One hundred years ago, after much debate, misgivings and opposition, the Connecticut State Farm for Women, set up in a collection of cottages in the fields of Niantic, opened its doors to 12 inmates.
One could hardly call it a prison. It was a working farm.
As Paul Harrison wrote in his unpublished, 223-page history of the place, “It was to be a reformatory for young girls, so they could be taught a trade and learn how to read and write.”
Harrison tells us, “Most of them had drug or alcohol dependency. These were the girls throughout the state that were repeatedly being arrested and clogging up the court system.”
What were their offenses? Harrison’s research turned up some of them: lascivious carriage, prostitution, manifest danger of falling into habits of vice, intoxication, delinquency, vagrancy, theft, forgery, being a habitual offender, neglect of children, impairing the morals of a minor child, frequenting disorderly houses, street walking, incorrigibility, and being lewd, wanton or lascivious. A woman could also be sent to the farm if she “led a vicious life” or possessed “obscene pictures.”
Many years later, when Harrison was a correction officer at the former farm, renamed the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, the women incarcerated there had been convicted of much more serious crimes, such as assault or murder. Although it was no longer a farm, it retained progressive programs, including the acclaimed women’s writing course led by novelist Wally Lamb.
Harrison thinks Connecticut residents should be proud of the facility, which he notes became a national role model for how to set up and run a women’s prison. After reaching a height of 1,427 inmates in 2007, the population has seen a decline since, falling to 936 this past July and bucking the national trend in women’s prison populations.
Harrison’s manuscript quotes a 1929 report by Helen Worthington Rogers, written for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, entitled “A History of the Movement to Establish a State Reformatory for Women in Connecticut.”
Rogers wrote that during Colonial times here, “women were usually fined or flogged for their petty violations of current religious and secular law” rather than being imprisoned. But the most “dangerous delinquents” were committed to primitive detention houses. In the 1800s they were sent to Old Newgate Prison in East Granby and later the State Prison at Wethersfield, and kept separate from the male inmates.
Harrison tracked decades of efforts during the mid-to-late 1800s to establish a reformatory for women. But for a long time a majority of the state legislators believed “delinquent women” should be cared for in private places such as the East Haven Home for the Friendless rather than in a public institution.
In 1911, the Connecticut Prison Association presented a proposal to study establishing a reformatory for women. A commission pondered it, but once again, despite an endorsement by the Daughters of the American Revolution and women’s suffragettes, the legislators rejected the idea.
However, when a new bill was presented in 1917 amid greater public support, the General Assembly approved it. The women’s farm opened in July of the following year.
The farm included woods and pastures that could be tilled. Harrison found a listing of the animals there in 1925; they included cows, heifers, bulls, horses, hens, chickens and swine. The women split wood, sawed and burned brush, did the gardening and worked at the dairy barn. A women’s hospital also was built there in 1919. (Some of the inmates were mothers with babies.)
Although the farm was quite productive and its goods sold locally, Harrison wrote that many area residents believed the reformatory “discredited” the town and brought “undesirable” women there.
But the facility was developing a national reputation for the staff’s innovative approach: paying attention to the individual needs and personal development of the inmates. In addition to the farm work, there were recreational opportunities that included square dancing and hobby classes. There was a library and worship room.
At the conclusion of his history, which ends in 1968 when the state Department of Correction took over the prison’s management, Harrison wrote: “I have always believed the reason why they all accomplished so much is they were always led by a competent woman as chairman of the board and superintendent.”
Harrison is especially impressed with Janet S. York, who was the prison’s superintendent from 1960-68 and was then appointed deputy commissioner of women’s services for the Department of Correction.
Harrison, who has remained friends with York (now 97) in their mutual retirement, says she is remarkably modest about her achievements. When he asked about having the prison named after her, she replied, “This was the only women’s correctional facility in the state and they needed a woman to name it after. It seems to me they had no other person that they could name it after.”
York attended a centennial celebration held at the prison Aug. 28. Her stepson, Jim Littlefield, spoke warmly about growing up on the farm.
“The institution had a positive feel to it,” he said. “The inmates seemed to go about their work in the fields willingly, growing the food that they and the animals they raised would eat. They collected eggs and milked the cows, canned the food and made the institution almost self-sustaining.”
Littlefield said of his stepmother: “She passionately insisted on a quality education for the inmates. She was always searching for new and innovative ideas.”
Novelist Lamb, who has compiled two books containing the writings of the women he has taught at the prison, says in an email he has been volunteering there since 1999.
Lamb says when he arrived there, “I held simplistic and stereotypical ideas about the incarcerated: they were killers and crooks, bad-asses and drug peddlers. Those assumptions were challenged as soon as I got to know the York writers, listened to their stories, read their work and witnessed the therapeutic effect that sharing their work with each other had on them. The students have as much or more to teach me as I have to teach them.”