Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

The Legacy of Miriam Van Waters: The Warden Who Would Be Their Teacher First

Academic journal article Journal of Correctional Education

The Legacy of Miriam Van Waters: The Warden Who Would Be Their Teacher First

Article excerpt

Abstract

Dr. Miriam Van Waters was the superintendent (warden) of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham for twenty-five years. She has the distinct honor of holding that position the longest. In 1949, she rose to national prominence when the new Massachusetts Commissioner of Corrections, under allegations of lax administrative policies, dismissed her from her position of superintendent. Van Waters refusing to relent quietly engaged in a short lived but sensational trial that reinstated her within three months of her dismissal. In the course of that trial, advocates of Van Waters revealed the ways in which the Framingham Reformatory operated as a unique correctional institution affording inmates a variety of educational opportunities. For instance, both Dr. Van Waters and her mother taught classes to the inmates. While previous historical scholarship has focused on Van Waters and her role as warden, none of it has focused solely on her role as teacher at the Framingham Reformatory.

In this article, the author discusses the educational role Miriam Van Waters played at the Reformatory. Van Waters' role as a correctional educator and its ensuing impact on the inmates at Framingham are explored. The unique and progressive educational policies and practices implemented during Van Waters' tenure at the Framingham Reformatory are presented. Findings include that Van Waters' influence resulted in an institution which was as much educational as it was correctional. Specifically, evidence is presented that under Van Waters' tutelage education as a vehicle to affect rehabilitation was liberating. While reformatory-prisons are often deemed to have remained prisons at heart, Framingham's academic educational classrooms were spaces in which inmates could "forget lock and key" and operate as students rather than inmates.

The historical legacy of these programs can inform contemporary thinking about correctional education by reminding educators of the importance of placing educational programs at the backbone of correctional institutions.

Introduction

In December of 1931, Dr. Miriam Van Waters wrote to the Massachusetts Commissioner of Corrections Dr. Warren Stearns that her 'inner decision' was made and that she wished to accept the position of Superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham. First, though, she wished to meet with him to go over the "general principles of administration, parole policy, possibilities for growth (not enlargement) of the institution" (Van Waters, 1931, n.p.). This acceptance letter defined Dr. Van Waters as not only someone who cared about penology but as someone who took seriously the tradition of female prison reform.

For twenty-five years, Van Waters served as the superintendent (warden) of the Massachusetts Reformatory for women. For all of those twenty-five years, Van Waters engaged with the inmates not only as their superintendent but also as their teacher managing her own classes in addition to her administrative duties. One of her first orders of business as superintendent was to ban the term "prisoner" and Insist that the women be called "students." As such, this article Investigates the role of Superintendent Miriam Van Waters as a correctional educator at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham from 1932-1957. While previous scholarship has focused on her role as a prison warden, no scholarship has yet looked at her influence as a teacher. Using historical archival data, including the personal papers of Dr. Van Waters and fellow corrections staff members, this article explores the unique and progressive educational policies and practices implemented during Van Waters' tenure at the Framingham Reformatory. Van Waters' influence resulted In an institution which was as much educational as it was correctional. The correctional education programs were seen as one of the vehicles through which to accomplish the social re-formation of female prisoners. …

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