Massachusetts Reformatory for Women: The Superintendents 1877-1930
Through the mid-1800s, female criminals were placed in one wing of men's prisons, often in crowded and unhealthy conditions. Women began to agitate for reform in the prison system, claiming that only women could redeem their "fallen" peers. The Massachusetts Reformatory for Women in Sherborn opened in 1877. Its founders hoped to target women convicted of minor offenses against morality that served short sentences but frequently returned to prison after later arrests. The first superintendents applied methods of reformation to conform prisoners' lives to the ideals of womanhood, but by the early decades of the twentieth century the Reformatory began to lose its reforming edge.
Eudora Atkinson, the first superintendent, contended with overcrowding and understaffing. Her desire to focus on prostitutes was also hindered by an influx of seasoned vagrants, whom she believed corrupted newly fallen women. Atkinson often inflicted additional punishment, usually solitary confinement, on inmates. She also trained them in domestic skills that she believed would be valuable in helping them find jobs as domestic servants upon release. The sentences given to most of the inmates were thought by Atkinson to be too short for real reform to occur. Atkinson resigned in 1880 amid public disappointment.
Eliza Mosher, the Reformatory physician during Atkinson's tenure, became Superintendent in 1880. Her grading system, under which inmates could gain privileges with good behavior, fulfilled her goal of teaching them self-control. Mosher taught the women domestic skills and indentured some to nearby farms. She had difficulties with alcoholics, who often did not overcome their addiction. The state legislature set a one-year minimum sentence for every woman committed to the Reformatory in 1880, but few women received longer terms.
Clara Barton reluctantly succeeded Mosher after her 1883 resignation. She focused on redeeming women through self-respect, self-reliance, trust, and understanding. She worked to inspire inmates to better endeavors. On the whole, women at Sherborn obeyed her, though she faced the same problems with alcoholic inmates as Mosher.
After Barton resigned to work with the Red Cross, Ellen Johnson took over the prison. Involved in the Reformatory movement since after the Civil War, she was eager to take the job. Johnson exerted control over inmates by placing them in a solitary cell for two months and then using a grading system. She allowed them outside to show that she trusted them, and as a result won their obedience. Johnson trained inmates in domestic skills and advocated for country life. A number of inmates were contracted out to farms towards the end of their sentences. There was little emphasis on education, although many women at Sherborn desired it.
Johnson's deputy, Frances Morton, replaced Johnson after her death in 1899. A disciplinarian, Morton eliminated the recreational period and taught inmates domestic skills. By this time, however, many of these skills were obsolete. The paternalistic Morton punished the women more than her predecessors. Sentences were lengthened, though women were paroled early for good behavior. Morton treated Sherborn more like a prison than a reformatory, and her methods often were unsuccessful.
Jessie Hodder replaced Morton in 1910 and hoped to run the Reformatory as a laboratory. She tried to classify and separate the inmates into groups labeled as reformable, hardened criminals, mentally ill, or feeble-minded, and then to treat each group according to its needs. Her efforts were not very successful, though she gained funds for maintenance, a gym, and higher staff salaries. Under her care, inmates were taught domestic and industrial skills, educated and given recreation time. During her term, less alcoholics and more fallen women came to Sherborn. By the time she resigned in 1931, Sherborn was viewed more as a prison to punish female criminals than it was a reformatory.
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