Women in Prison

From the earliest days there was a need to isolate the female convicts that came to the Missouri State Penitentiary. Unfortunately, there was little provision for their incarceration. A number of female federal prisoners were sent to MSP because there were no federal facilities for women at the time. Their crimes were, in many cases, violations of immigration, naturalization or conspiracy laws, which coincided with the heightened fears during WWI.

Convicts arrive at MSP: In May of 1842, the first female convict was sent to the Penitentiary. Amelia Eddy from St. Louis County was given a two-year sentence for grand larceny. She would not serve her sentence; however, within only a few days of arriving she was pardoned and released because of the lack of adequate facilities for her. To this point, no real effort had been made to arrange for the housing of women convicted of crimes. Prior to 1861, a separate facility housed female prisoners. The stone structure rose two stories; the first serving as a warehouse, and the upper floor holding seven rooms suitable for four prisoners each, a dining hall, matron’s room, hospital and workroom. By 1864, these quarters grew insufficient for the number of women then confined, and the warden suggested building a new cellblock suitable for 50 female prisoners. He also felt that the best action was to completely remove the women prisoners to a separate location.

Separate from men:
In the early 1890s, nearly 60 women lived at the Penitentiary. Female inmates, upon arrival, were issued vertically striped calico dresses. They were housed in a 78-cell dormitory, built in 1876, separated from the men’s quarters by a 20-foot stone wall. Some of the females had quite notorious reputations for committing cold-blooded murders. Still, women were rarely incarcerated. While the Missouri State Penitentiary was the second largest in the nation, the population of fewer than 60 female inmates was a small number.

Prison changes Lives: Two famous activists, Emma Goldman & Kate Richards O’Hare, left their mark on the Missouri State Penitentiary, just as it did on them. It’s impossible to measure what impact their residency in the capital city had on the local community at that time. Surely they, and their views, were excitedly discussed and debated in some of the business and social circles.

Kate Richards O’Hare: In 1919, Katie Richards O’Hare began serving a federal sentence at the Missouri Penitentiary that would change her life and contribute to reforms in inmate labor practices. In July of 1918, O’Hare, Chairman of the Socialist Labor Party, gave a speech in Bowman, North Dakota after which she was indicted under the new Federal Espionage Act, convicted of espionage and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated, O’Hare was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and prohibited from communicating with her husband and four children. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted O’Hare’s sentence and she was released. She later received a full pardon from President Calvin Coolidge but her life was forever changed by her experience at MSP. She abandoned socialist agitation and pursued prison reform efforts. In 1939, she was appointed by the California Governor to the position of Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology. Her reform efforts had a major impact on California’s penal policies and many of those reforms were implemented throughout the country.

Emma Goldman: While Katie Richards O’Hare was incarcerated at MSP, another international activist shared the women’s quarters with her. Emma Goldman was serving one of several imprisonments for charges ranging from inciting a riot to advocating the use of birth control to opposition to World War I. At the time, the government called Goldman the “ablest and most dangerous” anarchist in the country and she was pursued through much of her life by two of the most notorious law enforcement officials in American History; Anthony Comstock and J. Edgar Hoover. She is credited with having had tremendous influence on the founders of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Not surprisingly, while in prison Goldman was known as an agitator, stirring rebellion among the women prisoners. Prison administrators were glad to see her leave when in 1919, after serving nearly two years, she was arraigned before a US commissioner. When she testified that she did not have the money to pay her $10,000 fine, she was told she was free to go anyways. The two famous activists, Goldman and O’Hare, left their mark on the Penitentiary and their impact would continue to be felt across the country for years following.

Women inmates relocated: In 1926, 64 women prisoners were moved to Prison Farm No. 1, located a few blocks east of the Penitentiary. The women would no longer work in the factories as they had previously done, but would work outdoors as much as possible, gardening and raising hogs and chickens on the 15-acre tract. The women were housed in a rambling mansion that had been built by General James L. Minor as a plantation home nearly 75 years before. It sat on a hill with a commanding view of the Missouri River and Jefferson City and was a vast improvement over the gray, dingy calls the women had known in the men’s Penitentiary. The women at Farm No. 1, which had become incredibly crowded over the years, were finally moved to their new home in Tipton, Missouri in early 1960 where they were housed four to a dormitory-style room, or sometimes only one or two to a room. The women enjoyed a few recreational activities; badminton, volleyball and even a swimming pool. Their families were allowed to visit and bring in a picnic lunch.