Monday, September 7, 2020

Blending Fact with Fiction: The Minnesota State Reformatory for Women

 Blending Fact with Fiction: The Minnesota State Reformatory for Women

In my latest historical novel, THE ONES WE LEAVE BEHIND, the main character, Anna Craine, is released from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, after having served a sixty-five-year sentence for murder. (The original name of the facility was The Minnesota State Reformatory for Women.) In fact, the building on the book’s cover is the original building from 1919 called the Isabel Higbee Hall, named for the woman who literally died at the state capital after testifying in 1915 to the committee of men that women needed their own reformatory rather than being housed at Stillwater Prison. Her death prompted the committee to move forward with her request.

Although my character, Anna, doesn’t go into great detail about her life in the reformatory, we hear tidbits of her time there. That meant I needed to do my homework about the facility, and I was surprised by what I’d found. Completed in 1919, the reformatory began as one large, two-story building that housed eighteen individual rooms for the women, a general assembly room, a dining room, bathrooms, and matron’s rooms. The first floor had staff rooms, a large kitchen, a hospital wing, and the room for the superintendent. The basement housed the sewing room and laundry. There were no bars on the windows or locks on any of the rooms, even the inmate’s rooms. There was no fencing around the grounds. The idea was to reform the women by reward rather than punishment. Over the ensuing years, several cottages were added to the campus to house more women.

The first superintendent, Florence Monahan, is credited with molding the reformatory into the unique place that it became. Prior to running the facility, she was sent by the state to several women’s reformatories across the country to learn how they were run and what she could do better. She was the person who decided that reward rather than punishment was the best way to reform women. The women were expected to work eight-hour days, six days a week. Various jobs included working in the kitchen, cleaning, sewing, working in the office, and outside on their own farm that grew the majority of their food. They were paid six to fifteen cents per day and were allowed to buy personal items through the superintendent’s office once a month. If their behavior was good, they would earn privileges, if not, they’d lose privileges. It worked well for most of the inmates. They were learning skills in a positive environment so that one day they might leave and become respectable members of society.

Word soon spread about the reformatory in Shakopee, and many superintendents of women’s prisons around the country and the world came to visit. They were impressed by how Monahan was running the reformatory and by the behavior of the inmates. Many returned to their own facilities with the hope of making changes that mirrored Shakopee.

As time went on, the number of inmates decreased, and soon two of the cottages were closed. The state decided to use one of the cottages, the Anne Howard Shaw Cottage, as a home for mentally disabled children in 1951. Thirty young girls between the ages of four and twelve were sent there to be cared for and were designated by the state as unable to learn. But between their state-paid caretakers and the inmates who requested to work with the children, they proved the state wrong. The children flourished, as did the inmates who worked with them. The program gave the women a chance to care for someone else and the children an opportunity to learn in a loving environment.

Another program run at the reformatory was the Braille Project in the mid-1950s to 1970. It began with four of the inmates completing their training and becoming Volunteer Braille Transcribers. In the ensuing years, they translated thousands of pages of books and textbooks into braille, earning recognition for their service.

Over the years, the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee has seen many changes. The old buildings were replaced by newer ones, and the farm is long gone. But the women’s correctional facility is still running, and to this day, still has no fence surrounding it. It’s incredible how one woman’s vision, carried on by many other determined women, could bring positive change in society for decades.


THE ONES WE LEAVE BEHIND is available on Amazon Kindle, in paperback, and audiobook.

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