Woman in Prison

Woman in Prison

Caroline H. Woods
Caroline H. Woods

Author: Woods, Caroline H.
Prisons — United States
Women prisoners — United States
Woman in Prison



Cambridge: Riverside Press.

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1869, by
Caroline H. Woods,
in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court for the District of Massachusetts.


I was reading an evening paper. I glanced over the advertisements. One attracted my attention, and held it so strongly that I read it over and over, again and again. There was nothing unusual in it to ordinary observation. It read, “Wanted.—At the Penitentiary, a Matron. Inquire at the Institution.”
I turned the paper over to read the general news; but could not place my thoughts so as to comprehend the meaning of the words before my sight. Without the intention to do so, I looked again at the advertisement. It became a study to me.
Said Thought—If you were to answer that advertisement, and obtain the situation, it would place you upon missionary ground, and at the same time give you employment which would afford you a support while you are teaching the ignorant. You would get knowledge in the position. A new phase of life would be opened to your view. You would have an opportunity to observe, practically, how well the present system of prison discipline is adapted to reform convicts, and repress crime. But the cost is too much. I cannot become a Matron in a Penitentiary.
I laid the paper down, without reading it, because I could see nothing in it except that advertisement.
The next day I went in town, sat down in the office of a friend, and took up a morning paper. No sooner had I opened it than that advertisement spread itself out before me. It changed the form of its appeal; left out what my selfishness might gain, to enlist my compassion and aid, entirely, in what I might accomplish for others. It called to me, in piteous tones, to go work for the prisoner. It was the echo of a voice that I long ago heard, Come into our prisons, and help us, we beseech you!
I cannot! I have other things to do, and they are as much for the benefit of humanity as anything I may be able to accomplish for you. My spirit darkened as I made the answer; a cloud of guilt settled down upon it. I threw down the paper in order to dissipate it, and to avoid the plea.
I turned and talked with my friend; but my thoughts were not in what we were saying. That advertisement followed them, and filled them to the exclusion of every other subject.
In the abstraction which it caused the hour in which I was to leave the city passed, and I missed my train. I must remain and avail myself of another.
While I was waiting, that advertisement returned to my reflections, and urged its cause imperatively as a command. It was a call, to me, resistless as the voice that awoke the young Israelitish Prophet from his slumbers. In another moment the struggle with my pride was over, and my spirit answered,—I will go, even to lust-besotted Sodom if thou leadest, Light of my path!
I seated myself in a street car, went to the prison, applied for the place, and obtained it.
Day by day I wrote down what I saw and heard, what I said and did. Why? In obedience to the same Voice that called me to the work.
The tale is before you.
May it touch the heart of every one who reads the story, and melt it into a compassion which will labor for the redemption of the prisoner; into a pity which will echo around the cry—Open the prison doors, not to let the prisoner go free, but to let in, to him, the light of moral knowledge, and the discipline of Christian charity.




It was Saturday morning that I became an inmate of the Penitentiary.
I was conducted to the kitchen, where I was to oversee the cooking for the prisoners, and to the prison adjoining it, which I was to see kept in order, by the Deputy Master of the institution, who gave me my keys and installed me in my office of Prison Matron.
When we first went in he called the six women who do the work in the kitchen, and the three “sweeps” who keep the prison clean, to him, and presented their new mistress, in my person, to them.
They were convicts that surrounded me at his call; but they were human beings. Human faces looked up to mine for sympathy and care. Some of them were fine looking, even in their coarse uniform, some were pretty as I picked them out one by one. They all looked at me earnestly, for a few moments, as though they were reading their sentence of harshness or kindly treatment, under my rule, in my face; then, turned away to their work again.
They whispered as they stood together, and I saw by their furtive glances that they were watching, and discussing me, as I walked around to take a survey of my new field of labor. They were undoubtedly commenting upon my personal appearance; and making their predictions as to my sharpness in detecting their impositions, and ability to control their perverseness; or, I imagined so.
The Deputy showed me the mush boiler, that would cook two large tubs full of that farinaceous edible at a time; the potato steamer, that would hold four barrels of that esculent vegetable at a cooking; the soup and coffee kettles, of still larger dimensions; and that comprised all of the apparatus required in preparing the mammoth meals which were to serve above four hundred people. These cooking utensils were kept in operation by pipes conducting steam to them from a boiler stationed in the middle of the room.
When he put the steam boiler under my direction I shrank back in terror from the task of managing it. The huge culinary apparatus, which he had been exhibiting, although outside the pale of ordinary housekeeping, was still within the reach of my understanding; but I had no idea of the management of steam; it was not only a difficult, but dangerous affair.
“The house will surely be blown up if you leave the care of that upon me,” I said to him.
“You must watch it very closely.”
“I don’t know how, and I have no aptness for learning that kind of science.”
“One of the women will tend it.” And he went on with explanations that were all Greek to me. “It is safe when you have on twenty pounds of steam. There is your gauge,” and he pointed to a clock-like looking affair on the wall. “That hand will move round and tell you how much steam you have on. You must keep water enough in the boiler or you will get blown up. If it runs from that centre stopcock, on the side, it is safe. You notice that glass tube in front. The water is just as high in that as it is in the boiler. This faucet is to let the water off if you get the boiler too full. Turn that faucet when you let the water on,” and he went along and pointed to one in a pipe by the wall, “and that pump is there in case of accident. You must have it worked every day so as to keep it in order.”
All knowledge is useful, I thought, and in time I shall understand running a steam-engine. As the women have been trusted with the dangerous thing, they may still continue to be, till I have leisure to learn the science of steam as applied to cooking.
After I had taken a survey of the kitchen the Deputy took me into the women’s prison which led out of it.
The centre of the hollow square, in which the dormitories are built, looked like a huge block of glittering ice, so white were the washed walls of brick and stone. The black, grated doors of the cells, inserted into them, like the teeth of grinning demons, were ranged along the sides about two feet apart, tier after tier, five stories, one above another.
The Deputy led me along past the iron doors. I trembled and shrank back; but I had no idea of receding from my undertaking. I “screwed my courage to the sticking-point,” and looked into the narrow, stone rooms; but it was many days before I could force myself to enter one.
I grew heart-sick, and faint with apprehension of unknown terrors at their cheerless aspect.
“What lodgings for human beings!” I exclaimed.
“They are not very pleasant,” said the Deputy.
“If you were the one to blame for it I should certainly charge you with great inhumanity.”
“I suppose you will think us very cruel sometimes.”
“In this case I don’t know as you can help it. You did not make these sleeping apartments for the prisoners. The public functionaries of the State may be thanked for showing such tender mercies as these.”
“We are used to seeing them, and they don’t look to us as they do to you.”
“Does that make them any more comfortable for the prisoners? Do they get used to them so as to be comfortable?”
“I presume so. I know they are more comfortable places than some had before they came here.”
“Then it should be the work of the vaunting Christianity of this religious land to raise such degradation to cleanliness, comfort, and respectability.”
“There might be a great deal done in that direction if people were only disposed to do it.”
“Our prisons are rather private affairs, I believe. They can only be visited on certain days and occasions.”
“It would be very inconvenient for our work to have people running in, and over the place at all times. We could not have it. And it wouldn’t be liked by the prisoners to be gazed at constantly.”
I made no reply; but I thought it might have a salutary effect upon the discipline of the prison, which he had just said I might think cruel, to be exposed to the observation of the public. The prisoners must have lost the sensibility which would shrink from being made a spectacle before they came in there. If visiting were allowed only on certain days and occasions, the place and the convicts would be put in order for company, and a very incorrect idea of the every-day life of the prisoners would be obtained.
If there were liberty to visit the place, every day, many might go from curiosity, and it might become annoying. That very curiosity might discover and discuss faults in the management, which ought to be remedied, and thus produce a counterbalancing benefit.
The officers might dislike such scrutiny, especially, if they were not doing their duty. They are officers of the government. Is it not proper that their conduct should be looked after by the people as much as that of any other government official?
Evil comrades might go in and hold improper communication with the prisoners. Can they not do that on regular visiting days?
Is it not only the work of humanity to see that crime is punished in a way that will not increase it; but also that of the legislator as a matter of civil policy; and that of the taxpayer as a matter of personal interest. It should interest every man and woman as a matter of personal protection from the depredations of vice to know how convicts are treated, and to judge whether that treatment tends to reform the criminal, or to harden and lead him deeper into crime when he is let out into the world again to pursue his own ways.
Ought the punishment of criminals, who have been tried, convicted, and sentenced publicly, to be conducted in secret? It is to be presumed that the keeper of the prison is trusty. There should be no presumption in the matter. It should be known that he is so, and he should be kept so by the ceaseless vigilance of public inspection. What is the quarterly, or semi-annual visit of fifty or a hundred men when the visit has been notified, and the prison put in order for their reception, towards effecting that?
My residence in that prison led me to see that the descriptions of Dickens, and his compeers in the regions of fictitious writing, have given, not the poetic illusions of imaginary sufferings to the contemplation of the world—hardly a vivid picture of the truth.
God speed the day when our prisons and penitentiaries may take a place beside public schools, orphan asylums, houses of refuge, all institutions for the cultivation of a knowledge which tends to the elevation of virtue, and the suppression of vice, in the care of the public!
Our own children may not stimulate to an interest in them. Our own children may not require the benefit of the public school, or orphan asylum; but somebody’s children will. In working for the elevation of everybody’s children are we not benefiting our own?
After he had shown me around, so that I might take a general survey of my field of labor, the Deputy left me with my charge, saying,—
“You are mistress here. No one has a right to interfere with you, and you are responsible to no one but me, or the Master.”
“But the Head Matron will, of course, come and instruct me in the details of my work. I must know what work belongs to each woman, and how she is expected to perform it.”
“The women know their work and will do it. The most you have to do is to keep order.”
“That may be a man’s idea of managing a kitchen; but there are a great many details that I ought to understand in order to get the work properly done, and done in its proper time; and with the greatest ease to myself and the women.”
“The other Matrons will tell you. I will tell you all I can.”
I thought, but I did not say it,—You are better disposed than informed. He saw by the anxious expression of my face that I was not satisfied, and added, “The women know, they will tell you.”
I made no reply; but I thought—It is not the proper thing for me to receive my instructions from the convicts. It is their place to be instructed by me. If I am taught by them, I am placed in an inferior position to them. In order to entertain a proper respect for me they should look up to me as their superior in all things.
The arrangement for receiving my directions from them placed me too much in their power also. It would be only indulging natural proclivities to “play off” on me under the circumstances; and I could hardly expect these poor, abandoned creatures to be superior to the temptation to do it when the opportunity was afforded them.
I could not consider such teachers reliable. If, by misleading me, with regard to a rule of the institution, they could obtain an indulgence, or relieve themselves of a burden, would they not take the advantage which they had of me and do it. I was suspicious that they would.
There was, probably, some pride mixed with these considerations, that rebelled against becoming a pupil of convicts when I was their mistress.
I stood looking on, or walking around, watching the movements of the women very narrowly, till one of the other Matrons came in. Then, I went to her with a volume of questions.
To most of them I received the answer,—
“I don’t know about that particularly. I have never had anything to do with this department.”
“Then, how am I to learn my duties, and get definite orders for the regulation of my work? Is there no Head Matron, no superior officer in the women’s prison to whom I can go?”
“The Master’s wife is enrolled as Head Matron, and receives pay as such, but she never comes round.”
“I would go to her if I knew where to find her.”
“I don’t think she knows much more about it than you do, if you were to go to her. We will all tell you.”
“But you don’t know. If there is a Head Matron, and she is paid for doing the duties of one, why does she not perform them? Is she enrolled head officer of this prison merely to obtain the salary? The government is very obliging to make her office a sinecure.”
I was already perplexed—I was beginning to get vexed.
“Her husband does them for her, perhaps.”
“Perhaps! Then why is he not here, to tell me the work which belongs to each woman, and how she is to do it; what work is required, and how I am to get my things to do with? But how can the Master attend to his own duties and those of the Head Matron too?”
“The Deputy will tell you.”
“He must have his own duties to attend to—how can he perform hers? He is just as willing to tell me as you are, and I don’t think he knows any more about my place than you do.”
“The women know, they will tell you.”
I was thrown back upon the convicts again for my instructions.
I went on, despairing of help, to study them out as best I could. Sometimes by asking left-hand questions of the women, and sometimes by getting direct explanations from them; but chiefly by watching the progress of the work. The place seemed to me full of disorder, confusion, and dirt.
When the Deputy came round again, I was full of trouble.
He said, when I complained to him,—
“You will find things in confusion. The Matron who went away yesterday was inefficient.”
“Perhaps so,” I replied; “but the confusion appears to me to date farther back than the last Matron. It arises from the want of a head officer to regulate affairs.”
“I have double the trouble on this side, with four Matrons and a hundred women, than with three hundred men and more than a dozen officers on the other.”
“You would insinuate that women are more difficult to get on with than men. I make a very different solution of the difficulty in this particular case. You are on the ground all of the time; explain his duty to every officer, and see that he does it. That makes the officer’s work distinct before him. It is done under your eye, which makes it promptly and well done. If that were the case on this side, we might be as orderly, and have as little trouble in performing our part, as you on yours. The cook tells me that certain work belongs to the slide woman; the slide woman says it belongs to the sink women; the sink women shift it on the steam woman, and so I am kept on the chase, from one to another, for some one to do a piece of labor. I do not know who ought to do it, and they know it. If they do not intend to confuse me, they intend to clear themselves of all the work they can.”
“Use your own judgment, and call on whom you please. They are all obliged to obey any order that

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