes the entrance drive. Here are no gray and grim prison walls, no heavily barred gates, no high barbed-wire fences, no armed guards. At first sight the buildings resemble nothing so much as those of a prepatory school or college.


Atmosphere of Freedom

An incongruous atmosphere of freedom is appatent everywhere. One passes groups of young women clad in the official uniforms of blue or khaki middy blouses and bloomers, blithely swinging along the road and looking far from unhappy. They go unchaperoned from duty to duty.

It is a most wholesome attitude, conducive of honor and respect, which the administration takes towards its charges. None of them, unless ill, is confined to her room. Even when an inmate becomes stubborn, unruly, and openly declares she will attempt to escape, a little extra precaution is the only move taken by the authorities to indicate they have paid any attention to her. They refuse to be worried. If she does make good her threat, which is rarely indeed, she is generally returned soon to the institution from which she escaped, for most runaways go immediately to their families and are easily caught. Once back on the reservation, the subdued offender usually becomes quickly amenable to suggestion and resigns herself to striving for an early parole by excellent behavior.


Few Attempts at Escape

Only one inmate has escaped successfully in the two and a half years of Miss Munger's administration. Last year, when more than 160 women were committed either to the State Prison or State Farm only seven attempted to break away, and none of them successfully.

One burst out the entire pane of glass and wrecked the screen on the window of her room on the first floor of the Receiving Building the night of her arrival. Clad only in a flimsy night dress, and with her bed blanket thrown about her shoulders, she plunged down the road until she reached a farmhouse, where she telephoned her brother. The farmer, in turn, got in touch with Miss Munger immediately, thus giving her the first news of the girl's escape. The offender was sent for and proved to be much quieter upon her enforced return.

Most of the buildings on the reservation at Niantic are of Colonial architecture and are constructed of red brick with buff trim. None of these modern, fire-proof structures was completed earlier than two and a half years ago, when the prison unit was tranferred from Wethersfield.


Executive Headquarters

At the right of the entrance drive, an off-shoot of the main dirt road, which meanders artistically around the reservation's 953 acres, leads to the Administration Building. Here Miss Munger's office and the offices of many members of her staff are located, and from this center are issued executive orders for both the Prison and Farm.

From here the road proceeds northward, past a pleasant, freshly-painted farmhouse which contains the staff dining room and kitchens; between a garage and a root cellar (fashioned out of a former barn) and the new storage building; and along the edge of a broad field of rich, brown earth freshly plowed, which stretches undulatingly for several hundred yeards to the north and ends almost at the door of the Receiving Building, to which every new arrival at Farm or Prison must go.

The Receiving Department is located at the rear of this building and in its basement, where several rooms, at first mere waste space, have been converted into a most efficient and valuable medical clinic presided over by Dr. Edith A. MacLeod, resident physician, who is aided by two trained nurses.


Where Inmates Are Received

The choice of the rear of the building for the reception of new arrivals was deemed best for two reasons: (1) should the arriving inmate have a contagious disease, she could accordingly be segregated immediately and thus remove any danger of passing on her ailment to others; (2) the newcomer could thus be protected from a fusillade of curious glances from the other inmates.

Each new arrival must first take a shower and then have her clothes fumigated. Next she is conducted through the clinic, where she undergoes a complete physical examination. On immaculate tables in each room lie in readiness all the instruments necessary for such an examination, as an inmate may arrive at any hour of the day or night.

Next she is immunized against small pox and typhoid fever. Later comes vaccination against diptheria.

Before the new inmate can be classified thoroughly, a process which sometimes takes months depending upon her physical and mental condition, she must also submit to psychiatric and psychological tests and to having her social background investigated.


Classifications Flexible

During this period of observation, those under investigation live in rooms on the upper floors of the Receiving Building. The authorities discover each new arrival's preferences as to occupation and in what lines her abilities are most marked. Thus, at the end of the observation period, it is comparatively easy to place her where she will obtain the most benefit.

These classifications are by no means rigid, however. In keeping with its general enlightened policy, the administration has all the inmates rechecked at stated intervals to discover whether the prescribed routine is proving correct. If not, suitable changes are made.

Beyond the Receiving Building the road forks, straddling one corner of Bride Lake, a charming, sylvan body of water, just now resonant with the rasping notes of a large flock of ducks that are legally entitled by the State Board of Fisheries and Game to seek sanctuary there.


Infant Population

The left fork of the road leads through a patch of woods to the Mothers' and Babies' Hospital. Here live 86 infants under two years of age, and born of inmates after their commitment. Their number swells the present population of the State Farm and Prison to 315. The youngest, carefully bundled up to their chins, lay in rows of tiny white cribs in the warm sunlight of the south terrace on a recent morning.

The familiar music of their brothers and sisters was audible even before one entered the pleasant sunny building where their nurseries and sleeping quarters are located and in whose obstetrical clinic they were delivered into the world.

The play rooms on the south side of the building were flooded with light. A strange admixture of babies played or squalled on the sunny floor. Many faces and at least two colors were represented among them. They all seemed happy, except for two who lay on their stomachs opposite each other and bawled vigorously into each other's face.

Dr. Rose Howe Jameson, who is in charge of the Mothers' and Babies' Hospital, is obviously both fond and proud of her 86 charges and tells with delight of the dignified behavior of the oldest ones at morning prayers.

In a closet along the entrance corridor is stored an auxiliary supply of toys. Many were Christmas presents from relatives of the children; others were the gifts of philanthropic persons or institutions, These playthings are saved for rainy days, or when the children are sick. In the latter event, the toys used are tied to the beds in order that no other children may get hold of them and contract the diseases.

The right fork of the road at the southeast end of the lake leads past the industrial building, the laundry and cannery, and ends at the Prison Unit, on the far side of the lake. Inmates, incidentally, are allowed to use the lake in the summer for both boating and swimming.

Under the terms of an Act of the last Legislature, the Prison Unit, a spacious building which overlooks Bride Lake from the north, is occupied partly by inmates committed to the State Prison for Women and partly by the overflow from the State Farm. There is a large and comfortable reception room on the first floor. On the upper floors are the rooms occupied by the inmates. In each there is a comfortable-looking steel bed, a chair, dresser with mirror, and private toilet. The windows, many of which are decorated with growing plants, are barred and the doors are of steel whose solid expanse is broken only by tiny glass peep-holes. The walls are of plain white stucco; their decoration is left to individual tastes.

Every Tuesday night there is a community sing and discussion of current events at the Industrial Building. The inmates have complete charge of this, but everyone goes.

In the winter time, classes in religious education are scheduled for Friday evenings. Confession for the Catholic members of the reservation's population takes place on Saturday afternoons. On Sundays there are two services for the Catholics and one for the Protestants. Visiting clergy preside.

The Industrial Building contains the power sewing department, where all machine sewing for the Farm and Prison, as well as orders for other institutions, is done; a large auditorium where dances and moving pictures succeed one another on Saturday nights, a school room, a library of 1300 volumes, and rooms in which are needle work and elementary sewing, flag making, quilting and millinery are taught. Courses in home nursing and personal hygiene are also given here.


Inmates Raise Own Food

The Farm and Prison are nearly self-sufficient so far as food supplies are concerned. Quantities of beef, veal, fowl, duck, lamb, pork, whole milk, skim milk, butter, cream, eggs, ice, vegetables and fruits are produced on the reservation, largely through the efforts of the inmates, who tend the animals and fowl. Reports indicate that, because of this native supply of foodstuffs, it cost the administration but eight cents a day per person for food last year.

For inmates of both Farm and Prison, the day begins with breakfast at seven o'clock. Those women who work in the kitchens are generally up and at work by 6:30 a.m., some even earlier. After breakfast comes morning worship, at the conclusion of which the inmates make their beds and tidy up their rooms.

At 8:15 o'clock they go to their various assignments. These may range all the way from classes in sewing to a tussle with the pigs up at the barns. If an inmate's schedule calls for heavy or outdoor work in the morning, it is arranged to give her easier and quieter occupation in the afternoon. This is the general rule unless the physician advises strenuous work at all times for a particularly unruly case.


The Daily Routine

These assignments occupy the morning until 12 o'clock, when everyone gathers at her respective headquarters for lunch. There follows a rest period until 1:15 p.m. In the afternoon there are classes and more assignments. At five, everyone troops back to headquarters again and relaxes until dinner is served. The evenings are taken up with recreation until 8:30 o'clock, which is bedtime unless some general entertainment is being given. The retiring hour is generally left to the discretion of the various matrons.

On Monday evenings there are special classes in social behavior for those who are within a few months of parole.


Correcting a Misconception

There exists a popular misconception of the difference between the State Prison and State Farm for Women. Some think they are synonymous. This is not true. Others believe the Farm is for minor offenders. This is equally untrue. Inmates can be committed to either Farm or Prison on the same offense. The main difference lies in the minimum term of confinement. Actually though it is not readily apparent, a shorter term is possible at the State Farm where all offenders, except where the maximum term specified by law for the crime in question exceeds that period, are committed for an indeterminate period of not more than three years. Since the minimum term of commitment at the State Prison is one year, it appears at first that a sentence to the State Farm is more severe.

The reason why this is not so lies in the fact that the Farm's board of directors, authorized by law to act as a board of parole, can, when the case justifies, release an inmate of the State Farm at the end of nine months. This is impossible at the State Prison where, short of the expiration of the minimum term of one year, any pleas for parole must be taken before the State Board of Pardons.


Miss Munger's Career

Miss Elizabeth Munger, superintendent of the State Farm for Women for the past six and a half years, and warden of the State Prison for Women since its transfer from Wethersfield, is far removed from the type of person the movies would have one think presides over penal institutions for women. She is a competent executive with progressive ideas. She is also obviously well-liked by all the inmates, who meet her in a friendly and convenient fashion whenever they meet her.

A graduate of the University of Chicago, she subsequently taught high school classes and did settlement work in that city. Then came a brief venture in the field of journalism. This she gave up, in 1919, to become assistant superintendent of the New Jersey State Home for Girls. Prior to her coming to Niantic six and a half years ago, she was also secretary of the National Committee on the Care and Training of Delinquent Women and Girls.